Tristan shuddered. Jim thought he’d stop again, and so did he, but he shook himself and forced himself to go on. “Things grew worse and worse after that between Dad and me. There was no buffer between us any longer. He wasn’t grieving—and I was. His acting like nothing had happened made it even worse.
“We were two people now sharing a house, and I was there, the annoyance to him that I’d always been, and now an unprotected, handy foil for whatever his mood was.”
‘Foil’? Jim thought. Well, the boy knew the word ‘heady’. Jim knew he shouldn’t have been surprised. He decided this must be a kid who read a lot and certainly had an advanced vocabulary. It wouldn’t surprise him if the kid even knew some Shakespeare.
“And then disaster struck again.” Tristan was going on. “We were already barely tolerating each other. I didn’t have any choice; I had to tolerate him no matter how bad things were getting. I just tried to stay out of his way. But I had begun to pull into my shell. I was losing what confidence I’d had, becoming quiet and rarely speaking at all. He’d snap at anything I said; he hardly spoke to me at all without sarcasm coloring his every word. He was on me for not being bigger and stronger. Not…” He stopped and looked at Jordy and blushed.
“How was I supposed to be anything but what I was? Still, he didn’t care if I was small. He hated that I wasn’t on any of the teams at school, that I had no interest at all in sports. That I spent my time reading books.”
When Tristan stopped, Jordy asked, quite obviously remembering some bad times with his own mother’s boyfriend, “What disaster? What happened?”
Tristan looked down into his lap, and his voice got smaller. “There was a kid living next door to us. He was a year older than I was and more the kind of kid my dad wanted me to be. Maybe exactly the kid Dad wanted me to be. Loud, physical, rough, insensitive, sure of himself—you know the kind. I’d never had anything to do with him or him with me once he’d seen I wouldn’t or couldn’t shoot baskets or wrestle or even play touch football. His name was Hamilton, but you’d get hit if you called him that. He went by Ham.
“Anyway, he’d bring girls over to his house when his parents weren’t there. Afternoons, after school, he had a lot of different girls coming by. He wasn’t a bad looking kid, and he was full of himself. Girls seemed to like that. He made no bones about what they were doing. I’d hear him in the boys’ locker room boasting about screwing them, telling about how they looked naked. About how they acted with their clothes off and the things they did to him. It was all a game to him, and he was proud of how well he played it.
“So one Saturday, his folks had gone off, I guess, because he had a girl come by in the morning, and she didn’t leave till late that afternoon. My dad was outside, washing his car, and he’d drafted me to help him. Dad didn’t like me spending my days inside. He watched Ham and the girl kissing just outside Ham’s front door as she was leaving. Ham had his hands all over her. When the girl was gone, my dad called over to him. My dad could be just as crude as Ham. He yelled, “Getting much of that?” and Ham smirked and yelled back, “Everything there is to get. Three times.”
I think that made my dad mad. Whether it was because he himself wasn’t getting enough now—yeah, he was bringing a woman around, so I knew he was getting something—or because Ham was smirking, I don’t know, but I knew my dad’s moods and could see his temper rising. He looked at me then and said in a voice loud enough for Ham to hear, ‘Why aren’t you doing that?’
“I just looked down, not wanting anything of a conversation like that. But Ham had heard, and I guess he was feeling pretty cocksure right then. I heard him scoff and then say, ‘If he was going to do that, it would be with a boy. He’s gay as a fruit fly!’
“As soon as he said it, I knew I was in trouble. Ham was just making that up, probably trying to make himself look good in comparison to me. Maybe he thought he was being funny. I only knew that he had no idea whether I was gay or not. He couldn’t, because I was still figuring that out for myself, and he didn’t know me at all. I was sure he spent no more time thinking about me than I did about him. But he said it, and my dad looked at me, and I saw his face getting red.”
Tristan’s voice got much softer, and it was almost like he was speaking to himself. “I knew right away that this would be bad. I just didn’t know how bad.”
He stopped again. Jim stood up. “Let me get you something to drink.” Without even asking, because he wanted to leave Tristan some time to get his emotions under control, Jim went to the kitchen and got a Coke and brought it back. When he returned, he found Jordy sitting on the couch next to Tristan.
Tristan took the Coke when Jim offered it to him but didn’t open it. He just held it.
“What did your dad do?” Jordy asked.
