Jim was glad that his table was as private as it was. He had planned what he wanted to accomplish and needed the conversation to move in that direction. His objective was to get Tristan to talk, and the more he could induce the boy to open up the better. He thought he knew how to do it, too. The boy needed to relax, to trust the two of them. Plenty of good food and drink should work in his favor; it should be a forerunner to good conversation. For the latter, well, if it went as Jim hoped it would, for that they’d need privacy.
When they were all seated and had menus, Jim looked at Tristan and said, “What’s good here?”
Tristan looked startled. He started to say something, then stopped. “You’ve probably eaten here more than I have, sir,” he said very seriously, his eyes flicking at Jim and away as he spoke. Then he seemed to catch on. “Oh, wait. That was a joke.”
Jim wished the lad’s voice wasn’t so flat. He wished there was more animation, more apparent emotion in the boy as well. He responded with some animation of his own, hoping to set the mood.
“Yes! I was being funny. Can’t you see how hard Jordy is laughing?”
Jordy in fact was sitting blank-faced next to Tristan. Tristan glanced at him, then back at Jim, wearing the same blank expression.
Jim fought back a sigh. “See? Another joke. That’s me. A real riot. Jordy, laugh! Agree with me, will you?” Jim wiggled his eyebrows, doing a poor man’s Groucho Marx. Badly.
Jordy forced a laugh, making sure it sounded like it, and said, “Yes, you’re definitely a riot, Dad. Well, either a riot or a train wreck. Probably more like the wreck, if you want the hard and ugly truth.” He smiled, saying it, so everyone would know he wasn’t being serious.
Jim didn’t have to force his laugh. He tittered, watching Tristan all the time. He saw a slight loosening of his shoulders. Not enough, but a start.
“Well, we should think about ordering. I’m going to have my usual. Jordy?”
“Lasagna. I love lasagna. Hope it’s good here.”
“It is.” Jim and Tristan had spoken simultaneously! Jim’s smile was real this time. Tristan blushed.
A waiter walked up then, stopped at their table and took a second glance at Tristan. Tristan kept his head down. Jim ordered, Jordy ordered, and it was Tristan’s turn. Not looking up, using a very soft voice, he asked for the cheapest thing on the menu, a bowl of minestrone soup.
Jim didn’t want to embarrass him, and certainly not in front of a co-worker, so he didn’t press him to order more. Instead, as the waiter was leaving, he spoke up as if he just remembered something. “Oh, and maybe a couple of appetizers for the table. An antipasto for sure. Then maybe the breaded, deep-fried calamari—ranch dressing for dipping instead of the marinara sauce, please. We’ll have an order of that. Anything you boys like especially?”
Jordy glanced at Jim. They’d been together and out to eat enough that Jordy knew anything deep fried was an odd choice for his dad. Jim was sure Jordy had caught on to what he was doing because Jordy then named two other appetizers: the cheesy, hot, crab-and-artichoke dip with torn ciabatta bread pieces for dipping, and the garlic cheese bread.
That was enough food to feed a party of six people—hungry ones at that. Just right for two teenagers, though, Jim thought. He gave Jordy a quick and hopefully unnoticeable nod of thanks. Tristan still had his eyes directed toward his lap. Jim thought the boy might feel uncomfortable and perhaps out of his element sitting in the restaurant where he was always on his feet, but at least there was no fear the boy would be going hungry that night. Not that Jim had any idea that that ever happened, although Tristan seemed very slender.
Jim started a conversation about what had happened with the three bullies. He and Jordy talked, leaving holes for Tristan to jump in. He never did. He only spoke when a direct question was specifically asked of him, and then his answers were as short as possible; some questions he even ignored, sitting silently, looking down. Jim realized the boy just wasn’t comfortable enough yet with the two of them. He had to find a way to start the boy talking freely, and he realized he had a way that just might accomplish that.
“Jordy, can you explain how you were able to do what you did to Red? You just wiped him out, and he doesn’t look like someone that happens to.”
Jordy took a quick look at Jim, but Jim figured he understood where he wanted this conversation headed and what its purpose was. So he didn’t meet Jordy’s eyes but instead simply took a sip from his glass of water.
