Because That's How Friendship Works (by Grant Bentley)

Because That's How Friendship Works

By Grant Bentley

Gabriel (Gabe) Dawson was the most handsome, most fashionable dresser, in school. Everything about him was perfect. If anyone was fashion model material, he was. He walked tall and proud but there was nothing arrogant about him. He was one of the sweetest, kindest, most caring people I knew and he was a friend of mine. Then, starting in early October, he began to change. It was slow and almost imperceptible at first. His clothes weren’t flawlessly pressed. His hair wasn’t combed to perfection. He wasn’t walking as tall or as proud and he was becoming quiet and slightly distant.

Most kids didn’t even notice at first, but I did. As the days progressed however, it became obvious to everyone. Something was definitely wrong. He wore the same clothes for days and they were often wrinkled and dirty, like they hadn’t been washed, never mind pressed. Some of his jeans were baggy and didn’t even fit him properly. His ever-present smile had long since disappeared. He was also often late for school. He never seemed to have lunch, but I noticed a couple of guys, Randy and Thomas, always had a lunches for him. He came into the cafeteria got the lunches from them and left. Except for the lunch thing, he completely withdrew from his friends, including me. Whenever I tried to talk to him, he would make up some excuse, turn and walk away.

Other kids also pushed him to find out what was going on. His teachers, the school counsellor, even the principal talked to him and questioned him. But he refused to give any details. The fact that he had just turned 18 and was legally an adult meant everyone’s hands were basically tied. We all just had to watch him slowly slide into despair. He refused to accept any help, except for the lunches. The only other sensible thing he did was come to school and keep his grades up.

We had an unusually cold night on the fourth of November. He came to school the next morning looking particularly sad and particularly unkempt. His clothes were beyond dirty and wrinkly, his hair was a mess, his hands were dirty and he seemed to have tear streaks down his cheeks. That day, after school, I phoned my dad and told him I had something important come up at school and asked if it was okay to miss work. When he said it was okay, I waited around the corner from the front entrance of the school. Once Gabe was sure everyone else had left, he slipped out the front doors and slowly made his way west down 49th avenue towards the river. However, I knew he lived in Bay View Heights which was south down 15th street, so where was he going? I waited until he was far enough down the avenue that he, hopefully, wouldn’t notice me following him. He walked for fifteen blocks till he got to the bridge across the river at 30th street. Then he glanced around and disappeared under the bridge. I actually heard myself gasp out loud. Gabe was living under the bridge????

No, it couldn’t be I thought. But, why else would he go under the bridge? I just stood there for the longest time trying to figure out what to do next. Then I very slowly approached the bridge. Instead of going under it, I walked onto the bridge deck and just stood there looking over the side. I had told Dad all about what was going on with Gabe in the last several weeks. How he was changing and how he wouldn’t talk to anyone or accept help from anyone. Even though I didn’t yet, I decided to phone Dad again and tell him I had Gabe with me. He actually got excited and said he would stop at Marvin’s and order take out and not to worry, he would order lots. Now, I had to persuade Gabe to come home with me. If he was anywhere near as desperate as he looked, he just might be ready to accept my help.

After about five minutes, I walked off the bridge and as slowly and quietly as I could I crept down the bank along side the bridge. When I got to the point where I could kneel down and see under the bridge I almost gasped out loud again. There was a whole bunch of cardboard built into a kind of shelter. There inside the makeshift shelter was Gabe, wrapped in some old blankets, with his arms wrapped around his legs, his head on his knees, crying. As I was watching him through my own tears, it was almost more than I could handle. Gabe, a friend who I loved dearly and who had spent all of his life in a beautiful home, in an upscale neighbourhood, was living in a cardboard shelter, under a bridge, in below freezing temperatures. How could this be?

After about five minutes, I slowly and, as quietly as I could, started to make my way towards him. With all the rush hour traffic and the sound of the water rushing by, he didn’t notice me until I was just a few feet away. When he saw me, he was instantly angry.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” he asked as a tear escaped his left eye, “Why can’t you people mind your own fucking business and leave me the hell alone?”