Tristan shook his head. “He kicked me out after yelling at me. He started right then. Cussing, calling me names—didn’t even bother to ask me if it was true. Ham was still watching, but I think he got embarrassed, because he went back inside pretty quickly. I couldn’t do that. I’d tried walking away from one of Dad’s rages before; that just made them worse.
“He yelled for a while, then told me to get out, that he wasn’t having any…” Tristan stopped, then said, “Well, he called me a bunch of names I’d never even heard before, but they were all derogatory and all probably meant ‘gay’. He said no one like that was his son, that was probably why he’d never liked me, and no one like that would ever live under his roof.
“I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have anywhere to go. But you don’t argue with him when he’s in a mood. He’d never hit me all that much because of my mom, but I knew when he was close to doing so. He really has to hold his temper in check when he feels that way. Right then, I didn’t think he’d hold it in at all.
“I didn’t know what to do, but I had to go. I knew that. So I said, not looking at him because, to him, eye contact always meant a challenge, ‘I’ll just get some things.’ I turned around and walked into the house and went to my room. I began shaking and then crying. I didn’t have the slightest idea what to do. I opened a suitcase and threw some clothes into it. My brain wasn’t working at all; I couldn’t think. But I filled the suitcase, then walked downstairs. He was standing at the bottom, still mad but calmed down just a bit.
“‘Where are you going?’ he asked. He wasn’t asking out of compassion. His voice was ugly.
“‘I don’t know,’” I said, looking away from him.
“‘You can’t leave,’ he said. ‘If you just wander around, the police will finally get to you, and you’ll tell them you were thrown out of the house for being a faggot, and they’ll bring you back here and give me a load of shit. I don’t need that. I don’t need any of this. I don’t want you here, but I’m stuck with you. So what you’ll do is this. You’ll stay in the garage. You’ll pay me rent for living there, too, because you’re no longer my son, and I don’t let freeloaders sponge off me. You’ll get a job after school so you can pay me. You’ll go to school, because if you don’t, they’ll call me to find out why not, and the same load of shit will fall on me. So get what you need, make a place in the garage, and that’s that. Pay me once a month. Just put the money on the doorstep to the kitchen. I don’t want to even see you, and I don’t want you in my house.’”
Tristan stopped then. He opened the can in his hand, took a deep drink, shuddered again, and said, “That’s how I’ve been living for a couple of months now. Whatever. Dad locks the garage door into the house, but I found a way to sneak in, and when he’s at work and right after school, I wash my clothes and use the bathroom, making sure I leave no evidence I’ve been in there. I try to work as much as I can at Antonio’s because I can get food there. I don’t eat on days I’m not working. If I took any food of Dad’s and he found out, I don’t know what he’d do, but I won’t risk it.”
Jordy slid closer to Tristan on the couch. Tristan noticed; Jim noticed as well.
“I piled some blankets on the concrete floor of the garage,” he continued. “It’s not very comfortable, but when you’re tired enough, you can get to sleep. I’m a little worried about when it’s winter and cold, but I’ve learned how to live each day without worrying much about what the next one will be. I guess that’s what you do when you’re just trying to get by.”
“Why didn’t you tell someone?” Jordy asked. I could see how upset he was, thinking about how Tristan was living and what he’d been through.
“Who? How? It just seemed to me that, no matter who I told, it would just make things worse. I didn’t want to go into a foster home; I’ve read about what happens in those places, whether it’s a home for kids or one with a pair of adults just taking in a kid. Maybe the stories are exaggerated, but how would I know? I knew I was getting along where I was. I had at least a little bit of control over my life. I didn’t think I’d have any if I were in the system they have for kids without homes or parents. I’ve heard rumors….”
He shook himself. “I’m getting by. I don’t know if I would be if I were thrown in with a bunch of strangers.”
Jordy looked at Jim, who looked back at Jordy. Jim didn’t like what he was hearing but had no idea what if any help he could give Tristan. The kid had a parent, so inviting him to stay with them sounded like it would be a big mess. But that wasn’t even legal without going through Social Services, and it sounded like Tristan’s father wouldn’t accept that. He didn’t want to be thought of as a deadbeat dad. But then, maybe it wouldn't come to that. Maybe, if the kid’s father was as bad as he sounded, he’d be glad to get rid of Tristan if it could be done without reflecting on him. Jim had the impression that the man might welcome the opportunity to get the kid out of his life.
In any case, Tristan could certainly spend this night with them. Jim could understand now why he hadn’t had to call anyone and tell them where he was or when he was coming home.
