Being a creature of habit isn’t really who I am. So, to diverge from the usual, how about putting my endnotes first? Why not?
First, a note of appreciation to my editors, whose works take my stories from the mundane to, well, it’s not for me to say, but whatever they are, they’re certainly better after editing than they were before. I’d also like to express personal thanks for Colin for going the extra mile, maybe two, with this one.
I’d also like to expressly thank Mike for hosting my stories. You, dear reader, can thank him too by contributing support to his extraordinary website.
And I would like to thank all you readers who write me with your kind comments. All writers need encouragement, and each of your letters is appreciated; they keep me going.
Now let’s get to it. I really like this story and hope you will, too.
“Do I have to?” Damn it! I hated it when I sounded whiney.
Dad laughed. “You sound just like I did when I was 14, Max. I didn’t like shopping for clothes, either. But look at it this way—you’re going with me, not Mom.”
I nodded and grinned. Shopping with Mom, especially for clothes, was absolute torture. Especially when I was getting something like pants. She still wanted to come into the changing booth with me! And even if I could keep her out, there still was the embarrassment when I walked out and she wanted me to act as a model, turning around so she could see me from all sides. The worst, of course, was when she just had to check the fit, running her hands over my bottom. Right out there in the open! Once she even slid her hand into my crotch, asking as she did so, “Is this too loose?” The high-pitched squeal she got from me as I jerked away from her didn’t satisfy her curiosity; she still wanted an answer.
Second worst was when she’d frown and mutter to herself, then ask me to try another pair. This could go on for hours if I’d let it. When you’re 12, you don’t have much choice. You bear it; I did so without the traditional grin. I’d grimace and bear it. Didn’t bother her a bit. She was in her shopping trance. She didn’t notice me at all. I was simply a prop.
Mothers can be like that. Especially mine, who is very focused on what she does, very sure she’s right, and not terribly bothered by what I might think. She’s a surgeon, so perhaps that sort of personality is part of what makes her good at doing that. Surgeons have to be decisive and sure of themselves. Otherwise they wouldn't last long.
So Dad was right. This would be much better.
He picked up the car keys from the kitchen counter, so I knew he meant to go right away. I finished my milk, used a napkin to avoid any milk mustache and shrugged into my jacket. He hated to be kept waiting. He’s a businessman, the head of a company, and at work he usually has twenty-six things happening at once; waiting for anything just slows him down. He’s not really impatient, though, just used to getting things done promptly.
I really love my dad. He’s tall and very handsome, at least to me. He’s only in his early 40s and looks very distinguished. He has an air about him, a dignity; people seem to want to listen to him, please him, do his bidding. At the same time, he’s very careful of their feelings and treats them all with respect. He told me once that if every person you meet you try to make feel important, you’ll get on famously with them. And that’s how he acts.
He’s gentle and loving with me. I need that because Mom, while she has a good heart, doesn’t really have much time or patience for a boy she thinks should be standing solidly on his own two feet by now. My problem is I’m not that boy. I’m smart enough to be that, but I’m riddled with insecurities.
Dad started talking while we were still pulling out of the garage. “I don’t think you’ve had a real suit yet, not that I can recall at least. You had a sports jacket and slacks, but not an actual suit, not that I can remember.”
Dad had a way of talking to me in a way where I had to actually converse with him. With Mom, it was mostly questions, and most questions I could answer with one or two words. She’d never caught on that that wasn’t the way to talk to me if she really wanted to know what was going on in my world. I rarely had a conversation with her, which was all for the best. She lived her life; I lived mine.
With Dad, it was much more dangerous. I had to be careful with him; he had a way of actually learning things about me and who I was. I was a teenager. My life was none of his or her business! Sure, I loved him, but that didn’t mean I was about to break the teenager Oath of Silence before the enemy. Still, if one of them actually found anything out, better for it to be Dad. Much better. He was an important and busy man, but he had time for me; I felt awfully lucky I had a dad who wasn’t full of judgment and advice. Being told not to forget to brush my teeth or to take a sweater or to say thank you to the housekeeper for picking me up after school—this sort of thing made me feel like I was six.
I did get advice from Dad, of course. But it wasn’t all that often, and it was given in a way that it was a suggestion, or something relating to him when he was a boy, rather than a mandate. He disguised it, which made it more palatable for me. Even then, however, I’d act like I wasn’t listening. It’s what we teenagers do. But I heard it all. A lot of it was good stuff, too.
Right here, when he said this, it was a good example of how he worked. For me to leave that statement of his just hanging there like that, after his saying ‘not that I can remember’ and then remain quiet, letting those words sit there sort of naked and exposed while I blithely rode with him in silence—well, it would have been rude of me not to respond. He’s clever like that.
“No, no suit, but I haven’t needed one. For anything fancy, the dark-blue blazer and gray slacks were fine. And I only wore those a few times. You never got your money’s worth. It’ll be the same here. How many times will I wear it before I outgrow it? Once?”
He grinned at me briefly before looking back at the road. “You need it for this wedding. A proper gentleman wears a suit to a formal bash like this. You’ll certainly see kids there your age not wearing suits; some may not even have a tie on. The suit will make a statement. That’s how we want to make statements: with manners and dress and deportment. With subtlety, not with words.”
Of course this was old stuff to me, and was easy to ignore. I was more thinking about that outgrowing-it stuff. I needed a growth spurt. Desperately. I was in high school now and looked like I was 12.
But back to what I was ignoring: Mom had been making sure I knew who I was since birth. Our family was something in this town, and I was supposed to act like it, too, according to her. She came from money, old money, and still had to accept frowns from her parents that she had a profession rather than being solely a society matron. Dad had a more humble background but flourished in college, found a major that he excelled at, and five years out of college had started his own business. Now, a little over ten years later, he had more than 100 employees, and his company was hauling in over $50 million a year.
Dad was still a very down-to-earth man. While Mom’s parents had felt she was marrying beneath herself when she married Dad, they’d come to respect him when they saw what he was accomplishing. But they were set in their ways, and Mom still had that baggage, which she liked to try to transfer to me. She wanted me to be like her dad, aloof and pretentious and knowing I was better than anyone else.
