– Sebastian –

Friendship

Peter Darvin

A short story by

Cole Parker

Peter Darvin watched the kids arriving at school. For the most part they were laughing and joking—the boys usually in twos and threes, pushing one another, joshing, teasing and happy, the girls mostly in larger groups, talking animatedly. Then there were the loners, expressionless for the most part. He tended to watch these the closest. They were frequently the ones who’d need more of his attention during the year and especially during the first few weeks.

Many of the kids had their interest divided between their friends and their cell phones, texting or reading their incoming messages. Peter smiled. It was the way of the world now for kids, being umbilically attached to one another through electronics. A new world order.

He knew almost all the kids he saw. The school was in a small town and he’d taught middle school as well as high school. It was only the few kids who’d just moved there who were strangers to him.

Peter loved teaching; he loved everything about it, even the things that other teachers groused about, and most of all he liked the kids—even the troublemakers, usually. He didn’t like bullies but did like the kids who were so full of energy they couldn’t help but get into trouble. They kept things interesting.

But he spent most of his time watching out for the loners—the shy kids, the kids who didn’t quite fit in. There were a plethora of reasons why they were different, and he tried to learn what those reasons were and help those kids join the mainstream. Teenagers with friends had a much better chance of making it through school successfully, building the self-esteem needed to be successful adults.

While he watched, Peter saw one of the kids he’d helped find himself the previous year coming toward the school. Sebastian Collier was walking with Dylan Spenser and Cary Anders. Peter couldn’t help but smile. Dylan was laughing, which was the norm for him. He was a happy, outgoing boy who had more depth to him than was apparent from his appearance; he tended to light up any room he was in with his jovial and irreverent manner. Cary was quieter but had come out of his shell by the end of the school year three months earlier. He always seemed to be by Sebastian’s side, although today, Dylan, in the middle, separating them. That caught Peter’s attention. Did this mean Cary was gaining enough self-assurance so as not to be so reliant on Sebastian’s support? Possibly. Hopefully.

Sebastian himself was the quietest of the three of them and one of the boys about whom Peter felt proudest. Sebastian had been pretty much a loner in middle school, with Dylan about the only friend he’d had. Having but one friend could be disastrous at that age. Lose that friend and a kid’s world could collapse. Dylan, being Dylan, perhaps had latched onto Sebastian simply because he’d seen the boy was lonely; Peter didn’t know their background but knew Dylan was the sort of boy who’d do that.

Then, when Sebastian had had a problem with a teacher in 8th grade, Peter had pulled some strings and helped him, and Sebastian had responded in ways that made Peter truly proud. Now, Sebastian was a different kid. Still quiet, of course. Still introspective. That was his nature. Peter doubted it would ever change. But he could see an inner confidence in the boy now. He seemed to have discovered who he was and was happy with what he’d found. And of the three boys he saw coming up the front walk of the school, Peter sensed that Sebastian was the one the others naturally deferred to. Even though he was quiet and not demonstrative, there was a charismatic gravitas about him that demanded respect.

“Hey, Mr. Darvin,” Dylan called out, the first to spot the teacher. “First day of school. You ready for the battle again?” Then he laughed, which caused Peter to grin.

“Yeah, Dylan, I’m ready. I bought a new supply of whips and chains and a special pair of handcuffs with your name on them. I’m looking into getting a small cage for the back of my classroom for guys like you, but we’re still arguing price. However, I am ready. Rarin’ to go, in fact. I hope all you guys are, too.”

Sebastian smiled but didn’t say anything. Cary, of course, wouldn’t, unless Peter, an adult, addressed him first.

“What did you do this summer, Mr. Darvin?” Dylan asked.

Peter stepped to the side, getting out of the way of the oncoming mass of students, and beckoned the three boys to follow him. “I did something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I hiked the Appalachian Trail. I didn’t try to hike it all; I didn’t have enough time. But I did manage much of the northern section. Because it was summer, I decided to do the part running through New England, thinking the southern part might be kind of hot. Where I was, it was beautiful, and I really enjoyed the experience.”

Sebastian, thoughtful as ever, was watching Mr. Darvin. “Did you have someone with you?” he asked, imagining hiking like that with Dylan, and then thinking how much less fun it would be without having him along, just going by himself.

“No, Sebastian. I went alone. But you know, it was quieter that way, and I got to go at my own pace. I stopped when I wanted to, to rest or when there was some really magnificent scenery to view. But, what about you guys? What did you do this summer?” He included all three boys in the question.

He was looking at Cary, however, trying to get him to speak. He was surprised when the boy blushed. “I spent some time alone with Fred and Tom, my foster dads, bonding with them I guess. That’s what they said. I was glad we did. I needed that; I think we all did. I’m much more comfortable at home now.” He grinned, thinking of how he raided the refrigerator without fear or guilt now. He knew his parents expected it and didn’t mind at all. “It really is my home. And then, of course, we three hung together a lot,” Cary said, smiling and indicating the other two boys, “and even did some camping. There was a lake, and we fished and canoed and went swimming.”

Cary blushed even brighter saying that, and Mr. Darvin tried hard not to laugh. “Well,” he said, “it might be best if I didn’t know too much about that last part. Anyway, we need to be getting to our rooms. It’s great seeing all of you guys again.”

*

Dr. Jacobs’ beginning-of-the-year faculty meeting was about over. He’d welcomed everyone back, discussed some of the financial challenges they’d be facing together in the coming academic year, handed out new school-board policies and was ready to wrap things up.

“One last thing. We have a couple of new teachers this year. George Amadsen will replace Margaret Tanlick, who decided to retire during the summer recess. Please stand up, George.”

A short, chunky man with black hair and quick eyes stood up, looked around, and then smiled a little smugly before sitting again.

“George taught in Spokane the past few years and joins us to teach not only keyboarding but beginning computer science as well. Glad to have you with us, George, and let’s all give him a welcoming round of applause.”

There was polite clapping from the group, and George looked around, acknowledging it with small nods, meeting eyes and looking quite comfortable. Dr. Jacobs was watching him. The man came with a solid recommendation. Still…

When the applause had ended, Dr. Jacobs continued. “Just one more addition. Gavin Nichols is not only new with us, he’s a first-year teacher, so please give him all the encouragement and support he’ll need. I’m sure each of you remembers how your first year went! Gavin, can you stand up?”

A slim man of medium height stood up, looking a bit nervous. He had longish blond hair that curled past his ears and brushed gently against his collar, and he was wearing a jacket and tie. His face may have been attractive, but his nervousness made him look more scared than anything else. He also appeared to be about the age of the students he’d be teaching. He had his hands clasped together in front of him, and Dr. Jacobs could see his fingers twitching.

“Gavin will teach basic music theory as an elective course and will be in charge of forming a chorus; once he’s recruited enough of our students, he’ll be our school’s choral director. We’ve discussed where the school would like to go with its music program. I’ve regretted that we haven’t had one before. I’d like to have a thriving program, both choral and instrumental, which will be quite a challenge for our small school. Gavin will help us get going with the vocal program, and if we can spark active enthusiasm in the community, we’ll grow from there.”

While Dr. Jacobs had been speaking, Gavin had remained standing, not knowing whether he should sit down or remain on his feet, looking a little deer-in-the-headlights-ish. Finally, just as Dr. Jacobs was finishing, he began to sit down.

“Let’s welcome Gavin,” Dr. Jacobs finished, and as the faculty applauded, Gavin, indecisively, regained his feet, blushed, and glanced around the room at the rest of the faculty, meeting eyes briefly. He was beaming and looked proud, happy and eager as he finally was able to sit back down.

Peter Darvin was watching and couldn’t help but smile as well as he thought back to his first year. He knew what Gavin was experiencing, and remembered when he’d been that young and uncertain, wanting to get at it, wanting to test himself, wanting to prove his capabilities. It hadn’t been that long ago, and he still felt the same enthusiasm when he entered the classroom that he could see Gavin was now anticipating.

*

Cary was meeting with his school guidance counselor. Cary was a bright kid whose difficult childhood prior to coming to live with his foster fathers, Tom and Fred, was reflected in his academic record. He’d never had the time or inclination to pour himself into schoolwork in the past, and no adult had ever encouraged him. Now, for the first time, he was able to concentrate on lessons, and he found he loved learning. His grades had been uneven last year but had improved steadily as the year had moved forward.

Because it was a small school and financially challenged, Columbian High School didn’t have an actual guidance counselor position listed on the staff roster. To make up for this deficiency, Dr. Jabobs assigned individual teachers to advise a set of students each year. He felt this was good for both the students and the teachers, forming bonds that wouldn’t ordinarily have occurred and demanding an awareness and empathy in the faculty that might not have existed otherwise.

At the end of August each year, just before school began, Dr. Jacobs met with each teacher and together they decided which students would be counseled by each teacher. This process had resulted in Cary Anders being assigned to Peter Darvin. Peter had asked for the boy, remembering how reclusive he’d been at the beginning of last year and how he’d blossomed once Sebastian Collier had taken him in hand. He liked working with boys like Cary, boys with huge potential but with problems to be confronted and overcome. Cary was very comfortable with Mr. Darvin so that assignment was easy to make.

Mr. Darvin’s guidance meeting with Cary was breaking up. It had been scheduled for after school hours, as these meetings generally were, for that was when the teachers were available for counseling. Mr. Darvin stood up, and Cary did, too. They walked together to the door of the classroom, then out into the hall. Cary knew Sebastian and his boyfriend, Dylan, would be waiting for him there. The three of them usually walked home together.

Mr. Darvin bade Cary goodbye, and Cary took off down the hall to meet his friends. Then he realized he hadn’t returned Mr. Darvin’s goodbye; he stopped to look back. He waved at Mr. Darvin, and Mr. Darvin smiled and waved back.

*

“How’d it go?” Dylan asked when Cary caught up to them.

Sebastian pushed through the double doors, and the other two followed him outside, each taking their normal position around him, Dylan on his left, Cary on his right.

“Fine,” Cary answered. “I’ve got my courses planned out right to the end of high school. Mr. Darvin says if I keep my grades where they are now and do well on the SAT, I can get into almost any college I want.”

“And do you have a preference?” Sebastian asked. He was curious because his mom had told him it was time he started thinking about what he’d be interested in as a career: he’d be picking a college himself in a year or so. At this point, he was clueless about both his career interest and colleges and wondered if Cary felt the same way.

“Not really,” Cary said. “I’m still a kid, and before I came here I never dreamed I’d be able to go to college. I had no reason to believe I had a chance, and so I never even thought about it. I guess I’ll have to start thinking about it now.”

“We all have to,” said Sebastian.

“Not me,” Dylan said. “I’ve got it all figured out already.”

Sebastian stopped, and so the other two did also. “What do you mean? You know what you want to do for a living? Since when?”