Jordy was thinking along the same lines and wasn’t surprised to hear Jim say, “You can sleep here tonight, Tristan. In a bed, not on a hard floor. That wouldn’t help your hip at all, sleeping on cement. And you’ll have breakfast here, too.”
Jordy turned to Tristan and grinned. “Look, I’m tired, and you’re probably exhausted. And still hurting from the fall you took. Come on. I’ll help you upstairs and put you in my bed. It’s a queen-sized one. We can both fit in it easily. Then, tomorrow, we’ll talk, all three of us. We’ll figure out some way to help you.”
Tristan didn’t respond. Looking at him, Jim could see the exhaustion Jordy had mentioned. Tristan had been holding himself together, but now, at the mere suggestion of a bed, he seemed to be collapsing. And his eyelids kept drooping.
Jordy carried Tristan upstairs to his room. Jim thought about things like a new toothbrush and towels and more Advil, so he went up, too. He was glad he did. While he was not there for the purpose of eavesdropping, he was still curious and not a bit ashamed to listen when he overheard what the two boys were saying.
Jordy: “I can give you something to sleep in.”
Tristan: “I’ll just sleep in my boxers, if that’s OK.”
Jordy: “Sure. However you’re comfortable. I did want to ask something. You know I’m gay. You never said about yourself, and I’m not going to ask. You said you were still figuring it out. No problem. That’s your business. But you know about me, and that might make you nervous, sharing a bed with me. So would you rather I slept downstairs on the couch? I need to tell you something. You, uh, I’m really attracted to you. Not that I’ll come on to you. I know you’re tired. But, full disclosure, you know? I’m gay. I…, well….” He smiled. “I can’t ask if you are, but do wonder if there’s any chance, well, no, no, that’ll all wait. Let’s just get you to bed.”
Tristan: no comment.
Jordy, again: “Tristan?”
Tristan, hesitantly: “Can I trust you not to tell anyone?”
Jordy: “Absolutely. I know where you’re coming from. I was scared to death to tell Dad. I’ve been there. Today was when he found out, and it wasn’t because I told him. He heard me say it to Red. Then, when he confronted me, I did admit it. But yeah, being gay is entirely your secret, if that’s what you are. I understand. I won’t tell unless you say it’s OK.”
Tristan: A long pause, then, “It’s true what I said. I’m still wondering, still thinking about it. I think I am. Gay. But I haven’t done anything. I like looking at boys and I’m always thinking about them. But I don’t know if that makes you gay.”
Jordy: “You’re trembling.”
Tristan: “No, don’t. Look, it’s been so hard—everything—and if you touch me or hold me, I think I’ll break down. I want to say this: people think I’m gay just because of how I look and maybe even act. I don’t know. If people think you’re gay and you’re all mixed up about it yourself, I think it sort of pushes you to think they’re right. But I’m fine with sleeping in your bed with you. I hardly know you at all, but I trust you more than anyone I know. You saved me today. Red would have hurt me badly. He did accidentally. If he’d hit me….”
Jordy: “If I’m around, no one’s going to do that.”
Tristan: “I believe that.”
Jim walked away then. He hadn’t heard anything but what he’d expected: two boys getting to know each other. He quietly made himself busy in the bathroom, getting a bottle of Advil out of the medicine cabinet. Tristan came into the bathroom, stopped and said, “Oops. Sorry.”
“No, come in,” Jim said. “I was just getting you some more Advil and a toothbrush.”
He showed Tristan where both were, then pointed out the fresh towel he’d hung up for him. “Sleep as late as you want tomorrow. Your hip may still be hurting. You can miss a day of school, I’m sure. You’re smart, and you read. I’ll bet you get all A’s. So sleep in if you want. I’m going to stay home tomorrow; I keep collecting vacation days I never use, and this is a good chance to use one of them. I’ll be here when you get up. Sleep well! Goodnight.”
Tristan stopped him before he left. “Thanks so much, sir. This is so good of you. You don’t know what your help means to me.”
Jim smiled at him, then reached out and briefly, softly, tousled his hair. “Maybe I do, Tristan. Anyway, you’ll be safe here tonight. Then I want to see what we can do about your situation. It isn’t you against the world any longer. It’s three of us, and things will get better. But get some sleep now.”
Jim left, noting Tristan’s appearance when he did. The boy not only looked exhausted but had the appearance of someone who was shell-shocked. Things were happening far too quickly for him to grasp. Jim was reminded of the boy when he’d first seen him: far younger than he actually was, sad and fragile.
