Dear Reader: It is assumed that anyone reading this story is familiar with the game of croquet, as played casually on one’s back lawn with crickets merrily chirping in the background and glasses of ice tea or frosty bottles or glasses of other cooling beverages at the ready if the day is hot and the mood gentle. Everyone knows croquet, don’t they? They should! However, while it isn’t necessary that one have knowledge of the game to enjoy this story, familiarity with it could enhance the experience.
As the rules, procedures or strategies of the game within the story are minimal, here are the very basics:
Croquet as played informally is a game set on a grassy lawn using wooden mallets, wooden balls, two stakes and nine wickets, these being small semi-circular or rectangular hoops about one and a half times wider than the diameter of the balls.
The object of the game is to use your mallet to hit your ball through the wickets consecutively around the course and back to the starting point, hitting the stake to finish, and being the first player to do this. Normally, each player has one stroke of his ball per turn.
Passing through the next required wicket in the right direction earns the player one additional shot. Hitting an opponent’s ball gives the player several options, and depending on the option taken, earns him one or two additional shots.
There are other rules for different situations that arise during play, but these are the basics. For anyone wishing to polish his knowledge or correct his lack thereof, more information can be found at this link:
“Alex, we’re going for a drive. You and me. Right now. Get in the car.” There was more that a frown in his tone of voice, there was some repressed anger, and a feeling of impatience, and it got my attention, like, immediately.
My dad never uses that tone of voice with me. Well, not often at least. He was in command mode, ‘Father with a capital F’ mode, and was expecting me to jump.
If he’d spoken to me like that on a regular basis, or even much at all, I’d probably have been used to it and maybe not responded as he expected me to, but he didn’t. So, feeling a stab of resentment but not enough to rebel, sort of just reacting to his tone, sort of on autopilot, sort of like the decision had already been made for me and my muscles weren’t really under my control, I got up from the couch, remoted off the TV, and walked toward the door. He was right behind me.
I sat next to him and watched the garage door slowly hum down as he pulled out of the driveway. Neither of us said anything.
He drove out of our neighborhood, then worked his way in the direction of the main highway out of town. It took us about ten minutes to get there. Then he turned onto US 23 heading south, and we drove till we were out of town. The Saturday morning traffic was light. He got in the right-hand lane and set the cruise control for 60. Neither of us had spoken. I was curious where we were going but wasn’t going to ask. I hadn’t spoken to him much at all for about the past week or so other than to answer his direct questions when I had to, using as few words as possible, and wasn’t about to change that now.
He glanced over at me, and I kept my eyes firmly focused on the road ahead of us.
We drove in silence for about 15 minutes. The tension in the car was building. That was OK with me. Feeling tense was an improvement over how I had been feeling.
“Alex.” That was all he said, just my name, his tone flat.
I decided it would be rude and probably confrontational not to acknowledge he’d spoken. I could have done that, of course. I had several times over the past several days. But now I was sitting only a foot or two from him, and it would have been silly to try to ignore him. Of all the feelings I had at the moment, silly wasn’t one of them.
He nodded. I wasn’t looking at him, but I could see him peripherally. When he spoke again, his voice was slightly softer, slightly more his normal voice.
“It’s just you and me, kid. Just you and me. Without your mom helping, we’ve got to make it on our own. And it won’t happen if you don’t talk to me. I don’t know what I did, but I can’t apologize or fix it if you don’t tell me.”
I didn’t say anything. But I did resent him playing the mom card. That was dirty. And in a way it pleased me, because if I could be mad at him, it was easier not to have to talk.
“So I decided. We aren’t going to go on like this. It’s gone on long enough. I’m ready to accept I’m not a perfect dad. I probably do a lot of things that piss you off.” He turned toward me and his lips sort of twitched into a quick smile. He didn’t like me using that word. I think he said it right then just to get me to rebuke him, and in so doing, talk. No way that was going to work.
When he saw I wasn’t going to respond, he simply kept talking. “But I never do anything on purpose just to upset you. I love you, Alex. You’re my whole life, the most important thing in it by far. By about a factor of a thousand. So if I make a mistake, it’s just a mistake, and the best thing for you to do is to tell me what I did wrong so I won’t keep making it, or at least so I can explain why I did whatever it was.”