“OK,” Jordy said. “I have to go back a ways for it to make sense.” He turned in his seat so he was looking more directly at Tristan.
“I lived here till I was eleven, and then Dad and Mom split up. Soon after that, Mom took me to California. She started bringing boyfriends home, and so I started staying away from the house a lot. I ended up being friends with a kid my age, small like I was then, and we both started visiting a gym a lot. We were both getting bullied, and working out to get stronger seemed like it might be a way to stop that.”
At that point the drinks arrived—Cokes for the boys, a glass of wine for Jim—and Jordy took a healthy gulp of his. The drinks were followed shortly by the calamari. Tristan watched as Jim forked a piece and dipped it in the dressing.
“Yum,” he said. “Have you tried this?” He spoke directly to Tristan, almost forcing the boy’s eyes up to him.
“No.” Tristan shook his head. “I saw people ordering it. It seems kinda, uh, nasty. I’ve seen what that stuff looks like before it’s breaded.”
“Try one,” Jim said, then softer, “for me—please?”
Tristan wrinkled his lips into a grimace, but after seeing Jordy take one, smile and reach for another, he cautiously took one.
“Dip it in the ranch dressing,” Jim urged.
Tristan did, and then, like he was taking a bad-tasting pill, popped it into his mouth. He took a couple of tentative chews, and then his eyes widened. “Hey,” he said, mounting the greatest enthusiasm Jim had witnessed with him yet, “these aren’t bad!”
Jim almost laughed, but stopped himself; he didn’t want Tristan to think he was being laughed at. “Eat as much as you want. I have too much food coming as it is. I got those for you and Jordy.”
He then turned to Jordy. “Go on with what you were saying.”
Jim sat back in the booth as Jordy resumed his tale. Tristan seemed almost unconscious of what he was doing. He was listening to Jordy, but while doing so he’d pick up a piece of calamari, dip and eat it, and then, almost automatically, pick up another, all the time with his attention focused on Jordy. Jim got to wondering just how hungry the boy was.
Jordy seemed to be in a reverie as he spoke. “I was at the gym a lot. I guess I inherited Dad’s build.” He nodded at Jim. “He’s big, and I was growing to be like that. At the gym I didn’t just work out. Eventually, I got into boxing and karate, too. After a few years of learning both, I got so I could handle myself pretty well. I guess you saw some of that today. Red didn’t scare me at all. I faced guys in the ring much tougher than he is. Smarter, too. You learn not to be scared after a while. You learn to watch what your opponent is doing. You get so you can see how to beat them.”
He stopped to take another drink of his Coke. Tristan had almost finished the calamari all by himself. While Jordy had been talking, the waiter had brought the crab-and-artichoke dip. Jim dipped some bread in it, popped it into his mouth, and said, “Oh, man! Try this, Tristan.”
The boy did, and his eyes lit up. Jordy had to stop talking to get any before it was all scarfed up, but he was about done with his explanation, anyway. Now Jim had to move the conversation to something else, something Jordy’s story may have prepared Tristan for. Jim could only hope that the kid might have loosened up by now.
Before he could start, though, the antipasto came. It was a platter covered in olives; cold cuts of three kinds of salami; prosciutto and mortadella; bruschetta; melon balls; more fried calamari, this time served with drawn lemon-caper butter; fried mini raviolis; and marinated mushrooms. It looked awfully tempting to Jim, but he had ordered it for the boys, knowing he still had his full meal coming. Tristan didn’t seem to have any reservations. He did glance up at Jim, but Jim smiled and took an olive, gesturing for Tristan to help himself.
Jim waited till Tristan and Jordy were both trying for the same melon ball, and Tristan actually, though very briefly, smiled in delight as he managed to fork it away from Jordy. Jordy was grinning, too, and that seemed the perfect time to Jim.
“Jordy, when Red was yelling at you, he called you gay. Did that bother you?”
That was leaving it open for Jordy to proceed however he wanted to. He’d told Jim he didn’t mind people knowing. Jim figured he’d soon see how true that was.