Perhaps surprisingly, Jordy was the one who was the most shy when the two boys got into bed. He’d not been lying to his dad; he’d never had sex with anyone. This was as close as he’d ever been to another boy—a thoroughly beautiful, somewhat damaged, very fragile boy who was wearing almost nothing—and Jordy was fifteen and gay. Jordy couldn’t help but be aroused. Yet, he knew it would be wrong to do anything at all other than let Tristan sleep. The boy obviously was spent. Let him sleep, Jordy thought. No matter how much you’d like to merely touch him. Touch his smooth back. Maybe wrap your arm around him as he lay on his side. Maybe snuggle up to him, just to make him feel protected.
Was it shyness that kept him from doing so? Or was it his innate decency? He himself thought it was something else. The fact was, ever since he’d seen Tristan for the first time at Antonio’s, he’d had a crush on him. All afternoon and evening, the crush had been growing. Tristan was beautiful, and both his sadness and his obvious vulnerability made him just that much more desirable to Jordy. Now that Jordy had spent time with him, the feelings he had were much more intense. Yet, it was those very feelings that held him back.
He was not going to do anything that might interfere with the two of them becoming friends, becoming closer, perhaps even becoming romantically involved, something he wanted badly.
So he did nothing. He lay on his side facing Tristan’s back and ignored his arousal, even feeling ashamed of himself that he was in that state. This boy deserved more than that, he was worth more than that, and if Jordy was to be worthy of him, he had to put aside his desires.
Tristan was oblivious to what Jordy was feeling. He had fallen asleep within a minute after lying down. He was out until late the next morning. When he woke up, it was to an empty bed. Jordy was gone.
Jim was downstairs, puttering in the kitchen, when Tristan emerged. There was really no need for Jim to be in the kitchen; he’d eaten over an hour earlier. But he’d thought being there would be easiest on Tristan.
“Hey, good morning!” Jim said. “How’s the hip?”
“Better,” said Tristan. He looked a little shy, a little uncomfortable, and Jim knew work would have to be done before that could be overcome.
“Good! We have more Advil if you want it. You’ll have to tell me if you do. Now, breakfast. You’re probably starved.”
Tristan’s eyes were still sad. Jim thought it would take a lot more than a big dinner, an unburdening of some of his history and then a good night’s sleep to rid them of his sorrows. But, he thought that if he himself sounded upbeat, if he acted like Tristan being there was the most normal thing ever, perhaps he could get the boy to relax. It would be a first step. Now that he knew the boy a little, knew what he was going through, he was more determined than ever to help him.
“How about some pancakes? Easy to make and real comfort food. OK?”
“Great! It’ll only take a few minutes. You like bacon or sausage or both with them?”
“Uh, isn’t that a lot of trouble?” Tristan asked.
“Not at all. Especially if you help with the coffee—if you like coffee.”
Tristan seemed to relax a little. Maybe it was the conversation that was doing it, Jim thought, hoped.
“Well then, bacon, I guess. And I do drink coffee. Only started after, well, after the garage. I wasn’t sleeping well. Too much on my mind and what that hard floor felt like. Both physically and psychologically, I found coffee with lots of sugar helped and gave me more energy.”
Jim was busy getting the bacon on the griddle and the batter started. “Yeah, it’ll do that. I think that’s why lots of people start drinking it; it helps get them going in the morning. After a while, they start liking the taste. You want to make the coffee, then?”
“Sure, but I don’t know where anything is.”
Jim showed him, and they both worked silently after that. Yet a feeling of community in the kitchen began to grow as they did. Jim smiled to himself. Maybe this was going to work out. Just maybe. If Tristan’s father didn’t want him around and Tristan wasn’t happy living where he was, the solution seemed simple enough. And Jim was more than willing to help it along. It felt good, making breakfast with Tristan at his side. Yes, maybe….
While Tristan was eating, Jim sat down at the table with him. He had a cup of coffee, and he nursed it, watched Tristan eat, and he began talking. He did a lot of talking, and got Tristan to mumble a few words, too.
Jim had no way of knowing what the effect would be of his stepping in to attempt to help Tristan. Already, gears were turning, and steps were being taken. Tristan hadn’t been in his garage the previous night, and he hadn’t been in school that day. Things had been set in motion. Things that boded ill for Tristan and Jim and Jordy.