We were in the country. I concentrated on a large red barn coming up on my side of the road. I wondered what it would be like to be a farm kid. Probably have all sorts of chores to do. I only had a few. Making my bed and emptying the wastebaskets were probably easier than milking cows, digging manure, reaping wheat, planting sugar beets and collecting eggs. And maybe those farm boys had to make their own beds and empty wastebaskets along with the milking, digging, reaping, planting and collecting.
We drove in silence for a few minutes. Maybe he was giving me time to think. I was thinking, but not about talking to him, or anyone else for that matter. He wasn’t the only one I hadn’t spoken to for a week.
“So.” He sounded irked, but determined. I know, that’s a lot to get out of one word, but I knew my dad better than I knew anything. You watch and listen to your parents all the time when you’re a kid and get to know what it means if they’re standing up straight or have slumped shoulders. You know by their walk, the way they sit in a chair, if they’re pleased or angry or relaxed or have something on their mind. Their facial expressions sometimes tell you what they’re going to say next and almost always the mood they’re going to be in when they say it. And their tone of voice? It tells you exactly how they’re feeling and how much you’re going to like hearing what they’re saying.
He repeated it. “So. We’re going to drive, and before we go home, you’re going to talk to me. I’m going to find out what this is all about. Whether you want me to know or not. I know you can be stubborn. You’ve been stubborn all week. Now it’s time to give it up. Something’s bothering you, and I’ve let it fester for long enough. We’re going to talk about it, and that’s that. I can’t help you get over this until I know what it is.”
I didn’t say anything, and we kept driving. South. As we lived in southern Ohio, we had a long way to go before we reached the bottom of the country and ran into the Gulf of Mexico. I started to wonder what would happen then. Would he turn? East or west? Or do a one-eighty and drive back north? Maybe up to Canada, but that would be a couple of days or more from now. Would he miss work on Monday, still driving? I wouldn’t miss any school. It hadn’t started back up yet.
“Alex? A good time to start talking would be now.” His voice had taken on an edge. He was ordinarily very patient. I was too, actually. I was like him in many ways. Probably I unconsciously modeled my behavior after his. Except he was pretty much perfect, and I was a mess. That was the only difference.
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Funny, because I’d just started to do the same thing and had to stop and let it out in a way so he wouldn’t notice.
I opened my mouth, then closed it again. He half glanced at me, then turned back to the road. No smile this time. If there’d been one, I’d never have said anything.
“I can’t.” Those were the first personal words I’d spoken to him in over week.
He waited a few seconds before answering. Maybe he didn’t want to sound too eager, or maybe he was mulling over the full meaning of what I’d said. But there was a noticeable pause before he said, “If it were easy, you’d have talked to me about it a week ago. So I already know whatever it is, it’s hard for you to talk about. I’ll keep that in mind when I’m listening. OK? Go ahead then.”
“It isn’t you,” I said, and felt good for saying that. I hadn’t liked that he’d been blaming himself. I hadn’t been speaking to him because I was pissed but not at him. I was pissed at myself and the world and everything about it. Everything but him. But talking about it would probably be worse than just being pissed, and being upset had sort of mutated into being mad at the world and he was the one it was easiest to take it out on, even if that made no sense at all. Logic and emotions aren’t always in synch. Maybe never.
“That’s good to know. But something’s bothering you, a lot. Talking about it will let me help you and make you feel better about it. That’s almost a given. Take your time, but it would be good if you could get it out before we reach Tennessee.”
That almost made me stop talking altogether. How come adults like to throw humor into everything? Talking about Tennessee was a joke. We hadn’t even reached Kentucky yet! We had to come to Portsmouth, first, and then cross the Ohio River.
But, I had started speaking to him, and it’s funny how starting makes continuing much easier. Even though I knew talking would be awful and probably make things worse, at least I’d get it over with, and the struggle to keep it all dammed up inside of me while trying to deal with it on my own was one of the things that was killing me.
I wouldn’t have chosen today for this, had it been my decision. I wasn’t ready. Not in the slightest. Even if it had been a week already. I don’t think I’d have been ready in a month.