That can be a real bother when you’re growing up—and even more so at 14. But while Mom insisted on my being seen and treated as a member of the social elite in town, Dad didn’t want me being categorized like that and tried to impress on me not to put on airs, not to think of myself as anything above anyone else. He said that was the true mark of a gentleman. Sometimes I felt like a ping-pong ball.
The fact was, I wasn’t good socially. I was at that awkward age where I was unsure of myself and never seemed to know what to say, especially when talking to adults.
“These should be your joyful years, Max. Everyone says high school is awful: some of our toughest times what with the trying to fit in, finding a niche, simply surviving with your personality and sense of humor intact. I know you hate advice, especially from your mom and me. Makes you think we don’t have any confidence in you.”
I took a quick glance at him. How did he know that? I never even rolled my eyes when Mom told me to stand up straighter or asked if I had my handkerchief. I had to admit, Dad was pretty smart.
“And you’ll ignore this piece I’m going to bestow on you,” he continued. “But I’m going to throw it your way and then duck. Like a hand grenade, that’s what this advice is.” He paused a moment—I wasn’t sure why—then finished with, “It’s just this: instead of finding your niche, or trying to fit in, simply be yourself, honest and straightforward with no pretenses, no trying to be someone you’re not; you’ll be better off for any number of reasons that you can figure out for yourself.”
“Joyful?” I said, adding just the right tinge of sarcasm. He didn’t really mind sarcasm; Mom hated it! I could be myself with him so much more than I could with Mom. I could even slouch.
“Sure. This is the time when you can be your happiest. And I want you to be. And the best way to be happy is doing what you want, being who you are, making friends with the kids you like for the right reasons, and not being afraid. Do that, and you’ll be happy.”
You could never tell with my dad. He was a smart, smart man. But he didn’t let that show much. Was that being honest and straightforward? Well, maybe it was. He didn’t pretend to be dumb. He just didn’t let people see how smart he was. I tended to be the same way. I guess maybe a lot of boys rather unconsciously pattern themselves after their dads. I hadn’t thought about it much.
“Is that what you did when you were my age?” I asked. I’d found the best way to divert an adult when he was in the advice-giving mode was to get them to talk about themselves. Worked like a charm.
“Yeah, mostly,” he said. I loved the way he tried to talk like me, like he figured kids my age did. When they were talking to adults, he’d never say anything like ‘yeah, mostly.’ I didn’t know if he did it to bring himself to my level or he did it to show me how silly I often sounded so I’d clean up my speech without him asking.
“I was happy, I guess,” he said. “Fourteen is a hard age, but I was honest. Mostly. I know I said that was the way to be happy, and it’s true, but you do have to hide things from your parents when you’re 14. You don’t want them to know you’re thinking about sex a lot. You don’t want them to know about your crushes, your fears, the things you’re ashamed of. So you keep a lot of secrets, and that cuts into your joy. You don’t think you can be yourself around Mom and me. That’s how it is. But you can, with me. I understand. I know what being a boy of 14 is all about.”
I was sitting up really straight now. And my heart was beating faster. What was he saying? Why was he saying it? Well, maybe he was just talking. Remembering. Yeah, boys have secrets. All boys do. Just like I did.
He pulled in to the curb in front of Jason & Sons Haberdashery. It was an upscale men’s clothing store. He shopped there. Mom had always taken me to the mall, mostly because I’d insisted, as much as I was able with my mom. She let me have my way when I told her I’d be a social outcast if I had to wear what she wanted me to. I guess sometimes she actually did pay attention to me.
This store was downtown, and there were no hordes marching in and out of the place. It had an understated but elegant look to it. I’d never been inside before.
Dad smiled at me. I couldn’t read his eyes. Usually I could. Then he got out, so I did, too.
The shop was quiet inside. No elevator music like the mall liked to pipe all over. We were the only customers there. It was still morning, midmorning on a Saturday, and perhaps they got busier in the afternoon. I saw one young man at the counter and another, older one near the back. They both nodded at Dad, then dropped their eyes and went back to doing whatever it was they were occupied with. Neither rushed to ask if their help was needed. Obviously, it wasn’t that sort of a place.
Dad took me to where suits were displayed. They had a large number for men, fewer for young men, which was what I’d have liked to be called, a somewhat different title to what I was often called by older kids at school. But this store didn’t seem to have a suit section for ‘assholes’ or ‘fuckwads’, so ‘young men’ worked fine.
Dad asked me which suit I liked, and I looked them over, felt the cloth and realized I had no idea about how to pick a suit. What would look good on me? I didn’t know!
I found a black one that looked like it would be about my size and Dad asked me to try it on. I took it into a dressing room. Dad stayed outside. However, he said that to be fair I needed a shirt and tie to get the whole picture, and he brought me a white shirt and a dark tie.
I put everything on and came back out and stood there in front of him. It felt weird, being dressed like that, and I’m sure I looked awkward and unnatural. In the mirror I looked like a junior undertaker, which didn’t improve my confidence any.
“I think something with a little more pizzazz, a little more age-appropriate, would work better on you, Max,” Dad said, grinning.
So I took it off and we looked some more. Dad sort of gave me the idea from his expression, as I was looking at a bunch of them, which one he thought might be best, and I saw him smile while I was checking out a dark-gray one with very light-gray vertical stripes that you only could see if the light bounced off at the right angel. The cloth felt nicer than the one I’d tried on, softer and sleeker. The suit looked too large for me, just like the one I’d tried on, but I took it off the rack and held it against my body still on the hanger.
“How about this one?”
“Good choice! We’ll see about getting one that’ll fit you better and then having final alterations made,” he said. At that point I expected him to call to one of the clerks, but he didn’t. I was always aware of how my dad handled himself in situations with other people because I was so sucky at it. What he did both surprised me and didn’t: didn’t because he had a way about him that got him what he wanted with a minimum of fuss; did because he hardly did anything at all. All he did was raise his eyes to glance at the older man, then look away. Almost immediately the man was standing next to us, asking, “Could I be of assistance?”
I had no idea how Dad did that! I did know it wouldn't work for me.
“Yes, my son is interested in this suit. Do you have it in his size?”