Dylan laughed. “No, I have no idea what I want to do. But college? That’s easy. I know where I’m going.”

“How could you? Where?” asked Sebastian, shocked his friend had already figured this out.

“Wherever you’re going. Duh! No problem at all for me. You’ll fuss and stew and make a list and do research and worry and send in several applications and then sweat it out, and when it’s all over and you get an acceptance letter, then I’ll simply enroll there, too.”

Sebastian bopped him on his arm and laughed, muttering to himself, “As if it were that easy,” and they started walking again.

They walked in silence for a ways, and then Cary spoke up.

“Guys? You know something funny?”

That was a remark that would usually get a response from Dylan along the line of, ‘the way you walk?’ or, ‘your haircut?’ But something in Cary’s voice caused Dylan to restrain himself; he remained silent. Which meant Sebastian was the one to ask. “No. What?”

“Well, you might think I’m dreaming, but…” He paused to gathered himself, then said, “When I left Mr. Darvin and was coming down the hall to meet you guys, I stopped and looked back to wave goodbye at him. He was there but wasn’t looking at me. He was looking at you guys. He had this weird expression on his face. When he saw me, he smiled and waved, but I’d seen what he looked like when I first turned around.”

“What?” Dylan asked, always the impatient one.

“Well… He looked sort of sad and, well, maybe I’m just reading something into what I saw, but to me, he was looking at you two, and he seemed envious. Not jealous, envious.”

Both boys stopped walking and just looked at Cary. Then Sebastian asked, “You could read that in his face?”

Cary looked down for a moment before answering. When he did, his voice was softer, a little embarrassed. “I’ve learned to watch adults’ faces and read them. I used to do it a whole lot.”

Sebastian immediately stepped forward and put his arm around Cary. Cary stood up straighter and said, “I’m sorry. Sometimes I just remember; that’s all. I’m OK.”

They began walking again. Dylan broke the brief silence. As usual, he used humor to change the atmosphere. “Envious? Of us? Why? Oh, wait, I know. It’s because I’m so handsome. He wasn’t looking at Sebastian at all. He was looking at me!”

“Yeah, right!” said Sebastian with heavy sarcasm, but his eyes were laughing.

*

They stopped when they came to what they now thought of as their bench in the park. Cary sat in the middle, and the other two boys sat next to him.

“Why would Mr. Darvin be envious?” Dylan asked. “And of us?”

“I don’t know. You guys looked happy, but then you always look happy. Nothing different about that; sometimes I even feel a little envious when I see you two together. But I’ve never seen that expression on Mr. Darvin’s face before.” Cary leaned back to stretch his upper back muscles. “Maybe I misread him, but I don’t think so.”

“Maybe it was because we were done for the day and he still had papers to grade. He saw us walking away, free as larks, and he had to go back to work.” Dylan’s mind was working on the puzzle. He liked puzzles. “Or maybe he wishes he was as young as we are instead of an old man with most of his life already in the past.”

“Hah!” Cary scoffed. “He’s in his early thirties, I’d guess. Maybe not even that old.”

Dylan wasn’t giving up that easily. “Well, he’s older than we are, and maybe he remembers being young, like us, and is regretting getting older.”

They sat quietly for a moment or two, and then Dylan looked over at Sebastian. “You’re awfully quiet. What do you think?”

Sebastian turned to look at the others. Then he smiled his bashful smile, the one Dylan had fallen in love with. Sebastian shook his head, then said, “I’m just guessing, but, well, what if… what if he’s gay?”

“Gay?” Cary was startled. “Why would you think that? I don’t think he’s gay.”

“You didn’t think we were, either, until we told you,” Dylan reminded him.

“Well, do you think he’s gay?” Cary asked Dylan. “Aren’t you guys supposed to be able to tell who other gay guys are? I think I’ve read about that.”

Sebastian grunted. “Gaydar, you mean? If there is something like that, I don’t have it. I didn’t even know Dylan was gay until he told me, and I knew him better than anyone else. But look. I know Mr. Darvin pretty well. He doesn’t talk about anything in his life much at all. But when he has, he’s never mentioned a wife, a girlfriend, a family, anything. So maybe he’s gay and doesn’t have a partner.”

“But that doesn’t mean he’s gay,” Cary protested. “It just means he’s alone.”

“True,” said Sebastian, “but we were looking for reasons he might have been envious of Dylan and me. And if he figured out we were gay and were partners and very happy, and if he was gay without a partner—that would be a good reason for him to be envious.”

“But he doesn’t know we’re gay,” said Dylan. “We’ve been very careful that no one find out. We haven’t even admitted it to our moms.”

Sebastian nodded. “Yeah, we haven’t told anyone. But our moms do know, even if we’re still not ready to admit it to them. Mr. Darvin is smart, and you and I spend a lot of time together, and he’s watched us. I’ve seen him doing it. Maybe he figured us out. Maybe it’s more obvious to adults than kids, or maybe it’s because he’s around kids all the time and is more sensitive to them. ”

Dylan was quiet. Finally, though, he spoke up. “We should figure it out about Mr. Darvin.”

“Why?” Sebastian asked.

“Because if we do and find out he’s envious of us because he’s all alone, well, then maybe we can find him a partner.”

*

A month later, the boys still had learned nothing new about Mr. Darvin. They had no idea if he was gay, or even if he was lonely. They’d been very circumspect in trying to find out, because, as Sebastian had warned the others, “We’re trying to help Mr. Darvin, not hurt him, and if he is gay but not out, starting rumors by asking a lot of questions all over the place would not only be stupid but perhaps terrible for him.” So, they’d done more observing than asking, more thinking than doing, and to their chagrin had made no practical progress at all.

Things had been happening at school, however. The new year was well underway, people were already talking about the football team—which wasn’t very good but still made up of friends, which made watching the games exciting. Also, Halloween was coming up, which meant some great parties were in the offing, and people were talking about the new choral program at the school as well.

The school hadn’t offered any formal music programs in the past. Mr. Nichols had been as enthusiastic in the classroom as the other teachers had noted at the first faculty meeting. It took a lot of that to get the new program going. His high spirits and youthful energy had rubbed off on the kids. When a sign-up sheet for chorus had been posted, the response had been encouraging, and even more kids than were on the list showed up for the initial voice evaluations which were held to slot kids into where they belonged in the chorus. So many showed up, in fact, that he’d told the kids he was going to form two groups. First, the main chorus would include any and all kids who wanted to sing, the more the merrier. Mr. Nichols would hear each kid sing individually, and then, from the chorus as a whole, he’d choose kids for a chamber ensemble, a smaller group of top singers to work on more difficult choral pieces and represent the school at county competitions. The chamber singers would also perform at special events in the city.

Dylan played sports and had a singing voice that would have complemented a kazoo band, which meant it wasn’t suited for choral work. Sebastian was interested and joined the chorus. So did Cary, and to his delight, he was chosen for the chamber group. Even he was surprised at how well he did. Mr. Nichols complimented him on his voice and asked him if he’d be willing to sing the tenor solos that might be required in any of the music still to be selected for the group to perform.

The first performance of the two choruses would be a week before Halloween at an afternoon school assembly, followed by an evening performance; parents and families would want to come to hear the kids sing. There was a lot to do to prepare for the concert. All the choristers had to learn their own parts of the pieces being sung, but that wasn’t enough. They had to rehearse walking onto the risers, walking off, standing quietly in the wings in the right order so they could enter in an orderly progression, and because it was a high-school group, how to stand together without any horseplay, without wiggling around and bumping each other, without talking or texting.

All that was harder to teach than Gavin had thought it would be. He’d been taught how to get kids to sing together. The college classes he’d taken had emphasized the literature available and how to select the right songs for the type of ensembles being formed; how to teach voice control, reading music, musical vocabulary and theory; how to work with male and female voices; breathing and diction. No time at all had been spent in his college classes on teenage deportment and the maintenance thereof.

“Sammy Bauer! Stop that! And Missy Conrad, I saw that; keep your hands to yourself. What’s wrong with you people?! The concert is in a week, and you’re nowhere near ready. You aren’t even concentrating!”

Gavin took out his handkerchief and wiped his forehead. This wasn’t working! Many of the kids didn’t even know their parts yet. This would be his first concert, and he wanted it to be great. At this point, he wasn’t even sure they could walk on and off the stage as a group with everyone in their right places.

“OK. Try it again. From the top. Tenors and basses, softer; you’re supporting the melody line. Sopranos and altos, don’t force it, you’re loud enough just singing easily. And people, remember, dynamics. Your volume has to rise and fall with the markings on your music. Look at those charts now; you won’t have them for the performances. And as we’ve gone over and over, you have to listen to each other and balance your voices accordingly. Watch me; I’ll help. I’m up here to do more than wave my arms and look pretty.

“OK. Starting tomorrow, we’ll be singing without the music. This is an easy piece and should be spectacular, but you have to know your parts!”

He was rehearsing their opening number, the Alleluia Incantation by Andrew Miller. It was a chant-like piece that blended the voices in the chorus and let each be heard. It was an audience pleaser. Except these kids still hadn’t all got their parts down, and without that, it could well end up as a farce.

He began again, giving them the tempo in preparation, and the girls came in. They were too loud again and had none of the reverence and solemnity the piece demanded. He motioned for them to lower the volume by spreading his fingers out, his hands parallel to the floor and pressing downward. They ignored him.

“Stop,” he cried, and then had to clap his hands sharply when a few went on singing. Eventually, everyone was quiet.

“What does it mean when I do this?” he asked, giving them the hands-down ‘get softer’ motion.

No one answered. Then Barbara Montrose said, “Mr. Nichols, it’s time to go. I’ve got to get home, and my ride’s waiting.”

Gavin looked at his watch and sighed. “OK, kids, that’s it for today.”

The stage was suddenly a mass of sound and confusion as everyone rushed to be the first to get out. As the thunder of feet receded, Gavin was left with an empty spotlighted stage in front of him and a dark auditorium behind, feeling totally alone and empty. He sank into the seat right behind him in the front row and dropped his head into his hands. This was going to be a disaster.

“Hey,” a soft voice from behind him said. Gavin sat up with a jerk and looked around. Three rows back, Mr. Darvin was sitting, watching him.

“It’s is going to be awful,” Gavin said, slumping down in his seat.

Mr. Darvin got up and walked to the front, then sat down in the front row with an empty seat between the two of them. “It won’t be, you know.”

Gavin looked up momentarily, then dropped his head again, not answering.

Mr. Darvin’s lips formed a wry smile. “I know just what you’re thinking. Gavin…” He paused. “May I call you Gavin?”

Gavin looked up again, and he too smiled wryly. “Of course.”