I wasn’t sure what to say, so I said the first thing that popped into my head, “I don’t know about everyone else Gabe. But I can’t leave you alone like this.”

He just stared at me. He didn’t say a word as another tear escaped his left eye. Then one escaped his right eye. Then in a matter of seconds, there was a flood of tears from both eyes.

I immediately scurried the last few feet through the dirt and had him wrapped in my arms. He tried to fight me at first but soon gave in, wrapped his arms around me and started sobbing. We must have sat like that for ten minutes, Gabe sobbing his heart out and me crying right along with him. When he finally began to settle down and stop crying, he still held onto me. After a about five more minutes, he finally eased his hold on me and moved away a bit so he could look at me.

When he saw that I had been crying too, he asked, “Why?”

“Why what?” I asked in return.

“Why are you here?” he asked through his sniffles, “Why do you care so much?”

“Because you’re my friend,” I said quietly.

He was quiet for the longest time before he finally said, “Why?”

“Because you are,” I answered, “And because you’re the strongest, kindest, most caring guy I know.”

“What makes you think that?” he asked, “Look at me, I’m the weakest, saddest, most ill-equipped loser on earth. I couldn’t even get a job stocking shelves in a supermarket. And, now when they see me, they won’t even let me in the store. They think I’m there to steal food.”

“Oh God Gabe,” I replied, “You are none of those things.”

“Then why am I living in a cardboard box under a bridge?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I replied, “But whatever’s happened to you, you haven’t been able to deal with it all. Like me, you’re not the most street-wise guy around.”

“I know,” he said quietly, “I was sleeping in a nice warm bed one night and the next, I was sleeping under some bushes in the park.”

“Let’s get your stuff together and you can come to my place and talk some more.” I suggested, “I don’t know about you, but I’m getting cold.”

“I appreciate you wanting to help, Rob, but I don’t want to become your charity case,” he said, “Besides, if you knew the truth about me, you wouldn’t want you to have anything to do with me either.”

“Knew the truth?” I questioned.

“I’m a faggot…okay,” he said almost angrily, “My father didn’t even want me around, so why would you?”

I have to admit that did take me by surprise, but I had known Gabe almost forever and it simply didn’t matter. So what if he was gay.

“So what,” I said with as much conviction as I could manage, “That doesn’t change anything. You’re still my friend and always will be.”

“You mean that?” he asked.

“Of course I mean that,” I replied, “It doesn’t change who you are or who you’ve always been. Damn, you need to have more faith in your friends.”

“What about your dad,” he asked, “Won’t he freak out if you bring a fag home? Randy and Thomas’s did.”

“First, you don’t know my dad, second, stop calling yourself a fag, and third, this is not the time to let your doubts get in the way of common sense. You’ve done enough of that already,” I said, “You’re killing yourself. I’m giving you a chance to have a hot meal, wash your clothes, have a nice warm shower, and sleep in a nice warm bed for the night. And I’m not making you my charity case. I’m helping a friend who, by the way needs help, in case you haven’t noticed.”

I actually got a little smile from him and, even though he had turned his back on me countless times, he agreed to come home with me. I think partly because he knew I wasn’t going to give up on him, especially not tonight, and partly because I was his last hope.

Dad met us as we came in the door. He did everything to make Gabe feel welcome. He had dinner ready so we put Gabe’s stuff in the utility room, washed up and sat down at the kitchen table ready to eat. As we were eating, we learned that Gabe’s dad had just packed up and disappeared. He had arrived home from school one day to find a sold sign on the front lawn and the locks on the house changed. He had felt totally stunned. 

He glanced cautiously at my dad before his next declaration. He told us that his dad hadn’t spoken a word to him since he came out to him a couple of months ago, so he knew he was having a hard time accepting that he was gay, but this? He had just up and moved away. Hell, he hadn’t even cared enough to say good-bye.