“It’s not funny,” I said. “None of it is funny. I did something bad. Talking about it won’t make it better.”
That brought more silence. He wasn’t impulsive by nature. Speaking before thinking wasn’t one of his things.
We were well past the barn now, and I looked for something else to think about as I waited for him to respond. A part of me knew I’d end up spilling it all in the end. Saying what I already had could have no other outcome. Was I happy about that, finally getting it all off my chest? No.
“Well, what are all the bad things you could have done?” he asked, breaking his silence. “Let’s see. Did you steal something? Cheat at school and it’s been bothering you all summer? Lie about something? Betray someone, like telling a secret you were supposed to keep? Did you kill someone?” He wiggled his eyebrows at me after saying that one, and a smile curled the corners of his lips. I almost smiled, too, but couldn’t really bring myself to.
He continued. “Did you break a promise to do something? Did you do something that embarrassed you, something that makes it difficult to face one of your friends? Was it something like that?” He paused, giving me a chance to answer. “Does it involve Daniel?”
I didn’t answer. Instead, I looked out at the fields of corn whizzing by us. I could momentarily look down each long row, one then the next and the next, seemingly endlessly, each passing by in much less than a second. It was ready to harvest, by the looks of it.
He was relentless and not a bit put off by my apparent inattention. “You see, Alex, all those things would be bad, and we’d have to look at why you did what you did and figure out what to do about it, but none of them, not one, would cause me to stop loving you.”
When he stopped after saying that, I knew it was so I could think about that, about what he was saying, that his love for me was unconditional. I wasn’t sure what that had to do with anything, though. But as I sat there, it began to make sense. He was saying that he loved me and wanted to help with whatever the problem was, and that no problem could be worse than our losing what we had together, and this wouldn’t affect that.
Of course, I already knew he loved me, and I’d never even thought about whether what he wanted me to talk about would affect that. I’d never doubted his love for me.
He went on after I’d had a chance to ponder that, and after I’d had a chance to respond and hadn’t.
“I’m on your side, Alex, and want to help, and the only way I know how to do that is to get you to open up. And so I will, even if you don’t want me to. Afterward, when you’ve got yourself back together again, then we’ll decide how to resolve whatever it is. Right now you’re what, maybe worried or maybe scared, maybe embarrassed and you don’t know what to do? I can’t say how that’s going to work because you’ve kept it all from me, but you can rest assured, we will work it out. Alex, it’s been you against the world too long already. I’m here, I’m your dad, and I want you past this. I want to get you back to being the happy kid you always have been.”
When I didn’t answer, even though I was now ready to talk to him, he finished by saying, “I am on your side, Alex, no matter what you did.”
I couldn’t help myself. I guess I wanted to talk to him badly enough by then that when I had that opening, I just took it, no matter how much I feared the outcome. I replied, “But what if it’s not only something I did, but what it says about me, too, about who I am?”
He gave me a quick glance, then returned his eyes to the road. It was a few seconds before he spoke again. “Says something about who you are? Well, who are you? Let’s make a list. You’re a boy, you’re 13, you’re just the right size for a boy your age. You’re slim, you’re good looking, you have blond hair that is too long and I’m not supposed to agree about this but actually think it looks fantastic, the way you have it styled. You have a bunch of friends, good solid kids, you get good grades in school, you’re athletic, you’re polite to adults, you like horrible music but that’s only a phase all kids go through until their brains mature enough to understand that music is transcendent if it’s written by Brahms or Mozart or Rachmaninoff, but not when done by Black Sabbath or Metallica or Rage Against the Machine.”
He glanced over at me again, a grin on his face. I knew he was trying to lighten the mood. He wasn’t on the same wavelength I was, which was no surprise. How could adults understand kids so little, especially their own kids? Here we were, he knew I was in a mood, he knew I was upset and feeling rotten, and he was still trying to make jokes.
I didn’t meet his glance, but instead turned away.
“Alex!” He said it loudly, and there was something in his tone of voice that made me turn to look at him.