“And I’m Peter. Gavin, we’ve all been where you are right now. My first month of teaching, I’d come in with visions of eager young faces focusing on my words, asking illuminating questions, allowing me to expound on all the exciting lessons from history that I’d loved studying myself—filling their heads with stories of the past, then showing them how they applied not only to the present, but to their own lives and decisions. It was going to be glorious.”

He stopped, and Gavin looked up again. “And it didn’t happen that way?”

Peter snorted. “Of course not. You know it didn’t. I’ll bet it took you two weeks just to figure out how to keep them quiet when you were trying to tell them something.”

Gavin, who hadn’t felt a bit like laughing only a few moments before, did so now. “Three, actually,” he said, “and I still can’t get them to do it all the time.”

“Well, then, you can’t be too shocked that they’re not doing as well as you expected and not nearly as well as you hoped after only a month and a half. Whose brilliant idea was it to give a concert in October, anyway? I’d have thought you’d be lucky to have one in April.”

Gavin shook his head, looking a bit embarrassed, then raised his hand. “I’ll take full credit for that. And in fact, I had to twist Dr. Jacobs’ arm to allow it to happen. He thought maybe we should dispense with any concerts this year.”


Peter chuckled. “A wise man, Dr. Jacobs. He knows. And I can just see him doing that, letting you talk him into doing something you were so sure would be great—you with the enthusiasm of the neophyte. He gives us a lot of room, even to make our own mistakes and learn from them. But I need to tell you something. You’re not going to believe it, but maybe you’ll remember it, and in five years or so you may look back and say, ‘That Darvin fellow wasn’t as dumb as I thought he was.’ It’s this: it doesn’t matter if the first concert isn’t what you dream it will be. You want to show the parents, the faculty, Dr. Jacobs, and even yourself what you’re capable of. You want these students to walk out on the stage in their new, brilliant blue robes, all with polished faces and combed hair, the boys with ties under their robes, the girls with white blouses, and sing like angels, perfect intonation, perfect harmony. You want the audience to be stunned by their kids’ brilliance. That’s your dream.

“But what the reality will be is, some of the boys won’t have remembered to wear a tie or even a white shirt, a couple will have left their robes in the chorus room, not all the shoes will be shined—and several kids will be wearing sneakers instead of dress shoes—one or two will be absent, a few’ll get mixed up in line marching in and not be in the right places on the risers. They’ll then bump around getting set and the audience will laugh—some kids will get lost when they’re singing—and… it won’t make any difference! Why not? Because they’re kids! No one except you expects them to be any different. The faculty knows. Dr. Jacobs knows. Even their parents know. We work with these guys. We know what they’re capable of.

“What will be really good, what you should shoot for, is for them to be enthusiastic. Show us that on stage, show their eagerness and pride in being there, show their joy with what they’re doing and that they’re really into it. Do that and you’ve won. If they’re off key, if they forget some of the words, if someone sings when there’s supposed to be a pause—that won’t matter. That can be fixed with more rehearsals, fixed before the next performance. But if they look happy, if they look like they’re enjoying themselves, that they’re having fun and not afraid of their tyrant teacher and are trying to please him—well, then you’ve succeeded.”

Gavin was listening, but he had too much of a dream, too much of a vision to really take it all in, to give up on what he’d wanted. He shook his head stubbornly and said, “But…” and then stopped, not able to think what to say next.

Peter grinned and then stood up. “I know. I’ve been there. But understand this. I was watching. For the most part, these are great kids. You’ve got some of the best in the school in your group. And they weren’t bored. They were trying, even if it didn’t look that way to you. So, relax. It’s going to be just fine. No one but you will mind if people don’t think the Mormon Tabernacle Choir now has a rival.”

Peter reached down to put a hand on Gavin’s shoulder but at the last second pulled back. He smiled at the man, then turned and walked up the aisle. He was halfway to the door when Gavin called after him. “Thanks,” he said, “and, uh, what were you doing here, anyway?”

Peter stopped and turned back. “I was curious. And anyway, Dr. Jacobs asked me to drop in for a look.”

He watched Gavin absorb that and then turned and left the auditorium.

*

“You’re not married, are you, Mr. Darvin?”

Mr. Darvin looked up at Cary. If both Dylan and Sebastian were staying late for any reason, Cary would still drop into Mr. Darvin’s classroom after school to do his homework while waiting for one or both of them to come collect him. Mr. Darvin was used to Cary being there at least twice a week. He wasn’t used Cary posing awkward questions. “Why in the world would you want to know that?” he asked.

“Well, I kind of overheard Miss Hastings talking to her aide. I guess Miss Hastings is going to be one of the monitors at the school dance coming up, and the aide asked who else would be there, and Miss Hastings mentioned your name.”

Mr. Darvin put the paper he was reading back on the pile in front of him and settled back in his chair, studying Cary a moment before replying. “I chaperone a lot of the school’s dances. But I don’t see why that has anything to do with whether or not I’m married, and I did notice that you completely avoided answering my question.”

Cary grinned. “You know I like you a lot, don’t you, Mr. Darvin? Well, Sebastian and Dylan do, too. And we want to be sure you’re happy, as happy as you make us. Well, the way Miss Hastings looked when she mentioned your name, I just thought, well…” Cary blushed, then quickly finished with, “If you aren’t married, I thought you’d like to know that Miss Hastings seems to be interested.”

Mr. Darvin put a severe expression on his face. “It’s really not the students’ place to get involved in their teachers’ personal lives, Cary.”

“Oh, I know that.” Cary wasn’t showing any embarrassment now. Mr. Darvin had no way of knowing, but he was on a mission. “And I didn’t say anything to her or even let her know I was listening. I wouldn’t interfere at all. But I know that if some really pretty girl liked me and I had no idea, then it would be great if a friend told me about it. See?”

Mr. Darvin had to work very hard to keep a smile from his lips. “So is that what we are, Cary? Friends.”

“Sure,” said Cary, making no attempt to hide his own smile.

“I thought we were teacher and pupil,” Mr. Darvin rebutted.

“Yeah. That, too!”

Mr. Darvin picked up the paper again. He read for a moment, then lowered it and looked over the top. Cary was still looking at him. Mr. Darvin harrumphed. “Thanks for your interest and for trying to help. But I am quite able to handle Miss Hastings without your assistance.”

“OK,” said Cary, “I just hope you know some good moves. I’ll bet there’re a lot of guys interested in her. You need to be at the top of your game. Women like guys who have good moves. If you want any help on being cool, Sebastian and Dylan and I are willing to help. If you need any advice, we’re here for you.” He dropped his head back to his homework, feeling he’d just learned something important.

“This is an entirely inappropriate conversation, Cary!”

“That’s OK, Mr. Darvin. I won’t tell anyone.”

*

The concert was a huge success—or an unmitigated disaster—depending on which side of the fence the beholder was on. The students and parents and all the others that attended went away smiling. Mr. Gavin hid in his office with his head in his hands thinking about Peter Darvin. All the potential problems Peter had forecast had indeed transpired. There’d been pandemonium backstage before they began, chaos on the stage itself, and then the singing! Well, actually, the singing was better than he’d expected, but still six miles below what he wanted. They needed so much work, and he thought he’d be lucky to keep his job; they’d been that bad.

Except for the Columbian Chamber Singers, the title he’d given his elite group. They’d done quite well, and he was moderately pleased. Sure, they too needed more work, but for having practiced for just one hour per day before school and only for just over two months, they really had done pretty well. He’d had two songs which included solos, and his soloists, Zoe Carter and Cary Anders, had been great. He smiled, remembering how that group had sung. But the full chorus…!

There was a knock on the door. Gavin was surprised. He was sitting in the dark. The lights were off on purpose. He hadn’t wanted anyone to know he was there. The frosted window panel on the door was certainly showing anyone outside that his office was dark, and no light was sneaking out under the bottom of the door, either. Why would anyone think there was anyone inside? Why would anyone bother knocking?

The knock came again, a little more insistent this time, and Gavin got up and opened the door. “Oh. It’s you.”

Peter Darvin smiled at him and nodded. “Only me. I came to rescue you.”

“How’d you know I was here?”

“I’ll tell you. Over a drink. You do drink, don’t you? You’re not a

Seventh-day Adventist or a Mormon or a Southern Baptist are you? Or Hindu?” He grinned at him to show he meant no offense if indeed he was one of those.

“Why do you think I need a drink?” Gavin replied, not answering the question, but reaching for his jacket, secretly pleased to be with someone, someone sympathetic, someone who’d been where he was now and knew the ropes.

Peter helped him put his jacket on and said, while they were walking out, “Uh, perhaps because you were sitting in your office with the lights off?”

Gavin laughed. “Yeah, I guess that would be reason enough. How’d you find me?”

“Your car is still in the parking lot, and everyone else has gone. I looked in the teachers’ lounge, then saw the lights were still on in the chorus room. And I thought back to how you looked after that rehearsal I attended—all depressed because your high school kids were behaving like high school kids—and decided, just to be thorough, to knock on your door.”

They decided to take separate cars, and Peter led the way. He took them to Randolph’s, the town’s only quiet, upper-class bar. Soft jazz was playing, but not loud enough to make conversation difficult. They sat in a semi-circular booth with vinyl seats. The lighting was dim, the atmosphere congenial. Peter ordered a martini on the rocks, specifying gin instead of vodka, wincing at the thought of the latter, and asked if they had Tanqueray Ten. They didn’t, so he settled for Bombay Sapphire instead.

Gavin watched this with some amused fascination, then ordered a Bud Light. Peter laughed.

There was a semi-embarrassing pause as neither seemed to know what to say, and then Peter broke it with, “It was very good tonight, you know? I’m sure it wasn’t as magnificent as you’d have liked, but for a first effort, it was wonderful. And just think: if it had been everything you’d dreamed of, you’d have to rest on your laurels now because you’d have nothing more to accomplish. So, this was a great first step in what promises to be a long career of making the choruses better every year!”

Gavin took a pull on his beer, then set the bottle gently on the table. He stared at Peter for a while. When the silence became noticeable, he said, “Are you always this supportive?”

Peter glanced down. Then he looked Gavin in the eye and said, “Perhaps.”

Gavin smiled. “All the kids love you; are you aware of that?”

“What makes you think that?”

“I hear the other teachers talking—the kids, too. Even they all look up to you.”

Peter got a small, slightly embarrassed smile on his lips. “I love teaching,” he said. “Maybe it shows.”

“When did you decide you wanted to teach?” Gavin asked, picking up his beer bottle for another swig.

Peter snorted. “Well, I wasn’t one of those kids who meanders through his college years with no idea what he wants to do. I knew I was going to be a teacher. I’d wanted to be a teacher since I first went to school. My kindergarten teacher was Mrs. Ambrey. I fell in love with her the first day there. I watched everything she did, and when I went home, I played school. I had make-believe friends, and I was their teacher. I did everything Mrs. Ambry did, hushing my make-believe friends, reading them the books my mom read to me at night that I’d memorized. I rewarded my students the same way I saw Mrs. Ambrey reward kids in my real class. Here, look.”