I could see him visibly relax when dad had no reaction except to say that he couldn’t believe a parent would do that. “What happened to unconditional love?” he questioned.

He gave dad a little smile as he admitted he didn’t know. Then he went on to tell us that that first night he had gone over to a Randy and Thomas’s house, but their dad apparently knew what was going on, and didn’t want him there. His dad had apparently called all the parents he knew to warn them about his faggot son.

Dad just shook his head and said, “I thought I’d heard it all, but…my God…I guess I haven’t.”

His story didn’t get any better. He said that he didn’t know what else to do so he had spent the night hidden in some bushes in the park. The next day, when he went to use his bank card to withdraw some cash from his account. It was refused. He went to the bank and they told him his dad had closed the account. When he asked how his dad could do that, he was told that since all the accounts were linked to his dad’s company, as company president, he could do what he wanted with company accounts. He had no idea how that worked but it didn’t matter. Just from the bitchy attitude of the person he was talking to, he knew he had no hope of challenging it. He now had no home, no bank account, nothing. And, having grown up in a very affluent setting, he had no idea what to do. He felt devastated.

To make matters worse, it seemed that his friends couldn’t or their parents wouldn’t help him. Sadly, after a couple of rejections, he gave up on friends. Even so, he refused to give up on himself. He decided that he may have lost almost everything but he still had his pride. Unfortunately, that didn’t take him very far. He tried to find work at a few places, but with no resume and no experience, he hadn’t been able to find a job at first, and certainly couldn’t now that he was grungy. He did go to one of the homeless shelters one night but was afraid to go to sleep. Considering the fact that he had never had any contact with any, never mind long-term homeless people, nearly everyone he saw there terrified him. The only good thing that happened there was that the shelter staff were able to give him some clothes, including a winter coat, gloves, and a toque. The next night, he slept under the bridge and over the next several days, he gathered as many cardboard boxes as he could find and built the shelter he was in when I found him.

However, as the days turned into weeks, he started losing hope. When he saw his reflection in a window or looked in the mirrors in the school washrooms he began to see a homeless person, not unlike the ones he had seen at the shelter. There was only so much he could do to clean himself up in a washroom sink, although he did sneak a shower once in a while in the boys locker room. The few sandwiches a day from Randy and Thomas were hardly enough to keep him going either and he was starting to look thin and bony. Then there was the cold. He had found several old blankets and a sleeping bag in different dumpsters, but for the last few days, they weren’t enough either. When I had seen him crying that afternoon, it was because he had all but given up.

After hearing his story, Dad offered to let him stay with us. We had a spare room and it might as well be put to use.

“You have no idea how much I appreciate the thought,” Gabe said, “ But I wouldn’t feel right imposing on you like that.”

Right about then, I was ready to rip him a new one for letting his pride, or independence, or whatever the hell it was keeping him from accepting our help…help that he desperately needed. I mean, take our charity, impose on us, come on…fuck... To me, Dad’s offer was a life or death offer because, one way or another, he was going to die out there.

Before I could say anything though, Dad said, “Okay, how about this? I own Mayfield Books two blocks from the school. One of my staff recently quit and moved to Edmonton and I think Rob is getting tired of doing her job and his. I’ll hire you part time to unpack books, price them, stock the shelves, and keep the place clean. I’ll pay you the same as I pay Rob, $13.00 an hour. You would work with Rob from 4:00 to 6:00 weekdays, and 9:00 to 5:00 on Saturdays and holidays. You would earn an average of about $1100 a month before taxes. I’ll then charge you $350 a month, plus help with chores around the house, for room and board. Would you be interested?”

“You’d do that for me?” Gabe asked as his eyes teared up.

“I have to hire someone anyway,” Dad replied, “And I can’t think of anyone I’d rather hire or who needs the job more. So, yeah, I’d do that for you.”