“I guess we should talk about that,” Jordy began. “I told you how I spent a lot of time at the gym. A lot of other boys did, too. Looking good at the beach in California is something most boys want to do. Most everyone, really. So people go to the gym if they can. While I was going to the gym to get stronger, so were other kids my age. We worked out together, we showered together and we hung out together when we were there.”
Both boys were neglecting the marinated mushrooms. Jim sneaked a couple onto his plate. No point wasting them, he thought. How filling or fattening could a marinated mushroom be, after all?
“By the time I was 13 I was playing football, and that was with other boys, too. Those boys, being football players, were getting lots of action from the girls in school. If you want to get girls, play football! These guys kept bragging about their exploits. Girls were coming on to me, too. So I did some making out. Kissing. Groping. For some reason, I wasn’t into it. I just guessed I wasn’t old enough yet. But I wondered about it.”
He stopped, and Jim could see him remembering. Reliving, maybe. Then Jordy seemed to come back to them, and he continued.
“The thing is, I was really confused about sex. At the gym, there were all those boys, almost all of them really fit, many of them cute, and I saw them naked in the locker room. Naked and wet in the showers. I found them a lot more attractive than the girls who were coming on to me. And so I started to wonder: am I gay?”
The antipasto plate was finally empty. Somehow, even when talking, Jordy had managed to keep up with Tristan. The appetizer plates were cleared away, and the meals came. Tristan’s bowl of soup looked awfully meager to Jim, but the boy had already eaten more in one meal than Jim did all day, and he was now nibbling on the order of garlic cheese bread, so he was pretty sure the boy wouldn’t starve during the night.
“And so, what about Red and what you said to him?” Jim asked, prodding him because he looked like he’d finished his explanation.
“Well,” Jordy said, then hesitated. He lifted his eyes to meet Tristan’s. “Part of that was bravado. Just to make him madder. And to show what I felt: that being gay might be his problem but it isn’t mine. And I did it a little bit for you, too, Tristan.”
Tristan stopped his spoon midway to his mouth. “For me?”
“Yeah. I didn’t want him talking down about gay kids, if that’s what you are. Not with me standing right there listening. I wanted him to know he couldn’t get away with that if I were around.”
Jim wasn’t happy with that answer, however. Jordy had already told him he was gay. He wanted Tristan to hear it, too. He thought Tristan needed to hear it.
“So you’re still not sure about being gay?” Jim asked Jordy. “You said you liked looking at the boys back in California.”
Jim was saying this for Tristan’s sake. He thought if Jordy said this in front of Tristan, it might make a big difference in how Tristan felt.
Jordy was shaking his head. “No, I’m sure. I’m gay. Well, I think I’m sure I’m gay. I haven’t ever done anything, though. Can you be sure before you’ve done anything? But I know I’m attracted to boys. I know I want to do things. Seems all the boys I knew back then were having full-out, all-the-way. grown-up sex when they were thirteen—if you could believe them. I never did anything like that. I wasn’t interested then and didn’t see how they could all be, either, so I thought it was just bragging. It’s different now, however. I’m older. Now I’m interested. I think about it a lot, actually, but just haven’t met the right boy yet. Or,” and he paused again, “haven’t met the boy who’s interested in me yet.”
Then he turned to Jim. “You sure you’re OK with that? With me?”
Jim smiled at him. “Sure. I love you, Jordy. You can be attracted to whoever you like. Even do those things you want to do and haven’t done yet.”
Their eyes met, and Jim held Jordy’s gaze with his own. Jim wanted Jordy to see how clear he was on that. Jordy’s eyes were open to Jim now, too. No more shadows. No more reservations. Whatever had been closed in him before was gone.
The table was quiet then. Jim felt he’d done enough. He guessed Jordy felt that, too. It seemed pretty obvious Jordy was putting out feelers toward Tristan. It was Tristan’s turn to say something. He remained mum.
Jim decided that was enough forcing of the issue for tonight.