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small stone. It was about an inch in diameter and a semi-flattened oval. It was worn smooth and was a slightly shiny russet color.

“This was the reward for good behavior. See, I’d get several stones, larger ones than this special one, and pretend they were my students. I’d line them up and read to them or teach them their numbers and letters. And this stone—” he again displayed the one in his palm “—would be a reward for good behavior; Mrs. Ambry was very high on good behavior. I’d pass it to the kid in class—actually to the stone representing that imaginary kid—who’d been my best student that day. Then, those two stones would be sitting together, while all the other stones were by themselves. As you see, I’ve still got it. It’s my good-luck charm, I guess.”

“May I?” Gavin asked. He took the stone from Peter and holding it in one hand, ran his thumb over it. He smiled, shook his head and handed it back to Peter, beginning to chuckle.

“What?” Peter asked.

Gavin reached into his own pocket and took out a small, shiny piece of metal. “This was a medal I was given for playing a piano recital when I was six. I still have it, just like you still have your stone. My parents made a big deal about the medal, and I was very proud. It was special, and it made me feel good when it was awarded to me. It can still give me that feeling. I carry it with me when I’ll be doing something that makes me nervous. I rub it sometimes for extra luck, like before the performance tonight. I might have rubbed a layer off it earlier tonight. It’s my good-luck charm, I guess.”

Peter laughed. “You’re kidding me, right? We really have that in common?”

Gavin almost blushed, but sheepishly smiled instead.

Peter said, “Well, maybe it works, because you did fine tonight; the concert was great. Good-luck charm or not. You should be very proud. And anyway, you never have to sit in a dark office brooding. Talking to someone is better than brooding. If you need anyone to talk to, anytime, my door’s always open.”

They drank their drinks and talked and got acquainted. Then they went home. In his bedroom, Mr. Darvin took all the loose items out of his pockets and put them on his dresser as he did every night. His lucky stone was among them. He smiled as he laid it down. What he hadn’t told Gavin was that it was more than a good-luck charm. It was a reminder of who he’d been when he had first found it, and it helped him remember the little boy he’d been then, and the feelings that boy had had. He liked who he’d been and the innocent thoughts he’d had. He liked having a reminder of them.

*

Sebastian and Dylan were teasing Cary about his solo.

Dylan, talking over the top of Cary, asked Sebastian, “Have you ever heard a duck quacking? I mean a real duck, not a cartoon duck? Do you know how it sounds when it’s mad and scolding another duck? I don’t know what ducks scold each other about, but they do, some duck business I guess, and there’s usually some fluttering of feathers and the most god-awful racket you’ve ever heard. Ugly noise. Really ugly. Never heard anything quite like that.” A pause, and then, “Until tonight.”

Sebastian: “I wouldn’t know. I had these heavy-duty, industrial-strength earplugs my mom bought for me when she learned who the soloists were going to be. I couldn’t hear a thing when I put them in, except this sort of awful squawking noise that was easy to ignore. I played games on my cell phone mostly.”

Cary was laughing. He knew his friends would only say things like this if he’d done really well. So he went along with them. “It should have been a lot better, guys, I admit it, but just before I began my solo I looked out in the audience and saw you two sitting together, and you looked so funny in those dress clothes you were wearing that are so out of style—hey, those would make great Halloween costumes!—and your haircuts—well, you must know about your haircuts unless you intentionally don’t look in the mirror, and I wouldn’t blame you for that. Seeing you two, I couldn’t help needing to guffaw. That’s the right word, isn’t it? Guffaw? It means almost throwing up because you’re laughing at something really funny, doesn’t it?”

He looked at the other two with benign innocence, and then Sebastian raised his hand, the others slapped it and each other’s, and they all took sips of their cokes. It was a Friday night—Gavin had scheduled the concert for the Friday night when the football team had a bye—and they were having hamburgers and cokes at the local teen, after-school joint.

Cary sucked up the dregs of coke in his glass, then turned to look at the other two. “You know, we haven’t made any progress at all finding out if Mr. Darvin is gay. But if he is, I think I’ve figured out a partner for him.”

Dylan looked up. “Who’s that?”

“I think Mr. Nichols might be gay. And he’s good-looking. He yells at us a lot, but I don’t think he’s mean. I think he just gets frustrated because we’re not as good as he wants us to be. But he’s a teacher, and so is Mr. Darvin, so they’ve got that in common, and if they’re both gay…” He tapered off, not sure what else might bond them together.

“Why do you think he’s gay?” Sebastian asked.

“I don’t know. Just the way he does some things—the way he moves, some of the gestures he makes, his soft voice, the way he dresses. I could be wrong of course. You guys ought to know more about telling if a guy’s gay than I would.”

Dylan and Sebastian looked at each other and shrugged.

“It could just be wishful thinking on your part,” Dylan suggested.

Cary nodded. “You’re right about that. So now we have to find out about both those guys. It doesn’t do us any good if only one of them is gay.”

Sebastian said, “We haven’t been able to figure anything out about Mr. Darvin, even after you approached him, Cary. But I have an idea how maybe you can find out about Mr. Nichols. It might work.”

*

It was a week and a day later that Sebastian’s plan was put in place. Cary was setting silverware on the table, fussing that it was all lined up perfectly. Fred was laughing at him.

“I think that fork needs to be an eighth of an inch to the left. Well, maybe a sixteenth.”

Cary moved the fork slightly, and Fred laughed harder. When Fred suggested the flowers in the middle of the table might need to be moved a half-inch to the right, Cary reached out for them, then stopped and scowled.

Fred shook his head, still laughing. “Cary! He’s just your teacher. He’s a guy just like the rest of us. We’re having him for dinner to get to know him, to celebrate the successful concert and to thank him for selecting you to sing a solo. It’ll be a fun evening. No need to be nervous! No one’s trying to impress anyone.”

“I know. I know. It’s just that…” Cary couldn’t think just what it was, but he was certainly nervous. He’d told Fred and Tom that having Mr. Nichols for dinner and telling him he could bring a partner was part of a plan. He and his friends wanted to find out if Mr. Nichols was married or single and whether he was gay, and they couldn’t just ask him. A student doesn’t ask his teacher about something like that!

But, hopefully, the two gay men he lived with would be able to give him an informed opinion of the man’s sexuality after spending an evening with him; the concert and Cary’s solo were merely a pretext for getting the man there. He’d been hoping to get a clue, too, from whomever Mr. Nichols brought as a date, whether it was a wife, or a boyfriend, or whatever, but when Mr. Nichols had agreed to come, he’d said he’d come alone. Well, at least that had to mean he wasn’t married, didn’t it? That was at least something, perhaps was a step in the right direction.

When the doorbell rang, Cary ran to get it. He greeted Mr. Nichols and then introduced him to Fred and Tom. Gavin handed Fred a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau which had just hit the market. “It’s supposed to be drunk soon, while it’s still young and fruity,” he said.

Fred nodded. “I’ve heard of this but never had any. Thanks. We’ll open it for dinner.”

Fred offered dry sherry for an aperitif and even gave a half a liqueur glass of it to Cary. The four of them chatted, then Fred announced dinner.

The evening went well, and when it was over and Mr. Nichols had left after profuse thanks, Cary asked what the men’s opinion of him was.

“Very nice young man. Congenial, witty, fun,” Tom pronounced.

“I liked him,” said Fred. “We could have him over again.”

Cary grinned. “You guys are teasing me, aren’t you? You know I want your opinion about whether he’s gay!”

Fred looked at Tom, then back at Cary. “And you promise you’re not going to use our insight for anything, anything at all, that would embarrass him or create problems for him?”

“Sure. You should know me better than that by now!”

“We do,” said Tom, “and we trust you, which is the only reason we’d tell you this.” He looked up at Fred again, then back at Cary. “He’s gay. You can take that to the bank.”

Fred nodded, smiling. “I thought so as soon as I saw the beaujolais,” he said, and Tom frowned at him.

*

Peter and Gavin were sitting in Randolph’s again. They’d been getting together once a month or so. They enjoyed each other’s company and were able to talk about things that no one else, unless they were at the school every day, would be interested in. They also were beginning to be comfortable enough with each other to delve in more personal things.

Peter wasn’t a frequent drinker, and so he used the occasion each time they met to have a single glass of a liquor he’d heard of but never tasted before; he liked trying new things. Tonight, it was a single-malt Scotch, Lagavulin.

He took a sip and winced, then let the flavor settle, looked at the glass curiously, and took another sip.

“I guess you’re not married?” asked Gavin. He was looking down at the table, and when Peter didn’t answer immediately, looked up.

“You ever had any of this stuff?” Peter asked.

“No, I don’t like Scotch. Why? Are you avoiding the question?”

Gavin grinned to take any possible sting out of his words.

“No. This stuff is just remarkable, that’s all. Never tasted anything like it.” He’d picked up the glass and was looking at it as he spoke but then set it back on the table. “No, I’m not married. I kind of got turned off romance in college and never jumped back into the dating pool.” He picked up his glass again and stared at the amber liquid it contained. When he spoke, it was as though he were speaking to it. “I’m lucky. I love my job, I love the kids I work with, and I find it all very fulfilling. I don’t need anyone else.”

Gavin was watching him. He nodded slowly at the answer, then asked, speaking softer, “Can I ask what happened?”

Peter grimaced. “I thought I was in love. We were in love. Well, it turned out only one of us was. It hurt quite a lot when I found out only my half of the discussions we’d had about being together had been honest. About raising a family. About a lifetime of love and devotion. But, I got over it. It took a long time, and I still don’t like to remember it. Maybe that’s partly why I’ve never dated since. I don’t want to feel that sort of pain again.”

He took a larger sip of his drink and didn’t wince this time. “How about you? Anyone special you’re seeing? Any plans?”

Gavin chuckled. “No, not at all. I’m looking, though. Looking for the right person. But I put all my energies the last few years into getting through school, finding a job, and then putting on a shitty concert, so I didn’t have time for anything else.”

Peter put up a hand like he was a crossing guard stopping wayward children. “It wasn’t shitty! Your spring concert is coming up in a few weeks. How’s that going?”

“I think I’ll feel a lot better after this one. The kids are doing great. I’ve found some lively and quirky songs they’re really into and one with great harmonies. They can do things I wasn’t expecting them to be able to do. And the Chamber Singers are great. Yeah, I imagine I’ll be proud after this one. For one thing, I think my expectations are far more realistic.”

“No sitting in the dark then, holding your head and moaning, then?”

“Not me! When would I ever do a thing like that? I’m an upbeat guy! I thought you knew that!”