“Very good choice, sir. I’m sure we do, but why don’t I get some measurements? We’ll have to make some alterations in any case. Son, could you step over by the counter? My tape is there, and I have a pad where I can write down the numbers.”
His tone to me was slightly different from what it had been with my father. I’m not sure how many other people would have heard the change; it was that slight. But to a boy like me, one who was sensitive enough to be affected by subtleties, one who was accustomed to hearing slurs to the point where he looked for them, it was easy to hear. While this wasn’t really a slur, it also lacked the respect he’d had for my dad, and I could only take that to mean he felt I didn’t deserve that respect. That I was just a kid, after all.
I blushed. I hate that! Hate it with a passion. It takes away your ability to pretend you didn’t hear something, which was my usual line of defense. Pretending not to notice a name, a derogatory comment, a challenge, doesn’t work well when your face, neck and ears turn bright red.
My dad had to have seen. Even walking to the counter with the man, even being behind me, Dad could see my neck.
The man had a cloth measuring tape, and he checked my arms, my chest, my waist. I felt like an idiot, just standing there while this man was running his tape all over my body. That didn’t help my attitude any. But I was trapped. What could I do?
Then the man got down on his knees, looked up at me and asked, “How do you dress?”
Huh? How do I dress? What was this? What did he want to know? I dressed like everyone else. Underpants, socks, pants, shirts, shoes. Maybe some slight variation in the order of that, but basically that. Why was he asking me? More humiliation! Why was I always ending up feeling like a dim lightbulb?
While I hate blushing, I hate even more being made to feel awkward. Being made to look foolish. But here it was again, me in that position, not knowing how to answer him because what he was asking made no sense at all.
He saw my confusion, because he changed his question. He didn’t change his tone, which was ever so slightly challenging, ever so slightly condescending, ever so slightly gleeful. All were so understated that if I complained, anyone listening to him would say, “Hmm. I didn’t hear that.” But I certainly did.
What he asked now was, “Do you dress left or right?”
That befuddled me more than I’d been before! I hadn’t thought that possible. I had to say something, but whatever it would be, it would be wrong. I began to blush again.
Which was when my dad stepped in. “Oops,” he said. I glanced at him. He had his phone in his hand and was looking at it. “I just got a call; I have an appointment, and I’d forgotten all about it! We’re going to have to run. Sorry. Will you be here all day? We can come back, but it’ll probably be in a couple of hours. After lunch, certainly.”
The man stood up, and when he answered, it was in the same tone he’d used originally. “Of course, sir. We can complete the measurements and fitting then.”
“That’s fine. Thank you, and we’ll be back then.” Dad draped his arm over my shoulders, and we walked out. Dad didn’t say anything at all, but he had to feel that I was trembling. He simply motioned towards the car door, then went around and got in his side.
This could have been awful. I was looking down in my lap when Dad closed his door. Had I embarrassed him, showing how ungraceful, how klutzy I was? He could have paused, saying nothing. He could have started telling me all sorts of things. I was a mess, and he could have made me a lot messier. Instead . . .
“Hey, I don’t have an appointment,” he said and laughed. It didn’t sound forced, either. I didn’t know how he did that. “But we needed some air. And you need an explanation. The best place to do that is in the park. Otherwise, you might feel you’re a captive audience in the car with nowhere to run if you need to escape.”
I didn’t respond. I was still calming down.
He drove the short distance to the town’s large downtown park. It was pretty much deserted midmorning Saturday. Without any more talk, we walked till he found a bench, and we settled down on it.
It was a lovely spring day. Probably in the mid-seventies without a breeze in sight. From where we were sitting we could see the pond where a family of ducks was looking for breakfast, ducking their heads in the water over and over. A male and female and six ducklings. It was peaceful sitting there, and I was glad for that.
“I’ve never told you how much you’re like how I was when I was 14,” my dad started, not looking at me but at the ducks. “You take everything seriously, you get embarrassed easily, and you find lots of things awkward. You get that from me. I was just like that. Hated it!”
I quickly looked at him. He was looking at me now, an affectionate smile on his face.
“Really. Exactly like that. I grew out of it. You will, too. It’s really frustrating being you right now. You just don’t know how to react. Like in the shop. You know what some boys would have said? They’d have looked at that guy and said, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ Think about it. You know boys who’d have reacted that way.”
I smiled. “Yeah, I do. A lot of them.”
“And you both admire them and are a little intimidated by them because they don’t get embarrassed, and you do. They get aggressive, and you don’t.”
“So you need to find a way to stop being embarrassed. So did I. It wasn’t easy because I didn’t have much self-confidence, and neither do you. So, how do you get that?”
“I’ve got a great answer for that,” I said. “It’s that I have no idea at all. If I had, I’d already be working on it.”
My dad laughed. “And believe it or not, that’s exactly what you have to do. I didn’t figure it out as quickly as you just did. I was still like you are now when I graduated from high school. I didn’t figure it out until college.”
“Hey, I just said I didn’t know,” I said. I may have sounded a bit petulant.
“You also said you had to work on it, and that’s what it takes. It takes learning some techniques and practicing them. Remember earlier when I was talking about honesty and straightforwardness? That was about this, except I was being obscure. But practicing some things and being honest are the main things you have to do.”
“We’ll get to that. First, while it’s fresh in my mind, I want to talk about what just happened at the shop.”
“Oh. That.” I could feel myself closing down, and my defense mechanisms kicking into gear.
He must have seen that because he put a supportive hand on my shoulder, squeezed lightly, and said, “That guy was way off base.”
“What? You saw that?” I sat up straighter. I even raised my eyes to his again.
“Of course. I just told you: I used to be you. I felt the same things you’re feeling now. I was hurt by the slightest putdown. And I tried harder than anything not to let people see. But I spent years like that and can still recognize what you went through in there. That man read you like a book and decided to get his jollies embarrassing you and making it so only you and he were aware of it.”
I didn’t know what to say. I’d been sure I wasthe only one aware of what the man had been doing.