“Thank you so much,” Gabe said as he got up and gave my dad a big hug, “You won’t be sorry, I promise.”

“I know I won’t,” Dad replied.

Gabe’s smile didn’t disappear or even fade the rest of the evening. Once we had finished dinner, we cleaned up the kitchen and put everything away. Then Gabe went upstairs to have a nice long shower. When he finally came out, we went to the utility room and began sorting his clothes and putting them in the washer. We had two loads, only because some were light and some were dark colours. As the first load was washing, we went up to my room, dug out our books and got started on what turned out to be almost two hours of homework. By the time we had our homework finished, we had the second load out of the drier. Although there wasn’t much, we folded what needed to be folded, and Gabe ironed the two shirts that fit him. I ran to my room and found a few pairs of boxers and some socks for him. It was after ten before we were done. Once we were, he pulled me into a huge hug.

“I don’t how to thank you enough Rob,” he said, “You saved my life tonight man.”

“Well you had something to do with it,” I responded, “When I showed up under the bridge, you let a little crack appear in that stupid shell you were building around yourself. A little crack that I was able to squeeze through.”

“Yeah,” he said quietly, “Thanks for being my friend and not giving up on me.”

I gave him a quick hug and reminded him that maybe we should get some sleep.

“Goodnight Rob,” he said with a big smile.

“Goodnight Gabe,” I replied, and headed for my room.

The next morning, besides his hair being a little longer than usual…well, a lot longer…there was one other problem, shoes. Living on the street and under the bridge had not been kind to his shoes. Unlike his clothes, a good washing, with a little bleach thrown in, and some careful ironing wasn’t going to do it. Thankfully, we had the same size feet so I gave him my newest, whitest, pair of Adidas. He refused to take them at first. But after I reminded him he was only borrowing them until he could buy himself a new pair, he gave in and put them on. Once he did, he did a little fashion model pose for me and it was so cool to see his confidant radiant smile again.

As it turned out, he wouldn’t be the only one smiling that morning. When we walked into the school, smiles appeared instantly as soon as the other kids, and several of the teachers, saw him. He was all smiles too, but remained fairly quiet at first. He had turned away from everyone, and I think he felt seriously guilty about it. Plus he wasn’t sure how kids would react to his being outed. No one commented about either though, and he soon relaxed and forgot about it. By noon he was talking to kids again, laughing with them again and his life was more or less returning to normal. Randy and Thomas were especially happy for him, and I actually received a hug from both of them when Gabe told them what was going on. They had been his lunch boys and, like me, had been particularly worried about him.

Dad couldn’t have been happier with his work at the store and neither could I. He made my job so much easier. And at home, he was always ready to help out. When Christmas break rolled around, Gabe was thrilled because that meant he could work seven full days in a row before and five days after Christmas. Not only that, but because Christmas is such a busy time, it meant the store was open from 9:00 till 9:00 for two weeks, until Christmas Eve. He was there with Dad every day after school till 9:00 and once the break started, he was there from 9:00 till 9:00, actually till 9:30. When Dad suggested he take some time off, he said more days and more hours meant more money to put away for university. It also meant he could buy Dad and me something nice for Christmas but he didn’t tell Dad that. I didn’t work from 9:00 till 9:00 in case you’re wondering. I worked from 4:00 till 9:00 which is when we were the busiest. The rest of each day was mine to sleep in and relax, go shopping, watch TV, or do whatever.

Christmas morning Dad and I were up by about eight. Once we had our caffeine fix, we spent the next half hour prepping the turkey and getting it ready to go into the oven. Gabe, on the other hand, slept until almost ten. He really wasn’t used to working twelve hour days.

When he did get up, I don’t think he was ready for the pile of gifts we found for him under the tree either. There were some from me, some from Dad, one from Randy, Thomas, and a few other guys at school, and a couple of other small gifts kids had given to me for him. We worked our way through the easily guessed gifts like shirts, sweaters, socks, and underwear. Then we got to the good stuff.