They both laughed.

*

Because the three boys were close and their parents were all friends, the group made it a habit to occasionally go out to dinner together. They favored a small, family-owned Italian restaurant, Antonini’s, located downtown. They’d become known there and were now welcomed and catered to when they came in.

The boys frequently shared a large pizza. They each claimed a third of it for their own favorite toppings. Dylan liked pepperoni, sausage and ham. For Cary, it was green peppers, olives and mushrooms. Sebastian liked jalepenos on his third, along with onions and spicy Canadian bacon, and he always specified extra cheese. He would have liked to try anchovies at least once just to see what all the fuss was about, but the other two boys put up such a stink when they heard him ordering them, afraid some of the oil would leak over the borders of and into their own territories, he had desisted. The adults usually had meals prepared by family cooks using old-country recipes. And they often shared a pitcher of beer, sometimes two when the women were especially thirsty.

They all enjoyed a fun evening, as usual. The group sat at a table for eight in an alcove. There was a red-and-white checked tablecloth with three wax-covered Chianti bottles holding lit candles. Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin crooned softly in the background. Tom had once kidded the owner about that, but the owner had said people liked it better than Pavarotti. Male waiters in their early twenties wearing starched white dress shirts, black bowties and tight black trousers served them; they’d gotten to know the boys well enough to tease them, and the boys had no problem holding their own.

Sebastian felt very relaxed. For some reason, the pizza tasted better than usual, everyone seemed happy and upbeat and Sebastian felt a sense of contentment that was very strong.

He was sitting next to Dylan, as usual, and leaned over to whisper in his ear. “I want to tell them,” he said.

Dylan whispered back, “They already know.”

“Yeah, but we’ve never really said it out loud to anyone other than Cary. I want to.”

Dylan nodded. “Go for it,” he said.

When there was a lull in the conversation, Sebastian said, “Can I say something? To everyone?”

The table quieted further, and Sebastian blushed, but then looked at everyone, meeting eyes. “I know you’ve all figured this out already, but it’s important to me to say it. You’re all our friends, and we should do this. Dylan agrees. So, we’re gay, and we’re together. Boyfriends.”

Dylan’s and Sebastian’s mothers stood up and came to the boys and hugged them. Each kissed both boys on the cheek. Tom and Fred raised their beer glasses to them in a silent toast. Cary just smiled.

What Sebastian really enjoyed was when the youngest and cutest of the waiters brought the two of them cannoli they hadn’t ordered. “On the house,” he said. “You two really look great together. I hope I’m as lucky someday as you two. I’m always looking.” He winked at them.

Of course, Cary let out a squawk, and the waiter hurried back with a cannoli for him as well. “You, too?” he asked.

“The dessert, yes,” Cary said, smiling. “The orientation, no.”

“Too bad,” the waiter said, sighing emotively, then smiled and left.

The boys had a shock when they’d finished dinner and everyone was standing up to leave. At that moment, the restaurant door opened and a couple entered. Sebastian did a double-take. It was Mr. Darvin, and accompanying him was Miss Hastings.

*

“He isn’t gay!”

“You don’t know that!”

Dylan and Cary were arguing, and Sebastian was watching. They were in Cary’s basement. Fred and Tom had thought the three needed a place to hang out, so they’d fixed up the basement. There were two rooms—one with weights, a punching bag and a treadmill, the other with a table for card and board games, a couple of couches and a few chairs, and a TV and sound system. Tom had said it was to keep the racket they made out of the rest of the house, but Cary was sure it was so they’d have their own place and would spend more time at home. Both Fred and Tom liked to know where they were. Cary liked that they were protective of him, that they cared about him. He’d never had that before.

Dylan and Cary had been getting nowhere with their pro-and-con back-and-forths about Mr. Darvin. Finally, Dylan turned to Sebastian. “You’re awfully quiet again. What’s your opinion. Is he or isn’t he?”

“I have no idea. It sure looked like they were on a date, but there’s no way to really know unless we ask him. Or her. So, who volunteers to do that?”

“I already tried,” Cary said, “and I almost found out whether or not he was married. That’s closer than either of you’ve come to finding anything out. It’s up to one of you to try now.”

Dylan looked anxious. “He doesn’t like me as much as he does you guys. He frowns at me all the time.”

“That’s because you’re always making jokes and disrupting his class,” said Cary.

“Well, I think Sebastian should do it. He’s the one Mr. Darvin likes best.”

“I can’t do that!” Sebastian was vehement. “He already told you it was inappropriate to talk about his personal life.”

“How’re we going to find out, then? Dylan’s chicken, and you’re too uptight.”

“I’m not chicken! I just don’t want to get in any more trouble with him,” Dylan complained.

“Well, that’s the answer, then,” said Sebastian, grinning. “I know how you can ask and not get in trouble with him.”

Dylan looked at him suspiciously. “How?”

“You’ll do it if I promise you won’t get Mr. Darvin angry?”

“OK, but I don’t see how that’s going to work.”

Sebastian put on an angelic face. “Easy. Ask Miss Hastings instead.”

*

They talked about it and eventually, putting several ideas together, came up with a plan. Dylan would be the point man. He was the least shy of the three of them and the most outgoing; besides, the other two insisted. That was what closed the deal.

And so it was, after school the next day, Dylan wandered into Miss Hastings’ room. She was erasing her whiteboard. He grabbed an eraser and helped her out till they were done.

“Thanks, Dylan! That was unexpected.”

“Well, I needed to ask you something, and as long as I was here…”

He tried looking bashful, and Miss Hastings laughed. No one in the school would ever believe there was a bashful bone in Dylan’s body.

“OK, go ahead and ask. I guess you were just softening me up a minute ago.”

Dylan grinned. “You’re too smart. Anyway, what I wanted to talk to you about was this. Our class is supposed to get a gift for our favorite teacher at the end of the year. We haven’t voted yet, but it’ll probably be Mr. Darvin. So, I’ve been appointed to find out what he might like to get. And I thought I might ask you.”

“Me?! Why do you think I’d have any idea what he’d want?”

“Well, I was at Antonini’s the other night and saw you two together on a date. I figured if you’re dating him, then you must have some idea what he’d want. Oh, and please don’t tell him about this. It’s supposed to be a surprise.”

Miss Hastings laughed. “You saw us on a date, huh?”

“Yeah. You were coming in just as we were leaving.”

She shook her head. “Well, if you’d left a little later, you’d have seen us come in together because that’s when we were supposed to arrive. A bunch of faculty members came in right behind us. See, we were all having dinner together. It was a meeting to discuss the end-of-term testing schedules and procedures. Dr. Jacobs likes to take us all out like that once a year near the end of term. So, that’s why we were there.”

Dylan tried not to look happy at the news, even though he was. But he wanted confirmation. So he asked, “And it wasn’t a date?”

She took another glance at him, then collected the erasers and put them on her desk. She turned to Dylan, an amused smile on her face. “Well, I guess I wasn’t too clear about that, was I. I mean, we arrived at the same time. So, he could have asked me to go with him to the meeting, and we could have gone out for drinks later, and he could have taken me home at the end of the evening. All those are possible. But you see, if I answered your question, I’d be giving you personal information about your teachers, and we just don’t do that, no more than we, your teachers, poke into our students’ romances, or lack thereof. It’s a two-way street. See?”

Dylan had no idea how to respond to that. The phrase that came to his mind was from a Bullwinkle show, spoken by Natasha: ‘Curses, foiled again!’ He decided his best course of action was to beat a quick retreat.

As he was leaving, Miss Hastings called after him, “I have no idea what he might want, Dylan,” and then he heard her laughing.

*

“How’re we supposed to get them hooked up if we don’t know whether Mr. Darvin is gay?”

“Cary, you seem more interested in getting them together than we are. Why are you so eager to do that?” Sebastian asked.

“I just think they’d make a great couple, and as I told Mr. Darvin, I want him to be happy.”

“Maybe he already is,” Dylan chipped in. “You know, some people like living alone.”

“Yeah, but not him. I’m sure of it! He’s such a warm person. Always helping everyone else. I know he’d want a partner. Everyone should.”

“How about you, then?” Sebastian asked. “I don’t see you dating anyone. As good-looking as you are, and as nice, you should find it easy to get someone.”

Cary blushed. “We’re not talking about me,” he said.

Something about his tone of voice, maybe his defensiveness, caught Dylan’s ear. “Cary…?”

Cary tried to change the subject, but the other two were on him like rats on cheddar. After five solid minutes of badgering, Cary finally admitted there was a girl in school he liked. He wouldn’t say who she was, however. The talk then turned to convincing him to ask her out, and Mr. Darvin was forgotten for the time being. Forgotten by everyone but Dylan, who had a plan.

*

Dylan had gone out for the baseball team. He’d become the starting right fielder because he could hit, and because the fewest balls were hit to that field, and because he had a great throwing arm. The coach didn’t discuss with Dylan his adventurous attempts to judge and catch high flies, but did compliment him on being able to throw runners out tagging up at second and trying for third after a catch. The coach kept the thought ‘assuming you manage to catch the damn ball’ to himself.

Dylan, like the rest of the team, had to sell raffle tickets so the team could afford new uniforms. The old ones had patches on patches and were becoming embarrassing. When the boys had to slide, sometimes someone had to run from the dugout with a towel before the sliding boy could stand up without embarrassing himself.

One obvious target for buying the tickets was the faculty. Dylan’s plan was to hit up Mr. Darvin.

He approached him in the hallway after lunch one day. “Hey, Mr. Darvin. Could you buy a raffle ticket to support the baseball team? The tickets are $5 each. I have to sell $100 worth.”

“What’s the prize being raffled off?” Mr. Darvin asked, reaching for his wallet. “Hope it’s not a magazine subscription.”

Dylan laughed. “No, that was last year. This year it’s a free dinner for you and your wife at Antonini’s. They’re even throwing in a bottle of wine.”

“Well, in that case, I’ll buy four tickets.” He handed Dylan a twenty-dollar bill.

“Hey, thanks a lot! That’s great. And since you’re buying four, and since I know Mr. Antonini, maybe if you win, you can take your kids, too!”

Mr. Darvin smiled at Dylan. “Or maybe I can eat there by myself four times?” Then he laughed, patted Dylan on the shoulder, and said, “You and Cary, huh?”, and left Dylan standing in the hall, having finagled no information out of the man at all and not sure what his last comment had meant.

*

“Places, everyone! Kevin, you’re behind Victor, not in front of him! Think, people! Think! John, you ready? Your robe isn’t zipped up! People!” Which was when Gavin noticed Phil Westerly only just then walking onto the backstage apron. Gavin scowled at him, and the boy gave him an apologetic grin.