“This is something you’re going to have to learn how to handle, and to do it correctly takes a lot of work. Because the proper way to handle it isn’t the easy way. The easy way is to call him on it. Of course, he’ll deny it, but you’re in the driver’s seat: you’re the customer, he’s there to serve you, and if you walk out, he has lost. He doesn’t think you have the fiber to do that. Otherwise, he wouldn’t risk what he’s doing. Of course, you don’t get the suit you wanted, either, but you can get a suit most anywhere. Still, the best way is to not let him know you’re aware of his game and to just ignore it without acknowledging you know what he’s doing; ignore it and not be bothered by it. That’ll frustrate him to no end. Then, when you’re leaving, you can say something subtle that lets him wonder if you were onto him all along, but, because you’re you and he’s who he is, what he did or said was of no matter to you in the slightest.”
“I couldn’t do that.”
“Maybe not right now, but if you try, if you think of what you could have said as these incidents occur, you’ll get to a point where you can do it on the spot. Not with this guy, maybe, and not this year, maybe, but someday. Anyway, I want to tell you about what so confused you in there. To do that, I have to talk to you about something that’ll embarrass you.”
I was too dumbfounded by that to even reply. I just sat there staring at him, and then I began to blush. Just like always. What I needed was a switch.
“Everything but everything embarrasses you, Max. Just like it did me. If a girl in school told me her bra was uncomfortable, I blushed. If a teacher asked me to come up the front of the room to answer a problem on the board, and I hesitated, he’d say, “Are you coming?” and everyone would laugh and I’d blush. Every day. Blushing at the most trivial things. But the human body was the worst. Anything to do with the body was embarrassing for me.”
He looked at me for a response, so I nodded. Man, did I ever understand what he was saying.
“The thing is, Max, every man and boy has a penis, and every other man and boy and every female, too, knows it. So rationally, it shouldn’t be embarrassing. But to you and me, it is and it was. If you were more confident, it wouldn’t be. At some point in your life, you’ll be able to talk about your or anyone else’s penis with no embarrassment at all. Now you can’t.”
He paused, probably just for a breath, but I used the space to ask, “Why are we talking about this?”
He smiled again. “Because that’s what the man in the store was doing. Talking about your penis. You didn’t know that or you might have blushed so hard the blood would have come out of your ears and I’d have had to call 911.”
“You’re kidding! You have to be kidding.”
“Nope. He’d already sized you up, read your body language, felt your vibes, and knew it would embarrass you for him to ask that. When he asked how you dress, he meant does your penis hang to the left or the right. Now I know that sounds terribly, terribly personal, but a tailor does have a legitimate reason to ask. A lot of men are confused about the reason. Some think it’s because the tailor will build a little more room in the pants leg where the customer’s penis will hang, but that isn’t the reason at all. He asks because, when taking your inseam measurement, he wants to be able to avoid rubbing against your penis with the back of his hand. If you tell him you dress right, he’ll take the inseam measurement on the left side.”
I was looking at him in amazement. We’d never spoken like this in my life. He hadn’t even been the one to explain baby manufacturing to me; Mom had. Very clinically, too. I couldn’t remember ever hearing him say the word ‘penis’ before.
He was continuing, probably aware of my inability to say anything right then. “I could see your confusion, and I wasn’t going to let him continue embarrassing you. When we go back, he’ll ask you again. You have a while to think of how you want to answer him. The best answer is one that’ll embarrass him and not you. Just a little. But I’ll let you think about it.”
“You know what to say?”
“I know what I’d say. You might even come up with something better. But now, it’s time for lunch. How about we go to my club?”
Dad belonged to a private club. He met other businessmen there, and they negotiated or bargained or did whatever men did in an exclusive place like that. I’d only been there once. It was posh, and during the week they didn’t let anyone under 18 in.
This was the weekend, so I was OK. I was dressed decently. Dad had wanted me to at least wear khakis and a polo shirt to the men’s shop. He’d said they’d take me more seriously that way. He always says looking the part is half the battle, whatever that means.
We got to the club a few minutes before noon. There were several cars in the parking lot, mostly Caddys, Mercedes, a Porsche or two, a Jaguar and several Lexuses. Our Audi didn’t look a bit out of place. When we walked in, a man in a tuxedo was standing at the door, and he said, “Good morning, Mr. Grant. Your table is ready whenever you wish to go in.”
“Thank you, John.” My father was using his business voice. It was much different from the one he used when he spoke to me. More dignified, more sober, more serious. I was always impressed when I heard it.
I really loved his club. The lounge had large, leather chairs grouped in twos and threes with small tables next to them. Everything was carpeted and quiet. Dad walked through it with me by his side and entered the dining room. A man, the maitre d’, met us at the door and led us to a table. There were only two other tables occupied, and they weren’t anywhere near us.
We’d just sat down when a waiter, a good-looking young man in his early 20s, came to the table with a glass filled with ice and Coke with a lime wedge on the rim and another glass with ice and a clear liquid with an olive on a plastic spear in it. He set the Coke in front of me and the other drink in front of Dad, then silently left.
I raised my eyebrows. “A cocktail?”
Dad chuckled. “For me, yes. For you, just Coke.”
“Do they always bring you a, a what, a martini when you come in?”
“No, I reserved a table and ordered us drinks when I did so. I thought I might need a martini. What I want to talk about will be embarrassing for me as well as you.” He chuckled again, then took a healthy swig of his drink.
I sipped mine. I really liked the hint of lime I tasted. “Embarrassing?” I asked.
“Yes. A little for you, a lot for me. I want to talk about me at 14, which will hopefully help you a bit even if at the same time it embarrasses you a little. See, I know what your life is like, even if you don’t tell us. I see it in your body language, in your face, I . . . I see it.”
“I see how uncomfortable you often are. A lot of that is your age and inexperience. Some of it is simply not knowing things you can’t be expected to know, things that if you did know, you might feel better about. And I thought maybe I could help.”
I didn’t respond to that, just took another sip. I had no idea where he was going with this. I did know he never drank hard alcohol at home. Whatever he was nervous about, it had to be really something.
He was going to start when we were interrupted. A man walked over to the table, and Dad stood up. I just sat there. This was exactly the sort of thing that discombobulated me. Should I stand up? That would seem to make me part of whatever discussion they were going to have, and I didn’t belong in it. Yet it somehow seemed a little rude to sit while they were standing. Why did everything always seem so difficult to me?