I opened mine from Dad first. It was something I had wanted since it first came out, the Harry Potter Wizard’s Collection. I know, I know, I’m not a kid, but I found the entire Harry Potter series captivating. The books, the movies, the acting, the special effects; all of it amazed me. Then it was Gabe’s turn, but he insisted I open my gift from him first. As soon as I saw it, he got a big hug. It was the Nixon watch I had been drooling over when he and I went shopping for Dad’s gift.

Now it was Gabe’s turn and he opened the gift from Dad and me first. It was a Toshiba laptop. He teared up and almost cried when he saw it and we both got big hugs. Then he opened his gift from the guys. It was the new iPod Nano and we couldn’t believe how tiny it was. Again, he teared up as he noted that he was going to have to call them. Then he opened what might have been the most interesting gift of all, definitely the most intriguing. It was from Dakota, one of the guys in our English class. Gabe unwrapped it and it was a small jewellery type box. He opened it, lifted off the padding, and his jaw dropped as his eyes got big and he just stared. Then he turned the box so Dad and I could see what was in it.

“Oh my God,” I said as I started to laugh.

He took it out and held it up. It was a dog-tag rainbow pendant with ‘Gabe’ engraved on the back.

“Oh my God,” he echoed before a big smile took over his face, “How? I mean…Oh my God.”

“You think he might be trying to tell you something?” I asked grinning.

He looked at Dad first and then at me before blushing big time, “I dunno…I hope so…I think,” he said as he undid the clasp and put it on.

“You gonna wear it to school?” I asked.

He looked at me thoughtfully for several seconds, lifted it up and looked at it, and grinning replied, “Yeah, you know what…I am.”

I just grinned back at him and said, “Good.”

It was then that we realized there was one more gift to open, Dad’s. Dad is always the hardest one to buy for, but Gabe had an idea and, as I said before, the two of us went shopping for it together. Gabe ran to his room and came back with a large perfectly wrapped box that he’d had hidden in his room. Dad carefully opened it and found himself looking at an Armani military peacoat. After telling us we shouldn’t have, he tried it on and modeled it for us. It fit perfectly and looked totally awesome on him.

As soon as we were done, Gabe called Randy and Thomas and each of the guys who had pitched in to get him his iPod. Then he called a couple of others who had bought him little gifts. Finally, after some deliberation, he called Dakota. Their conversation carried on for almost an hour. I couldn’t help but smile as he seemed to be almost glowing afterwards. I didn’t pester him for details. I didn’t really have to. After all he had been through, it was just good to see him so happy.

We spent the rest of the day cooking, eating way too much, setting up Gabe’s laptop, playing video games, looking at all the stuff in my Harry Potter Collection, putting songs on Gabe’s iPod, and then eating way too much again. It had been one of the best Christmases ever for all of us.

As we were sitting around feeling very full and very satisfied, Gabe looked at us and grinned. “I don’t know how to thank you enough for all you have done for me,” he said.

“You’ve done a lot for us too,” Dad said, “I’m not sure how we would have made out without all your help here at home and at the bookstore.”

“Dad’s right,” I added, “It’s been great having you around. Besides, I always wanted a brother.”

Gabe just sat there for a few seconds as he teared up. “I don’t know if you realize it or not,” he said, “But if it wasn’t for you, I might not still be here. Even if I was, this would have been the Christmas that wasn’t. Instead, it’s been the best Christmas I can remember since I was little. Not because I got fed too much, or because I got lots of awesome stuff, but because I’m a part of the family and, for the first time in years, I feel truly loved and feel like I actually matter to someone.”

That was, of course, worth a couple of very big hugs.

Later, as I was laying in bed, I thought of where Gabe could be right now if I had given up on him and hadn’t followed him to the bridge that day back in November. Then I had to smile because, right now, it didn’t matter. He was here, he was loved, he was happy, and he was safe…because that’s how friendship works.

Thanks to Colin for prepping and posting this story for me.