The kids were nervous, too. It was the school’s first Spring Concert, and they’d been working hard since October just for tonight. There’d been questions and suggestions earlier in the year about having a Christmas concert but Gavin had known if they did, it wouldn’t be any better than his first one and perhaps even worse, and he wanted—he needed—their second attempt to show a lot of improvement. He had a lot of pride—and personal ambition—and the next performance he led just had to be good! Good by his standards, not anyone else’s. Not Dr. Jacobs’ or the parents’ or the students’. Or even Peter Darvin’s!

So they’d worked hard, and, as much as the kids learned about singing, Gavin learned about how to work with young people and get them on his side. He found out he was able to harness their innate enthusiasm. He discovered how to instill a vision in them, how to get them to care about what the chorus was capable of doing. He’d done it by being upbeat and friendly and positive, complimenting success and being constructive about failure.

However, they were still kids. He had become more and more aware of the truth of what Peter Darvin had told him, and recognizing it, he’d come to accept it. Now, when a boy was daydreaming in rehearsals, Gavin didn’t yell at him; he teased him back into paying attention. Now, when a girl was whispering in the ear of the girl next to her, he’d merely look at her and put his cupped hand behind his ear as though he was trying to hear what was being said. Now, when a boy yawned, he asked him kiddingly what he’d done in bed last night instead of sleeping, and after everyone had laughed and the teasee had blushed, very few yawns were seen thereafter.

What he’d found so surprising was that the kids had started liking him. He’d thought that by pushing them as hard as he did they’d resent him. The opposite had been the case. They’d taken to him because they identified with his youth, because he’d been fair to them, because he didn’t have a mean bone in his body, and because they could see what he was doing was going to make them a better chorus, perhaps a great one. But mostly—he thought as he tried to figure this out—they liked him because they could see he believed in them. He remembered from his own youth that kids responded to adults who could see promise in them.

Which didn’t mean he wasn’t still demanding of them. Just that he could get away with it.

“Ricky, put the book down! You can study tomorrow! We’ve got a concert to sing!”

“OK, Mr. Nichols. Sorry.”

They marched out on stage with the curtains open. They filled the risers, top row first, then on down. Everyone was in the right place. There was no fighting to get in the proper positions. Everyone’s hair was combed. All the boys had dark ties and white dress shirts, except for Dominic, who’d worn a dark blue shirt and was almost in tears when Gavin mentioned it. It was the only shirt with a collar he owned, he admitted, and he’d had to borrow a tie. Gavin had smiled at him and told him he looked great and that they needed his bass voice to be really solid tonight, his was one of their most important voices—it always helped create a steady bottom of the chords they sang— and that his shirt was no problem at all; the important thing was that Dominic was there, and Gavin told him how glad he was.

The entire chorus sang in the first half of the concert, and after intermission the Columbian Chamber Singers had the second half all to themselves. As good as the chorus had been, the CCS group left the audience stunned. They were great, singing songs that demanded outstanding intonation, ones that accented rhythmic extremes, and quirky numbers that had the audience laughing and bobbing their heads to the music. Perhaps the best was Gavin’s own version of Daniel Elder’s arrangement for choir of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Gavin had written a duet obligato which was sung over the entire group humming a repeat of the first verse softly. The duet was performed by soprano Elizabeth Caldwell and tenor Cary Anders, who had come off the risers to the front of the group for the performance.

The Chamber Singers and the two soloists received lengthy applause for the piece, some in the audience even standing up. Cary looked both embarrassed and exuberantly proud, and Sebastian could see he was flushed. The Twinkle was the final number of the evening. When the applause finally abated, Gavin indicated Elizabeth and Cary should walk off the stage first. Cary had taken Elizabeth’s hand during the applause, raising both their hands in triumph. Now, leaving the stage, Sebastian noted that Cary had never let go of the girl’s hand. He nudged Dylan, who was sitting next to him.

“I think I’ve figured out who the girl is he likes!”

“Well, duh!” Dylan laughed. “They’re cute.”

Gavin was swamped with congratulations after the performance. Before that, however, he’d held the entire chorus together to tell them how great they’d been and how proud he was of them and that they should be proud of themselves. He told them this was an object lesson for what happened if they worked hard on something, and he hoped they remembered this triumph for the rest of their lives.

When everyone had finally left, he walked to his office in the choral room. Standing there, waiting for him, was Peter Darvin.

Peter clapped when Gavin walked into the room, and Gavin blushed. “That was incredible, Gavin. Really excellent and beyond all expectations. You’ve totally reached those kids and done something no one thought you could do so soon. I’ll bet you have every kid in the school signing up for chorus next year. And you know the best part?”

“What?”

Peter laughed. “No more head in hands sulking in a dark room!”

Gavin grinned. “I think you’re telling me I was feeling sorry for myself.”

“Well, maybe a little. But I’ve been there and done that and you’re allowed the occasional pity party. Not tonight, though. Tonight we celebrate. I’m buying.”

They ended up where they usually did, at Randolph’s. They’d been seeing quite a bit of each other as they found they were quite comfortable together, the old pro—well, the not-yet-old pro—and the bright beginner with lots of potential. Peter was a private individual when not in school, but as their relationship had warmed, he’d become more open with Gavin than he’d been with anyone else since his college days.

Gavin ordered his customary beer, even with Peter telling him they should have champagne. Gavin, never one short of words, gushed, and Peter smiled, enjoying his friend’s jubilation. Indeed, Gavin held the floor most of the evening, and Peter encouraged him. He noticed Gavin was making much more frequent and intense eye contact tonight than usual and put it down to Gavin’s high emotions. He knew Gavin had been under quite a bit of self-imposed pressure leading up to the concert, and a lot of his volubility was certainly a simple release of the tension he’d been feeling.

Gavin had had more beer than usual—enough, in fact, that Peter figured he’d have to drive him home. What he didn’t realize was the extent to which it was loosening Gavin’s tongue.

After his one customary glass of whiskey, Peter had switched to seltzer water. Gavin was now on what Peter decided would be his last beer of the night, and as Gavin’s inhibitions had waned, his talk had grown growing more personal.

Gavin looked up at Peter after setting his mostly empty beer bottle on the table. “Have you ever been in love, Peter?” The words weren’t quite slurred but gave the impression the next ones might be. His eyes were very bright. He gave Peter a shy grin.

Peter realized that it was about time to leave. He saw there was only an inch of beer remaining in Gavin’s bottle, so he thought that one more swallow would finish their night. He pursed his lips, then reluctantly responded to Gavin’s question.

“You know I have, Gavin. I told you I was in love in college and how hurtful it was when we broke up.”

Gavin smiled. He had been trying to be devious by asking Peter a leading question, but being half-sloshed hadn’t helped. It had, however, effectively obliterated his self-consciousness. Ignoring the reserved tone of Peter’s voice, he continued with his ploy. “So, if you’ve been in love, that means you’ve gone through falling in love. Right?”

Peter moved to the edge of his seat, willing Gavin to finish his beer, willing this conversation to be over. But Gavin was waiting for an answer.

“Sure. I had to experience falling in love to end up being in love. Why?”

Gavin smirked. His plan had worked. He ignored Peter’s question and asked his own. “What did that feel like, falling in love?”

Peter frowned slightly. Gavin still had the inch of beer in his bottle, which he was holding but not drinking. Peter was more than ready to leave. Still, it was Gavin’s night, Gavin’s successful night, and he wasn’t that drunk. So Peter sat back into the leather cushion, restraining a sigh, and played along.

“It’s wonderful and awful, especially if you don’t know if your feelings are shared. You’re ecstatically happy one moment, scared and depressed the next. You look for signs that your partner feels the same as you do but you can’t ask because they might say no. When you decide they do love you, too, you feel tremendous joy, followed two minutes later by depression because it was only your perception and it probably was wrong because why should such a perfect person ever love someone like you? Falling in love brings out your strongest feelings of self-esteem and worst feelings of worthlessness, both at the same time. It’s heaven and hell, rolled up in one messy package.”

Peter was surprised at himself. Where had that come from? He wasn’t one to talk like this! He looked at Gavin and saw his friend was nodding at what he’d said—and also that his bottle was now empty. Gavin had finished it while Peter had been speaking.

Peter smiled. “Time to go, Gavin. I’ll drive you home.”

“OK. I’m ready.” Gavin began the process of sliding out of the booth, and Peter slid out from his side quickly so as to make sure Gavin was steady on his feet when he stood up.

As they walked out to the car, Peter idly asked, “Why did you ask about falling in love? I saw you nodding in agreement. So you’ve felt that, too?”

They were in the car before Gavin had a chance to answer, and then, when he didn’t, Peter glanced over at him. Gavin’s head was drooping; Peter thought he might be dozing, so answered his question himself. “I imagine you have. I guess you may be falling in love right now. With teaching these kids. With the school and community. Things are really good for you right now. The realization that you’ve achieved what you’ve worked for and that it’s even better than you thought it would be—that’s very much like the feelings you have when you’re falling in love with someone.”

He looked over at Gavin who now was sitting up straight and didn’t seem quite as out of it as he’d been a few moments earlier. “Is that it?” Peter asked. “Are you falling in love with the kids and your job?”

Gavin caught Peter’s eye before Peter looked back at the road, and his answer was nothing Peter had expected. “Yes, I am falling in love. With all those things.” A pause, and then he whispered, loud enough for Peter to hear, “With them, too.”

*

The school year was lurching and stumbling to its end. The last couple of weeks went as they usually did, frantically and bumblingly. Teachers were giving final exams, and the kids were high strung, nervous, or resigned to their fates—many of them knowing they’d spent the year not worrying enough about academics and that it was too late now to do much about it. In any case, the kids were all acting abnormally.

And the teachers were, too. They were making plans for the summer, most of them were worn out from the academic grind, and there were all those tests to prepare, monitor and grade, which gave them some highs and quite a few lows as test scores ran from terrific to very sad indeed.

With just a couple of days left to go, Sebastian found himself in Mr. Darvin’s classroom after school. Cary was walking Elizabeth home. Cary was doing a lot of that these days, and his phone was usually busy till late at night.

Dylan had a dentist’s appointment, which Sebastian had heard lots of noise about, noise of the sort that went, ‘who’d ever set me up with a dentist appointment in the last week of school? A dentist appointment! Like I don’t have enough to worry about already!’

Sebastian had wandered into Mr. Darvin’s room simply because he had no one to walk home with and was already feeling separation pangs. Mr. Darvin was one of the people he’d miss over the summer.

Mr. Darvin was gathering up test booklets and alphabetizing them, and he grinned at Sebastian when the boy walked into the classroom. “Slumming?”

“No,” Sebastian laughed. “Just feeling lonely already. Are you going east to hike again this summer?”