Dad subtly motioned with his hand to me to rise, and thankful for the cue, I did.
“Mr. Grant,” the man said, and he and Dad shook hands. “Very good seeing you here. I need to speak to you.” He glanced at me, then said, “Son, could you maybe wait in the lounge a few minutes? This won’t take long.”
I’d turned to walk away when my father’s hand dropped to my shoulder. “I’m sorry, Tom. Perhaps you’d like to call my secretary and make an appointment sometime next week?”
His tone of voice was much different than it had been with me. There was a no-nonsense quality I rarely heard from him.
“I really need to speak to you now. It’s important,” the man said.
“I’m sorry. Please call my secretary. Now, excuse us, please.”
Wow! He was dismissing the man. What I realized, thinking about it later, was that Dad hadn’t given any explanation of why he wouldn't talk to him now. He’d given the man no room to argue with him. He hadn’t even mentioned me or lunch or anything. He’d simply, politely, shut the man down.
The man didn’t like it, but he also saw he had no wiggle room. He stood looking at Dad for a moment, then simply turned around and walked off. As we were sitting down again, the maitre d’ showed up. “I’m awfully sorry about that, Mr. Grant. He just walked right past me.”
“No problem, Mr. Amundson. I got rid of him.”
“I’ll see he’s spoken to,” the man said and nodded to Dad and then to me before walking away.
Dad took another swig of his drink. Then he shook his head. “Sorry about that. But I hope you were watching. Well, I know you were. You see everything. And that’s one thing I wanted to say. I know you were uncomfortable when Tom came over and I stood. I could see your indecision. I was the same way. I hated not knowing what to do. You hate that, too. But, what I want you to know is, most boys are just the same. They don’t know the proper behavior in lots of social situations. What I want you to do is not feel bad about it. Stop feeling there’s something wrong with you for not knowing. You can’t be expected to know. What you can do is watch and learn. You just did that. Next time someone approaches a table where you are, you’ll know to stand. That’s the message here. Don’t feel bad about not knowing exactly the right thing to do in situations that are new to you. Learn from them.”
I didn’t know how to respond to that so didn’t say anything. He continued.
“That’s why we’re here today. I know you’re uncomfortable a lot. It’s because you’re sensitive to things, more sensitive than most.
“Many boys wouldn’t care if they stood or didn’t stand when it was polite to do so. They wouldn't care. They wouldn’t care what the man thought or what I thought. You do, which to me is a very good thing. What you should remember is, you’re young enough that you can get away with things like that. So watch and learn, and you’ll be more comfortable when you know what to do.
“But there are other things you’re uncomfortable about. Things that concern Mom and me. So I wanted to talk about those. And the easiest way to do that, for you, is for me to talk about me. It’s isn’t that easy for me to do.” He grinned and picked up his drink again.
I was thinking, whew! I liked talking about him and not about me.
“I want you to know that you don’t have to keep anything secret from either of us,” he began after replacing his glass on the table. “We understand what it’s like being 14. I know better than she does, but we both know. I know you keep secrets from us, the same secrets most boys keep from their parents. They don’t want them to know if they’re having problems at school, either academically or socially. They don’t want them to know if they’re being bullied. They think that makes them look weak and that their parents will lose respect for them. They don’t want their parents to know they think about sex a lot and jerk off when they can and fantasize about all sorts of things.
“Max, all that’s normal. That’s exactly how I was at your age, and how other boys who are now men were, too. I was as uncomfortable about my parents knowing as you are. More than most boys. Most boys don’t worry so much. I did. You do, too.”
He finished his drink. I was watching him. I watched how he behaved a lot. Now I knew he saw that and even approved. He took a very brief look up at the waiter who was setting a table further down the room but staying in Dad’s eyesight. Three minutes later, another drink showed up at our table.
“Two?” I said, using just a tiny bit of questioning condemnation in my voice. I was joking and was sure he knew that. I’d never criticize him for real.
He laughed. “I won’t get drunk. Probably won’t even finish this one. It’s more reassurance that if everything goes sideways here, I’ll have a crutch to lean on.”
I opened my eyes wider, and he laughed again. “Anyway, back to what I was saying. Mom and I don’t like it that you feel you have to hide your feelings from us. Therefore, I felt I had to tell you that it would be really, really hard for us to love you any more than we do or to lose any respect for you. You’d have to work awfully hard to have that happen. You’re such a good kid, and we’re both so proud of you. We don’t tell you that enough.”
He glanced up again, and the waiter came promptly. We ordered lunch, and when the man had left, Dad sat back, looking at me for a moment or two without speaking.
“You have no reason at all to feel as worried as you do all the time, Max. At your school, there’s a no-bullying policy that they take seriously. Even in gym class, smaller boys like you are watched and protected. They’ve assigned a larger boy to make sure you’re not bothered, haven’t they? They told all the parents they do that. Do they?”
I nodded. “Yeah. We—smaller, lighter, younger-looking boys like me—don’t have to worry in gym. I thought I would, but they assigned a football player to be my partner. He’s a freshman, too, and not a real big guy, but he’s tough and because he’s starting at wide receiver, he’s respected. We’re actually becoming friends.”
“So, no bullying in school. But socially you probably feel adrift. Who do you eat with at lunch?”
I looked down. That was another embarrassment. I didn’t know how to join a table of kids I wasn’t friends with, and I didn’t really have many friends yet. The football player I was still getting to know sat with the jocks. That was a boisterous table; I’d fit in there like a duck at a wolf convention. I certainly wasn’t going to even try to sit there! So I sat at one of the small tables along the walls of the room all by myself. Talk about embarrassing!
“OK,” my dad said. He took a tiny sip of his drink. “I had that problem, too. By next year it’ll be behind you. But it’s a worry now. I do have a suggestion, but you’ll hate it and anyway, that’s for later. I have more to say now about something else.”
He reached for his glass again, then stopped and pushed it away. “This is the hard part. I’m just going to talk and would appreciate it if you’d just listen and not say anything until you see me take another sip of that drink. OK?”
“OK,” I said, puzzled. I’d never known him to be so uncertain. He was as confident a man as I’d ever seen.