The waiter came back. They needed boxes for much of what hadn’t been eaten, which was mostly Jim’s dinner. He’d been too caught up in the conversation to eat much. Of course, they did have room left for dessert—when don’t teens have room for dessert? Jim thought a sweet dessert would be just the thing to take the edge off the emotions still floating around the table. Without even asking, he ordered two tiramisus. Not only would that be a treat, but he thought the small amount of rum soaking into the lady fingers might both relax and lubricate Tristan’s tongue as well.
They were silent until the waiter was back. He laid the two plates and three spoons in the middle of the table, smiled and walked off. Jim grabbed a spoon. “Have either of you had this before?” he asked.
Jordy said no, and Tristan shook his head. “You’ll love it,” Jim enthused. “Dig in.”
He took a bite himself and then watched the boys. Their eyes opened up and smiles crossed their faces at their first taste. If anything was going to get Tristan to open up, Jim thought, what Jordy had said earlier coupled with an excellent tiramisu would do just that.
He waited till he’d eaten a few bites and the boys even more. Then, thinking the hell with enough forcing of the issue, he said softly, “You’re among friends, Tristan, people who want to be your friends. I think you have things you want to tell someone. We’re here to listen to you—and help. You can probably see how relaxed Jordy is, having gotten all that out.” He turned to Jordy. “Do you feel better?”
Jordy nodded. “Much better. It’s a relief, letting go of all that. Especially knowing you’re OK with my being gay.”
“You don’t have to talk at all,” Jim said, again addressing Tristan, “but getting your problem out in the open with empathetic people almost always makes you feel better. Maybe we could even help. I know you have problems. I can see them in your face, in your posture. Jordy’s already helped you once today. I want to, too.”
He was surprised when Tristan responded to that. He’d expected dropped eyes and a silent tongue. But he got neither. Tristan met his eyes. “You have already. With the ice. And this.” He pointed to the tiramisu, but Jim assumed he meant the whole meal. He hoped Tristan also was including the conversation. “And you, with Red,” he continued, looking at Jordy.
Jim smiled at him and nodded, but remained silent. It was up to Tristan now.
The boy took a couple more bites of his dessert, then looked up at Jim again. “OK,” he said, “I do want to talk, want someone to know, but not here. Back at your house.”
“Do you have to call home, tell them you’ll be late?”
“No,” Tristan said, and Jim could hear bitterness in his voice.
Jim settled the check. Tristan’s hip had stiffened after sitting still during the entire meal and his walk was even gimpier. Jordy had to support him to a much greater extent than when they’d walked in. Tristan still refused to be carried.
Tony told Tristan when he was leaving to take as much time off from the restaurant as he needed; his job would be waiting for him when he was ready to come back.
The boy had been quiet on the way to Jim’s house. Jordy had been, too, and so Jim had kept his thoughts to himself.
When Tristan was settled on the couch with another ice pack and more ibuprofen, he looked around, frowned, and finally found his voice.
“I’m shy,” he said, sitting alone on the couch. Jordy had wanted to sit with him, had even thought about putting an arm around him, but Jim had shaken his head, and so Jordy had taken an armchair. “I haven’t always been; I wasn’t before….” He stopped.
Jim and Jordy said nothing, simply waited.
“Now, well….” Tristan paused again. His eyes were shifting all over the place, not meeting Jordy’s or Jim’s at all. He seemed to have shriveled up some, too. He’d never been a large boy, ever, but now he seemed to have shrunk even smaller.
After starting and stopping, saying just those few words, he seemed to be looking inward. Jim finally prompted him, thinking if he got well started, it would be easier to continue. “What changed?”
“Everything.” Tristan took a quick glance at Jim, and then, as the man had hoped, did plow forward. “My mom died. Eight months ago. She and I were very close. My dad always seemed disappointed in me. He’s one of those all-man types. Big, strong, quick temper, always right, little patience for what he doesn’t agree with. He wanted a son just like him. He got one who was different in almost every way possible. Most of the time he simply ignored me, and sometimes he barely tolerated me. But Mom was on my side, and he respected her enough to leave me alone. Well, maybe ‘respected’ is the wrong word. ‘Feared’ her, maybe, but I never understood why.
“Then she died. And everything changed.”