Mr. Darvin nodded. “Yes. I’ve already figured out where I want to go. I’m going to start in southern Pennsylvania and go all the way to South Carolina. At least that’s my plan. I go by myself, so if I want to go faster or slower, there’s no one to argue with me. It’s a very restful time, being alone, no kids all wanting my attention. I walk the trail, camp out at night, commune with nature. It revives me.”

Sebastian didn’t answer right away, thinking about what Mr. Darvin had said. When he did reply, there was some sadness in his voice.

“I think that’s too bad.”

Peter looked at him. “Too bad? I just told you how wonderful it is! What’s bad about it?”

Sebastian made a face. “The going-alone part. I understand why you said that makes it better for you. But that’s only half the story, and you know that. You mentioned the good parts. You didn’t mention the bad parts.”

Mr. Darvin set the test booklets on his desk, then joined Sebastian at a student desk, sitting down next to him and facing him. ”What bad parts?”

“Being alone. Having exciting and awesome experiences but having no one to share them with. Watching those intense sunrises and sunsets all by yourself. That has to be lonely. Sure, you can walk at your own pace, but you can’t talk to anyone while doing that. You can cook your dinner over a campfire, but you have no one to eat it with. You can remember all the wondrous things you saw that day but can’t talk about them with anyone. There’s no sharing what you’re experiencing at all.”

Mr. Darvin saw that Sebastian really meant and felt badly about what he was saying. He saw the boy actually had become sad, and the sadness was for him.

Seeing that evoked memories. It dawned on Mr. Darvin that he’d had three distinctly odd conversations during the year with each of these boys he knew were good friends—Sebastian, Cary, and Dylan.

“Sebastian…” He stopped, finding it difficult to express what he wanted to say, but then rallied. “Sebastian, what’s going on?” he asked with his voice lowered and gentle. “First Cary said something to me, then Dylan, now you. It’s all been spaced out over the year, but I’ve got a good memory. All three of you at one time or another have asked me some personal questions. Dylan made it sound sort of like a joke, but then, that’s just Dylan. Cary did it making it sound like he was trying to help me get together with Miss Hastings, but I could read between the lines, and I knew better anyway. Now it’s your turn, and you’re doing it the way you would, with lots of compassion and empathy. But, what gives? I don’t get it.”

Sebastian had to think, think what to say, and all he could come up with was to be honest. That was who he was. He began with a question.

“Are we friends, Mr. Darvin?”

Mr. Darvin looked at him questioningly. “Friends? Well, I guess so. You’re a student of mine. And I like most all of my students. I don’t really think of them as friends, however. As I recall, Cary asked me the same thing, or at least spoke about being friends.”

“Well, we—Dylan and Cary and I—all think of you as our friend. You’ve been very nice to all of us and really made a difference for me and Cary. Now I have to tell you something so what I’m saying will make sense. I’m gay. I haven’t told many people that, but as I say, I consider you my friend, and I want you to know. But, I think maybe you already do. See, that’s part of my explanation.”

He stopped, waiting for Mr. Darvin’s reaction, but Mr. Darvin remained silent. Sebastian waited a moment, then went on speaking.

“Cary knows we’re gay. He was the only one who knew until recently. Anyway… remember early in the year, when you had your guidance meeting with Cary? At the end of it, when Cary was walking down the hall to meet us, he turned back to wave at you. He saw a look on your face as you were watching Dylan and me. He told us the look was sort of sad and envious. We talked about it, the three of us. The only reason we could think of that you might feel that way was that maybe you didn’t have what we had: someone to love, someone who loved you.”

He stopped, expecting something from Mr. Darvin, but the man remained mute. OK, thought Sebastian. Maybe he’s giving me enough rope to hang myself, but he asked a question, and I’m going to answer it.

Sebastian plugged on. “We decided to help. I know, I know, it was none of our business, but to us, you were our friend, and friends help each other. Well, and I apologize if this hurts your feelings, first we had to decide if you were gay or not. We couldn’t just ask you. You don’t ask a teacher that! But we didn’t know, didn’t even know if you were married. We thought you might be gay because of how Cary said you’d looked at us. We had to know, however. If you weren’t married, we had to know if you were gay or straight before we went about finding a good partner for you.”

Mr. Darvin harrumphed; Sebastian couldn’t tell if it was a happy or mad harrumph. Nor could he tell from either Mr. Darvin’s expression or tone of voice when he asked, “So you three thought you should find a partner for me?”

“Yes! We wanted you to be as happy as we were! If Cary was right about what he saw in your face, you envied what we had. So we wanted to help you get it. But it was hard. We couldn’t even figure out if you were married or single let alone gay or straight. You do a great job of keeping your privacy!”

“Did it ever occur to you that maybe I value my privacy?”

Sebastian frowned while he thought about that. “I guess we didn’t think about it all that much. Instead, we thought about how we could help you. Just like today. You’re going hiking. But you’re going alone. It would be so much more fun to go with someone. I just know it would! And I think I know someone who’d like to go with you. I just don’t know if it should be a man or a woman, but I know one of each sort I could recommend.” He smiled at his teacher, hoping he would ask who.

Mr. Darvin didn’t. Instead, he reached out, briefly touched the boy’s knee and smiled at him. “You know, I do value your friendship, Sebastian. And Cary’s and Dylan’s as well. I’m touched that you care that much about me and about my happiness. But you have to let me take care of that on my own.”

Sebastian nodded. “OK,” he said. “But take someone with you on your hike. Please. At least think about it. I don’t think you’re as happy as you deserve to be. I don’t believe you have a wife, because if you did, you wouldn’t be spending the summer alone. I’m sure your hike would be much better—a whole lot more fun—if you took it with someone—someone you love or could come to love—than it would be going alone. I really wish you’d think hard about taking that someone along with you. But you’re right, it’s none of our business, and I’ll tell the other two that, so from now on we’ll butt out. OK?”

Mr. Darvin stood up, and so did Sebastian. Mr. Darvin said, “If I could give you a hug, I would, but we’re not allowed.”

“I am,” said Sebastian, and he quickly hugged and then released his teacher, grinned his unique Sebastian grin, and then scurried out of the classroom, leaving Mr. Darvin shaking his head and smiling.

*

Peter did think about what Sebastian had said. He knew there was something missing in his life. For a while now, he’d managed to repress those feelings and thoughts. He was very happy in most things. The one thing he didn’t have was a companion to share his happiness with, and he knew it. He also knew he had a deep dread of repeating what he’d experienced in college. That experience had taught him to question his judgment and made him very reluctant to risk giving his heart away again.

Thad had been the first real love in his life and everything he wanted, and he’d been sure the man had felt the same for him. Thad was much more than just good-looking. He was funny and smart and romantic and sensitive. He shared Peter’s values, wanted the same things out of life. They’d been so good together.

And then Thad had told Peter he’d met a girl. He said he was in love, real love this time, not the naïve, play kind of love he felt for Peter. Peter couldn’t believe it. How could he have been so wrong? How could he have misread Thad so completely? How could Thad call what they’d had ‘play love’, something that wasn’t real?

Getting dumped had hurt terribly. It had totally shaken his confidence in himself as a judge of other people, and it had quashed his desire for romance. He wasn’t sure he’d ever gotten over it, even now, several years down the road.

He had found someone he could talk to, talk openly to, and that helped. Surprisingly, it had been a woman, Barbara Hasting. He’d poured out his hurt to her sympathetic ears, and they’d formed a solid, deep friendship. But ultimately, talking wasn’t enough. If he faced up to it, he had to admit he was lonely. In all other aspects he had everything he wanted in life. He loved his job; he loved helping and teaching young people; he loved the community he was in; he loved the respect he got from the school administrators, the parents and even the kids. But he was feeling lonely, a feeling that had become more than a minor annoyance this school year, for some reason.

He thought of what Sebastian had said, of how readable his emotions had been on his face. He didn’t remember the incident in the hallway that Sebastian had spoken of, but he could believe it had happened. He had recognized that Sebastian and Dylan were probably gay and partners, and he had felt a longing inside him when he saw how happy they were together.

He felt he had to talk about this again. Usually, that helped. So, he called Barbara, the one friend who knew all about what he’d been going through.

He wanted to take her to Randolph’s that evening. Sebastian had stirred him enough that he really needed to talk. But Barbara had a class she was taking at the college in the next town over, and she just couldn’t make it. She apologized profusely. He laughed it off, even though, inside, he was in pain.

He paced around his apartment, not feeling like sitting, feeling too emotional for that. He needed to be with someone, he thought, before he became maudlin.

He thought of Gavin. He liked him. He was fun. He didn’t seem the sort to pour out his heart to, however. He was too young, for one thing, six years younger than Peter. But he was a good guy, and he’d showed some flashes of mature understanding and sensitivity. OK, Peter couldn’t tell him anything important, anything private, anything about what he was feeling, but being with Gavin would allow him to yank his spirits up out of the funk they were in now, and heaven knew, he needed that.

So, he stopped pacing and picked up his phone.

*

“I’m so glad you called,” Gavin said as they took their regular booth at Randolph’s. “I’m bored out of my gourd. All you guys are making up tests and giving them and grading them and making out grade sheets. I don’t have any exams to give except in my music theory class, and I’ve only got five students in it. I’ve been teaching kids to sing, and as long as they’ve made an effort, they’ll all get A’s. Which, by the way, includes everyone.”

Peter laughed, feeling better just being with Gavin and hearing his enthusiasm and cheerfulness, both of which automatically brightened his mood. “You should be happy,” he said. “Your first year’s about finished, you had a great start, the kids love you, and next year will be even better.”

Gavin nodded. “You’re right. It’s just that I’m never happy if I’m not doing something. And right now, I’ve got nothing on my plate. Plus, the summer is stretching out in front of me. I don’t have much money and no plans. Borrrrrringggg!”

Peter couldn’t help but giggle. He’d been right. Being with Gavin was all it took to make him happier. “You should do something, even if it’s just to get away for a couple of days. It doesn’t have to cost much. Just get out of town, check out the country around here. Maybe in the middle of the week when non-teachers are at work.”

“Yeah, maybe. I haven’t thought of anything I’d like to do. Or anyone I’d want to do it with. Well, that isn’t entirely true, but…” Gavin remembered his comment to Peter at their last session at Randolph’s. He’d thought he was being way too obvious, but Peter hadn’t seemed to pick up on it. Gavin had been embarrassed afterward, and now, he seemed headed for the same place. He so wanted Peter to know how he felt about him, how strong his feelings for the man had grown, but he’d seen that his feelings were not reciprocated, and so he needed to restrain himself.

Gavin was having his usual, his trustworthy bottle of Bud Light. That evening, Peter was trying something he’d read about but never tried, a liqueur called Green Chartreuse. It came in a small glass, probably less than an ounce. It was a beguiling pale-green color, clear enough to see through. He took a small sip.