“I’m sorry.” He used a softer tone of voice, and his eyes.... I could see compassion. “I was just trying to make it easier for you, but I can see humor is the wrong way to do it. Whatever this is, it’s eating at you. You need to talk. But what I just said. That’s who you are. You’re a normal kid, and have an awful lot going for you. So if there’s something about you or something you’ve done that is making you this unhappy, causing you this much grief, whatever it is, telling me and letting us both worry about it is better than you trying to figure it out all by yourself. That isn’t working. I can’t promise I’ll fix it because I don’t know what it is. But I do know, whatever it is, I’ll still be on your side, and it’ll be both of us trying to figure it out.”
I thought about that, but thinking was beside the point. I was going to talk. I’d probably known it since I’d discovered why he’d got me into the car. The thing was, I did need his help, even though I couldn’t imagine how he could help, and having him on my side on this would be so, so good. I didn’t know how I’d say what I had to say—man, what kid wants to spill his guts to his dad, no matter how great a dad he is—but if I started, I had to hope I’d find the courage. What I’d done had been wrong, and I was ashamed of it, and of me, and by telling him he might be, probably would be, ashamed of me, too. And I hated that. It was easy for him to say he loved me, and I had no doubt he did. It was easy for him to say he’d love me no matter what, and maybe he would, but loving me and being disappointed in me were two different things.
Would he get over the disappointment? Probably. That was the only reason I could even begin to think about telling him. Telling him was going to be hard. I wasn’t even sure I wouldn’t chicken out halfway through.
Only one way to know. We were still driving south. I opened my mouth, closed it again to swallow, and began.
ª ª ª
Two Weeks Earlier —
I was excited. It was nearing the end of summer, and I’d been waiting and waiting, and finally, the day had arrived. Yes!
I heard the doorbell ring and raced downstairs to get it, my hand sliding along the banister, my feet not hitting every step. It was Daniel, and the grin on his face was matched only by the excitement I saw in his eyes.
“Is it ready?” he asked.
“Yeah, and I waited for you. But I have to change first.” I looked at him then, not just his face, and saw he was certainly ready. The only thing he had on was a bathing suit.
For some reason I wasn’t quite sure of, my father had asked me in the spring, before school ended, what I thought of the idea of putting a swimming pool in the backyard. I kind of liked the idea, but must not have been as excited as he expected, because he looked at me and frowned. “What?” he asked.
We’d been sitting in the kitchen at the table, having lunch. I’d reached for the milk carton and said, “Well, it would be great and all, but, I think they look kind of funky, you know? They’re kind of ugly, they take up most of the yard and Daniel and I play catch there, and football, too. And croquet.”
Dad had laughed. Maybe because I was complaining about installing a pool, or maybe it was because of the croquet. I loved croquet, and was constantly trying to get him to play with me. Perhaps the fact I beat him every game, and badly, was why he wouldn’t play as often as I wanted him to. “Croquet, huh? That’s better than swimming?”
“Well, Joel and Jonah have a pool, so it’s not like I never get to swim. But theirs is sort of ratty looking, and they have to empty it about twice a summer to patch the vinyl liner, and the fence around it is falling apart, and the deck needs refinishing every year; their father makes them do it and they bitch about it all the time, and I can just see you deciding that’s my job.”
“Ah! I see. You don’t want a pool because you’re lazy!”
That was my dad. Always teasing. It was worst when there was some truth in what he teased me about.
“I didn’t say I didn’t want one. And no, Dad, it isn’t that. It’s more that I don’t want to give up the backyard for something we won’t use that much. We can only use it for a few months in the summer, but I play in the backyard all year round.”
He’d picked up his plate and taken it to the sink, then turned back to look at me. “So, if I’m hearing this right, you don’t object to having a pool, you just don’t want it in the backyard. Well, how ’bout out front?”
“Dad! That’s nuts.”
He’d laughed. He loved getting me worked up. He was good at it, too. “Well, then, what about on the side?”