“As I’ve said,” he started, “at your age, I was like you. Socially awkward, not sure how I fit in, a bit timid. I had friends, but not a lot. I wasn’t much of an athlete. I read a lot. I was alone a lot.”
I was going to say, ‘just like me,’ but didn’t. He hadn’t taken a sip yet.
“I did what boys your age do. It was a comfort, and I needed that. I also thought about sex a lot. And I had something I had to keep from my parents, besides all that. I thought about boys more than I did about girls.”
Now that got my attention. Was he telling me he was gay?
“I didn’t know whether that meant I was gay or not. It was possible, though, and there was no way I could discuss it with my parents or anyone else. But I wasn’t sure what was what because I got crushes on girls, too. Just not nearly as many or as strong as I did on boys. I got a lot of those. Some of them pretty heavy ones, too.
“And then something amazing happened. One of the boys who I thought about a lot, who I was crushing on big time . . . well, we were in gym together, so I got to see him undressing to suit up, undressing at the end of class, showering, the whole enchilada. It was really hard for me not to look too much. I’d have died if he’d caught me at it and died twice if he called me out in front of others. His name was Evan. Evan Donner.
“One of the things we did in gym was wrestle each other. The coach paired up like-sized boys. Evan was my size. Eventually, I was teamed up to wrestle him.
“My heart was beating a ton a minute when we got on the mat together. I don’t know what I looked like. Scared, maybe? Lustful? Well, I know I wasn’t showing that. Nervous, very likely, but that was OK. People . . . and Evan, of course . . . would read that as being afraid of him—not the real reason at all, but an acceptable one.
So we began, trying to get hold of each other, trying to take each other down. Neither of us was any good and sort of flailed away, not getting anywhere, when suddenly Evan began laughing, probably at how silly we must have looked. He dropped his arms when he did that, and I saw my opening and tackled him. I did it very gently and said as I did it, ‘Oops, I’m sorry!’ which made him laugh even more, even though now I was lying on him.
“He was cute as hell, and laughing just made him cuter. I saw that, I was lying on top of him, and I got hard in about a second flat. Really, really hard. He felt it. No way he wouldn't. We weren’t required to wear jocks, which meant I didn’t need to get naked suiting up, and I didn’t want to get naked till I had to— when we showered—so I always just left my briefs on. Thin briefs, thin shorts—that wasn’t nearly enough to hide what was poking him in the stomach. That’s when the amazing thing happened.”
Man, I wanted to say something! But I’d promised. I remained silent. Hard, hard thing to do, but I did it.
Right then, our food came. No! But it did. I was hoping Dad would take that as a sign to sip his drink, but he took a large drink of water instead, then reached for his fork.
His eyes rose to mine, and damned if he didn’t give me a big grin. “Should I continue?” he asked. “Or eat?”
Well, since he’d asked me a question, I guessed it was OK to answer it. “Continue,” I said. I sounded almost breathless, even to me.
His grin got bigger. Why had he looked so nervous getting started and not at all now? Hmmmm.
“Where were we? Oh, yeah. I was lying on top of him, aroused, and he knew it. He’d stopped laughing, but his eyes . . . I couldn’t get enough of his eyes. They were sparkling like I’d never seen them. They were a deep blue, so deep it was like you were looking into his soul. He stops laughing, but his eyes are more alive than ever. He starts wiggling underneath me. When he sees the horror in my eyes, he whispers to me, ‘We have to make it look like we’re still wrestling or they’ll expect us to get up.’
“Which was when I realize he’s hard, too!”
Dad reached his hand for his martini, then pulled it back. “Not yet,” he said, and I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me or himself. In the meantime, his lunch was getting cold. I’d been eating mine, not even really tasting it. I was much more into his tale than tasting my lunch.
“So, we’re both hard, and he’s kind of enjoying it, and I’m scared as hell. Why? Because his wiggling is having the effect you’d expect it to, and much more of it would have had me gasping and jerking and maybe making sounds, sounds every boy in that gym would understand.
“So I said, maybe a bit louder than I intended, ‘Quit wiggling!’
“‘Oops,’ he said and then rolled slightly, and suddenly there was no pressure on my erection. He was using his arms, pretending to be trying to push me off, but making sure he didn’t succeed. I rolled onto my side, still facing him so no one could see anything, and I pulled him with me so we were both able to continue to play fight without giving anything away. We continued this for a short time, no longer really wrestling until the coach blew the whistle.
“We had to stand up. I, at least, was no longer sticking straight out like a hitching post. The fear of being caught had consumed me when we were on our sides and I’d deflated some. Enough that standing didn’t cause a major problem for me.
“Evan was still hard. I could see that as he lay there while I was rising. But this was also when I learned how clever the boy was, how quickly he could think. As I was getting up but still on my knees, he quickly rolled toward me and right up against my leg. ‘Ouch!’ he cried. ‘My nuts!’ And then he put his hands down by his crotch. Thus covered, he got up, too, but in the position a boy stands in when he’s been nailed down there: bent over, shoulders folded in, looking like what he’s feeling.
“‘You OK, Evan?’ the coach asked. Evan nodded, then said, ‘Think I’ll go to the locker room, though, to rest.’ By this time, my brain had kicked back in. ‘I’ll help him,’ I said, and the coach just nodded. We walked across the floor and into the locker room, Evan gingerly, me supporting him, holding onto his arm.
“As soon as we were in the locker room, Evan took my arm and pulled me into the back corner where we were a long way from the door and hidden by several rows of lockers. ‘We’d better check that we’re OK,’ he said, his eyes showing an excited glint, and he pulled off his shorts and underwear! He looked fine to me, especially fine as his staff rose.
“‘Are you OK?’ he asked. I didn’t need the hint. Off came my things, and we were both standing looking at each other, as stiff as boys can be, which as I remember is pretty damn stiff!”
My dad never cussed! That was the first time I’d ever heard a swear word come from his mouth!
“What happened next, well, that’s not what this lunch is about. This lunch is about my telling you that I felt things, did things at 14, and that I’d fully understand if you were doing things, too. They’re things I actually hope you’re doing. Boys should experience those things. They make life richer. They add seasoning to it. They create memories.”
That was when he took another drag on his martini. Actually a couple of them. Then he sat back and sighed deeply.