“Wow!” he said. Then he took another sip and smiled.

Gavin was watching him, and he grinned. “Strong?”

“Oh, yes. I’ve read about this. It’s a secret recipe known only to the Carthusian monks living in the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the high Alps in France. It’s 110 proof. But it has a really pleasant taste. Want to try a sip?”

Gavin made a face, and Peter laughed.

Gavin took a pull on his beer bottle while Peter indulged in another sip, amounting to a drop of two of his liqueur. Then Gavin asked, offhandedly, “What are you doing this summer?”

“Same as last summer. I began hiking the Appalachian Trail, and I loved it. So peaceful, so beautiful, and occasionally you see things that take your breath away.”

Gavin finished his beer and flagged the waitress for another. “That really sounds great. Seems you’d have to be in really good shape, however.”

“Not really. That’s one thing I like about going by myself. If I get tired, I just stop. If I think I’m going too fast, I slow down. Whatever feels right, I can do it. I don’t have thirty kids wanting my attention, either, or asking for my help with something. I’m all by myself, and my decisions don’t impact anyone but me.”

Gavin studied him for a moment, then asked, “But isn’t it a little lonely?”

Peter laughed. “I just had this conversation with Sebastian—Sebastian Collier. You know him?”

“Yeah, he’s in my full chorus. Don’t know him well, though. He’s really quiet.”

“He’s one of my favorite kids. He asked me what I was doing this summer, too, and he also said it sounded lonely. He thinks I should go with someone so I can share the experience.”

Gavin was about to say something when the waitress appeared with his beer. She put it on the table and looked at Peter’s glass, which was still two-thirds full. “Don’t you like it?” she asked.

“Actually, it’s very good. It needs sipping rather than gulping, though.” He smiled at her, and she winked and walked away.

Gavin watched this, then looked down at the table. They both were quiet for some time, both lost in thought. Then Gavin spoke.

“I’d like to do that. Go hiking like that. I’ve heard of that trail, and it always seemed a great adventure. You know why I never did?” Without allowing Peter time to answer, he continued. “I never had anyone to go with, and going by myself seemed, well, I don’t think ‘lonely’ is the word I’d come up with. Maybe ‘incomplete’. Like buying a king-sized mattress when you’re the only one sleeping on it, or renting the Palace Tower Penthouse Suite at Caesar’s Palace for the weekend, then staying there all by yourself. Like that. Like hiking that trail should be shared with someone—someone special.”

He stopped, and when Peter didn’t say anything, he finished his thought, dropping his voice so it was almost like he was speaking just to himself. “It would have to be more fun with two.”

If Peter was supposed to take a hint from that, he didn’t appear to. He wrinkled his brow in consideration instead. “Well, I suppose that’s true, to an extent. But if you go by yourself, you get to set your own pace, stop whenever you want, eat and sleep at your own discretion—and if you get to stinking, you don’t even need to jump in a creek or take a shower until you want to. All those things would get bothersome if someone were with you.”

Gavin was watching him intently and paying close attention to the tone of voice he was using. And something occurred to him. Peter was speaking hypothetically. The man could certainly have just said that he preferred to go alone if that’s what he meant. Heaven knows, Peter Darvin wasn’t shy about voicing his opinions. Gavin had never met a more self-confident man. But then, that was at school. This was a different setting. Maybe he wasn’t so confident here.

He realized what he said now would be important. And so he chose his words carefully. “Yes, I suppose there might be things one couldn’t control absolutely if one were with someone else, but wouldn’t that be balanced out by other things, good things?” Gavin’s response matched Peter’s tone exactly. He adopted the same degree of wrinkled-brow concentration, the same separation from any actual involvement with what was being discussed so as to protect himself. “But there is that loneliness factor to consider. And if—” Gavin again stressed the ‘if’, showing how clearly he’d heard it in Peter’s pronouncement “—one should see a doe and its fawn close by, or see a magnificent sunset of purples and oranges fading to pink, then gray, I can’t imagine it would be better to experience that alone than to see it with someone with whom you could share your sense of awe.”

Peter’s frown deepened. “Then, too,” he went on, apparently ignoring what Gavin had just said, “there’s the problem with outfitting. See, I’ve got all the equipment I need. But if someone else, you perhaps, were to tag along, and he didn’t have all the gear necessary, then there’d have to be a lot of sharing going on, and I could see that becoming a source of friction. Couldn’t you?”

Gavin felt a prickling sensation. Suddenly, Peter was talking about the two of them, having left the semblance of distance behind. He was actually talking about the two of them hiking together, and the argument he was posing was as silly as it was transparent. He’d given up on the hypothetical. He’d given up on saying he didn’t want any company, or how much he liked being alone on the trail. And saying ‘you perhaps’? The prickling changed to a more rapidly beating heart. ‘You perhaps’ was more than simply suggestive. It meant this was now open for discussion. And so it meant this could really happen.

Gavin looked at Peter closely, and what he saw was more than encouraging. He saw that Peter was fighting the urge to grin. Gavin could see it at the corners of his mouth, which were wanting to twitch. He could see it in his eyes, which Peter were attempting to keep hidden so their twinkle wasn’t apparent. And he realized he’d heard it in his voice, which by the end of what he’d said was being forced into the serious tone Peter had used. Gavin was a choral enthusiast. He knew tones of voice very well indeed and how they were created.

Could it be, Gavin wondered, that Peter was now playing with him? Could it be he wouldn’t mind Gavin going along but, for some reason, hadn’t felt comfortable just coming out and inviting him?

Peter moved his eyes out of view and took another slight sip of his liqueur.

Gavin kept his eyes steady, looking into Peter’s face. Something inside told Gavin this was the time. Now was when he should take a stab at pushing their relationship forward. He didn’t see what he had to lose by doing so. And it was obvious Peter wasn’t going to do it on his own.

Suddenly feeling a chill along his backbone, Gavin sat up a little straighter. “I’d like to go with you. Would that be something you’d like—or not?”

Peter hesitantly smiled. It looked a little forced to Gavin, but it was a smile and not a frown. That had to mean something.

“Well, let’s look at this,” Peter replied. “You think we should go together. Sebastian, who’s a pretty smart and insightful kid, agrees with you that I need a partner—” he paused, then quickly finished with “—on the trail. So quite obviously I’m outnumbered. OK, you can come.”

Gavin breathed again but knew there was more to say, so this personal inquisition he was going through wasn’t over quite yet. “All right. Thanks. But I have to tell you something first. You can change your mind then if you want. Peter, I’m gay. And in the time I’ve spent with you, I’ve grown quite fond of you. I don’t know if you’re gay or not. I know you’re not married; I checked the staff roster that gives wives’ or partners’ names and there wasn’t one listed with your name. But I think you are. Gay. That’s my guess. But if you’re not, you might not want to be hiking and then sleeping with a gay man who has feelings for you. Strong feelings. And it wouldn’t be fair not to tell you until we’d crawled into a tent together the first night.”

He sat back, took a deep breath, and waited for Peter’s reply. He expected him to either confirm or deny he was gay. He expected him to say something regarding Gavin being gay, and having feelings for him. Instead, the tone of voice Peter had been using before was back in place when he spoke, more apparent this time, quite obviously forced. It was a tone that said he was above the fray, not emotionally involved in this conversation at all, was in fact holding it on a totally academic level.

What he said was, “Gear might be a problem. You’ll have to buy some if you don’t have any. I can give you a list of what you’ll need and tell you where to buy it.”

Gavin heard this, and suddenly he smiled. He had just figured out what was going on. Peter had no objections to him coming with him; he had no problem with Gavin being gay; he had no problem with his liking him, with his thoughts of sleeping in a tent with him, just the two of them, miles from nowhere. What he had a problem with was admitting what he felt. He was keeping his emotions locked up tight inside. And Gavin now realized Peter had been doing that ever since he’d known him.

But right then, Peter was fighting a smile and hadn’t been at all put off by anything Gavin had said.

Gavin remembered that Peter had had a very difficult breakup. Perhaps that had something to do with this. But right now, it didn’t matter.

Gavin was happy; really happy. He thought that Peter was inviting him not only on a hike but perhaps into his life as well. How could it be otherwise? Gavin had told Peter he had feelings for him. If after all that Peter said nothing to discourage him, well, how could that be anything but a positive signal?

He did want to know for sure, however, that Peter was indeed gay. That would make all the difference. But he knew, instinctively, that Peter wouldn’t want to be frank about it, or answer a direct question. Peter had been keeping personal details to himself for so long, and asking him to suddenly admit he was gay, and to do so almost out of the blue—well, it wouldn’t be fair to ask or expect that. However, Gavin needed to know. He decided to make it easy for Peter, even if there was a risk in doing so.

Gavin was feeling much more confident now, and his mood was upbeat, and even Peter now had a cautious smile. So, Gavin took the plunge.

“OK, make your list of gear and I’ll get what I’ll need. Only, I’ll need to borrow your sleeping bag temporarily.”

“Oh?” Peter suddenly looked a little suspicious, but at the same time his smile was moving all the way to his eyes, which were now twinkling. “You want to practice sleeping in one before we go or something like that?”

Gavin shook his head. “No. Not at all. I want to be sure that the one I buy has a zipper that fits together with yours.”

Peter kept his eyes fastened on Gavin’s. Gavin didn’t drop his; he held Peter’s stare just as intently as Peter’s eyes were focusing on his. But Gavin’s worries were waning. Simply the fact Peter wasn’t dodging now, wasn’t dithering or hedging—he was sure now that this would work out as he wanted it to.

Peter cleared his throat. Gavin couldn’t help but tensed. “OK,” Peter said. “I guess we could try this. I guess I’d like to try it. And if it gets really cold, who knows, we might even make use of those compatible zippers.” And then, suddenly, Peter’s whole face seemed to relax. He sat back onto the booth cushion, picked up his glass and emptied it. Then he began to smile, and the smile grew and grew till it filled his face.

Gavin couldn’t help it. He sat back and laughed, and, eventually, Peter joined in.

Epilogue

Clark City, VA - On the trail

 

Barbara,

 

Thanks so much for being my friend, listening to me, and giving me a shoulder to cry on. You’ll never know how important that has been to me.

So, you’re the first to know. I’ve found my man! He actually found me, really, but what difference does it make? I’m deliriously happy!

The hiking has been great. Tomorrow, we will reach the summit — well, the highest elevation in VA the trail hits. You can guess what we’re planning to do to celebrate!

You will; you always did know what I meant when I was rambling on, so full of my own woes that no one else would have had the patience to stay the course with me.

You’ll always be in my heart, Barbara. The only thing is, now you’ll have to share some space there with Gavin.

 

All my love,

Peter

 

P.S. – If you happen to see Sebastian in town during the summer, please tell him for me that he was right!

The End