“Questions?” he said, and smiled.
“You married Mom. So you weren’t gay?”
“Sex is a many-textured thing, Max. Sex isn’t love. I fell in love with your mom. She fell in love with me. Sex combined with love is better than sex without love. I know, I know; that isn’t very responsive to what you’re asking. But it’s a difficult question. It’s something everyone has to answer for themselves. ‘Gay’ is a label, but what exactly does it mean? If it simply means one is attracted to people of the same sex, then yes, I am gay. Perhaps most men are. I know I was very attracted to other boys at your age. I imagine you are, too.”
Huh! How did we suddenly get there? But his purpose here wasn’t to embarrass me or encourage me to talk about things I didn’t want to talk about. He didn’t say that as a question. He was making a statement. I was figuring out what his purpose here was, finally.
He kept talking so there’d be no silence that would make me think I had to respond to what he’d said. “If you are, you’re probably with the majority of boys. If you find a boy to love, not just like having sex with, then perhaps you’ll decide you’re gay the way most people would define that. Or you may find a girl you love. We don’t know till it happens. If I’d found a man I felt about like I did and do about your mother, my life would have been completely different because I would have stayed with him. I’d have had no regrets, either, not even about you, because I’d never have known there was a you who’d make an appearance a few years later. Now, I’d deeply, deeply regret not having you. But we never know what the future will bring.”
I guessed this was now a conversation again instead of a speech. And it was one where I guessed I could ask whatever I liked. “Did you fool around with Evan?”
Dad nodded, and I saw a faraway look in his eyes. “We did. I think it was more than fooling around, too. I discovered he’d had a crush on me just as I’d had on him. We became boyfriends, though secret ones. Times weren’t as open then as now. But we were 14, and at that age, things almost never last. I don’t know, we both cared a lot for each other, but then, when he was 16, his dad lost his job and got an offer across the country, and they moved. Suddenly, I was alone again. It hurt awfully bad. But, in the two years I’d been with Evan, I’d grown up a lot. I’d learned how to act, how to get along with people. I wasn’t a social misfit any longer. It wasn’t till I was in college and discovered some of my real assets that I really gained the confidence I have now, but I had matured enough that as the pain of losing Evan gradually ebbed, I was able to enjoy the rest of high school.”
“Did you have another boyfriend?” Man, it felt good, being able to ask these things. Never in a million years could I have done so before. He’d opened a door for me.
“Not like Evan. The crushes I’d had on boys at 14 weren’t as strong by then. I’d begun seeing the charms some women had. I found I didn’t much care for the girly-girly ones. The strong ones were who attracted me. The ones who were confident and focused. Most high-school girls weren’t like that. Mostly they tried to be like each other, all acting the same way, like someone had written them a script. That turned me off. I dated a few, but nothing came of any of it. I didn’t date any boys. It was so risky to do that. There were almost no out boys at school, and the ones who were had a difficult time. It’s so much better for gay boys today.”
He stopped there, possibly opening the door for me, or maybe because he was hungry and had an untouched small steak in front of him. He picked up his knife and fork, and rather than speak, I did the same, even though there wasn’t much food left on my plate.
While we both ate, I had time to think. I knew why we’d had lunch together. I knew he’d planned this even before the fiasco in the men’s store. That had just enabled him to start what he wanted to say, even add to it. He’d wanted me to know about him, but even more, he’d wanted me to know he understood me, that he loved me, and that the secrets I’d been holding onto so tightly didn’t need to be secrets. I could feel some of the tension I always lived with dissipating. I kept glancing up from my plate at him. He’d catch the motion and look up at me, and the smile on his face and look in his eyes were so deeply emotional it was incredible I didn’t break out in tears. I so easily could have.
The man who’d measured me was in the back of the store again as we walked in. He looked up, smiled, and as Dad was looking directly at him, walked up to us. “Welcome back,” he said, greeting Dad. “I checked, and we do have the suit you were looking at in what I’m sure is his size.”
Dad said in an even voice, “It would probably be better if you addressed Max rather than me. It’ll be his suit, and he’s the one you need to please.”
The man smiled. “Certainly, sir.” Then he dropped his eyes to me. “Could we complete the measurements?”
“Sure,” I said and followed him to where we been earlier.
“All right, where were we?” He checked his pad, then looked at me. “Just the inseam left. You were going to tell me how you dress? Left or right?”
I nodded to him. “I don’t dress either way. My penis isn’t long enough yet. It just hangs straight down, and not very far. You don’t have to worry about it at all.”
The man’s eyes opened slightly wider, and I saw him gulp. Then he said, “Certainly, sir,” and completed his job. When done, he asked, “And you still prefer the suit you picked originally?”
“Yes. When will it be ready?”
“Is Monday acceptable, sir?”
“That’s fine. We’ll come in for it then.”
When we picked up the suit on Monday, Dad had me try it on. It fit perfectly. It wasn’t a bit baggy anywhere, and felt good on me. It made my shoulders look a little broader before tapering a bit to my waist, and the trousers were the exact right length. Dad picked out a light-lilac dress shirt and bold, matching tie, and I modeled the entire outfit. I was really surprised by what I saw in the mirror and couldn’t stop myself from smiling.
I guess Dad was impressed, too. He said, “If I’d known how handsome you are in a suit, I’d have bought you one before!”
He didn’t even call me cute!
- Epilogue -
I didn’t think I had the courage to do what Dad had suggested about eating alone in the cafeteria. I mean, well, wow! You’d have to be very brave. I wasn’t brave at all.
I did feel a little bit different, though. Since lunch with Dad, things were definitely better. I was more comfortable at home. The wedding had been a great success. At the reception, girls my age kept coming up to talk to me. I saw several boys giving me the eye, too. Do you know what that does to a boy’s ego? Especially a very reserved boy like I’d been? Well, I still was, of course. But I was actually thinking about Dad’s suggestion. I’d never have even considered it before. Never! Now?
I’d feel like a fool if it didn’t work, and it seemed to me there was much more chance of it being a humiliating failure than a success. But a nagging thought kept intruding. What if it did work? And what would I think of myself and my growing pride in myself if I didn’t at least try it? What would be the worst that could happen? I could be a laughingstock in school? Well, so what? I was already a nobody. Doing this, at least I wouldn’t be that any longer.
And so one Friday after going the whole week sitting by myself at lunch—sitting by yourself at lunch is the ultimate; the longer you do it, the more permanent the ‘loser’ label that gets stuck to you is—I did it.
I worked out my materials the night before at home, and everything I needed was in my backpack. I had French the class period before lunch. I was good at French, and the teacher liked me. I needed a lot of courage to pull this off but less to talk to my teacher, explain what I was going to do, and get permission to leave her class fifteen minutes early. That was all I needed. I was the only one in the halls walking to the cafeteria. I got that feeling I think everyone does in empty school hallways. It feels so wrong to be the only one there.
I got to the cafeteria, and of course it was deserted except for the ladies behind the steam trays and at the register where we showed our ID’s. But there was no one at any of the tables.
I did my thing, then waited. When the door opened and the first students walked in, I slid my tray along the counter, chose what to eat, passed the register after my ID had been scanned and went to a table four rows back. It had room for eight students. Some of the tables were much bigger, some smaller, some that size. The table I sat at was one where usually no one sat.
I watched the kids walking in. Most ignored the tables and walked right to the serving line. As a line formed, the students farther back in the line had the opportunity to look around. That was when the talk began. They saw what I’d done. There were smiles, laughter, and lots of talk.
The kids passing the register took one look and stopped. What they were seeing were little signs on each table. I’d bought a bunch of cheap, place-card clip holders and blank note cards. Then I’d written table descriptions on the cards and put them in the holders and set one on each table where kids sat, tables that I’d identified on the cards. One card said JOCKS TABLE. Another said POPULAR GIRLS TABLE. Another BAND GEEKS TABLE.
I’d set labels on as many tables as I could identify by the kids who sat there. Gamers and techies, skaters and goths. The brave part, the part I hadn’t thought I could do, was writing a label that said SMART BOYS TABLE, then sitting down there. All by myself.
What a risk to take! Would anyone else sit there? Or would I still be alone—although alone with the attention of every kid in the room on me? Well, I figured, I’d never know if I didn’t try.
I sort of pretended not to be looking around. I just concentrated on my lunch, only scanning the room peripherally. I saw the jocks head for their table. The popular girls sat at theirs. It looked as though everyone was accepting the labels. I’d thought maybe the almost-popular girls might have a problem, but I didn’t see anything. I hadn’t made a sign for the nerds. No reason to disparage anyone.
I’d about resigned myself to my fate when I saw a shadow cover my tray. I looked up and saw a face I recognized. It was a face everyone recognized. Tim Brokard was a big deal the school. He wrestled and was the city high-school heavyweight champion. He also broke the mold as far as being a great athlete: he didn’t participate in any jock activities. He seemed to have his own set of friends and was quite private. No one but a few friends seemed to know him well, but because he was the size of a small mountain, everyone seemed to let him be himself without any bother at all.
“You seem to be all alone,” he said, standing with his tray, not pulling out a chair.
“Yeah, just like always,” I said. “This doesn’t seem to have made any difference.”
“You did this?”
“Maybe you’ve got it wrong. Maybe it’s not that it didn’t make a difference. Maybe there just aren’t any smart boys at this school.”
I laughed, and he pulled out a chair. “You don’t mind, do you?”
“Mind? Are you kidding? I hate eating alone!”
He was about to speak when this really little kid walked up. He looked like he was 12, like I did, but it was obvious he really was that young. He didn’t act like it, though. “Finally!” he said. “A table where the thrust of the conversation won’t be which girl has the largest tits, who’ll win the football game on Friday, or who did the homework so everyone else can copy it. I expect here it’ll be different. This should be more like it. Oh, I’m Liam.”
Tim and I laughed. Liam might be young, but he had more moxie than I ever did.
Well, maybe that had been true. Maybe it wasn’t true any longer.
Before the line passing by the serving trays had ended, two more kids had come to our table. And then on Monday, everyone who’d been there Friday came back. By the end of the week, the table was full. And you know what? Not once did anyone talk about which girl had the largest tits.
A month later, we’d had to move to a larger table, one that sat 12 kids. We were a very mixed bunch. Freshmen through seniors, though mostly freshies and sophs, jocks and art majors, introverts and extroverts, whites, blacks, Asians and one expat Aussie. Discussions of everything under the sun flew back and forth; often there were three different topics being hashed over at once. We were not a silent table.
I’d become so much more comfortable in my own skin since that lunch with my dad. Now, when a situation was awkward—and of course there were still many of those—I didn’t let my beating heart race away from me. I found I could laugh at myself for the awkwardness, and laughing at myself took away most of the discomfort. I’d been trying too hard, taking myself too seriously, and was able to cut myself some slack now. It was a matter of attitude as much as anything else.
I was speaking to Dad now about anything that troubled me and not worrying about what he’d think of me. I already knew. I was even opening up a little to Mom. That was still scary, but I think it was good for both of us.
We were at lunch, and the far end of the table from me was discussing whether Chaucer was suitable for high-school English classes, and someone had brought up Melville, and the argument was getting louder. At my end, we seemed to be arguing the merits of early application to colleges. Someone in the middle told a joke apropos of nothing that everyone stopped to listen to, and there was a sudden and unusual period of silence when people were through laughing. I’d made up my mind, and this was the opportunity I’d needed.
“Is anyone else here gay?” I asked. Then I put up my hand and looked around.
Courage comes one step at a time. First, I’d labeled the tables in a desperate attempt to not be so alone. This was just as scary. But I felt a lot better about myself now. This was scary but didn’t carry the possibilities of disaster that first act had. I could survive if no one else raised their hand. I realized that even if they didn’t, it didn’t mean no one was gay. It simply meant they weren’t as ready to be out as I was.
But that didn’t happen. Three hands went up, one at a time, all three a little hesitantly. The final one was a shock. It was Tim’s hand. He always sat across from me, blocking the sun if there’d been one. He’d sat there from the first time he’d sat down. Now he was staring into my eyes and slowly raising his hand.
I reached up and slapped it, a huge grin on my face. Then everyone at the table began talking, and I sat back and basked in their words.