We lived in Chillicothe, Ohio, a city of about 20,000 people, directly south of Columbus and east northeast of Cincinnati, which is down near the southwestern corner of the state. Chillicothe was a good place to grow up, I guess. I couldn’t compare it because it was the only place I’d ever lived. It was warm in the summer and cold in the winter, like everywhere else, I guess. Except maybe California. Or Hawaii. We lived on a residential street, on a good-sized lot. We had a large backyard, but there was space on both sides of our house, too. On one side, we had a bunch of trees, including a black walnut and a sour cherry tree that was great for climbing and making pies as long as we beat the birds to the cherries. On the other side there was a pile of rocks, and over the years some bushes had grown up around, between and all over those rocks. The bushes sort of acted as a fence between us and the vacant lot next to us, and shielded the backyard on that side of the house from the street.
I assumed Dad didn’t mean to chop down our trees. I loved those trees. They shaded my bedroom in the summer from the hot sun, and gave us some privacy from our neighbors on that side. He couldn’t be planning to cut them down for a swimming pool! So he must have been thinking about the rock pile and bushes.
I’d looked at him, standing there leaning against the sink grinning at me. He was a tall man, a little over six feet, had just entered his forties but looked younger, and had a slender build. I thought he was handsome, and hoped I’d grow up to look like him. His grin had told me he was enjoying himself. “Dad, what aren’t you telling me here?” Hey, I was a teenager now. Teens are supposed to be suspicious of adults. I hadn’t ever been suspicious of him before, but now I was a teen so it was a good time to start.
“Why do you think I’m hiding something?” He’d been looking way too innocent when he’d said that, so I knew I was right.
“Because you are. What’s going on?”
He’d grinned. “OK. I’ve already spoken to the installers, and signed a contract. We’re going to have a pool. But it’s not what you’re thinking. It’s going to be an in-ground pool, not like all the others around here.”
I’d been shocked. Oh, sure, there were a few in-ground pools in Chillicothe, but not very many, and the people who had them were the rich people. Bank presidents and successful attorneys, CEOs and like that. Dad was a schoolteacher. We were middleclass, like most everyone else.
I’d looked at him, trying to figure it out, and had finally just asked. “Why a pool? I never asked for one.”
He’d turned and begun filling the sink with hot water, and had spoken to the window rather than me. “I know this comes as a surprise to you, Alex, but two people live here, and one of them, me, wants a pool. I’ve always wanted one.”
“But can we afford it?”
He’d turned off the water and put the dishes in to soak. “Let’s go sit down.” He’d led me into the living room, and I’d sat on the couch. He’d taken his favorite chair, next to the couch. He always sat there when we watched TV together. I always chose the couch.
“Alex, when your mother died in that traffic accident, there were two pretty substantial life insurance policies that came into effect. You know her dad sells life insurance. You know he owns an independent agency in town. When your mother and I got married, he gave her a large, fully-paid policy on me, and me one on her. And when you were born, he gave you a large policy on each of us.”
I hadn’t known any of this. Maybe he hadn’t thought I was old enough. I’d only turned 13 in the spring. I had a vague idea that schoolteachers didn’t make as much money as some people, but we seemed to have enough, and as a kid you just don’t question that sort of thing too much.
He’d reached out and put a hand on my leg. “The policy that was written with you as the beneficiary had me named as a trustee until you reached 21. That policy paid off when she died, and the money is in a trust account, earning interest. That’s what’s going to pay for your college.”
I hadn’t known that. I’d known I was supposed to go to college. Dad talked about that all the time. ‘When you go’ was always the way he prefaced those conversations, not ‘if’. I thought that was kind of neat, knowing I’d be going. Most kids seemed ambiguous about going to college, if they ever even gave it a thought. It was just an accepted fact for me. I was supposed to get good grades in school now and for the next few years, and then after high school, the next four years were already set. It was sort of a done deal, as long as I did my part.
Dad hadn’t finished. “I had my beneficiary money in a savings account, too, at first. Then I thought maybe I should invest some of it, and talked to Ben.” Ben was my mom’s dad, the one with the insurance agency. I guessed he must know something about investments, too. “He recommended some things, some mutual funds, some municipal bonds, a lot of conservative investments, but a couple of growth stocks, too. So, I’ve been investing for the last few years, and those growth stocks have done pretty well. Well enough that I think I can buy something I’ve always wanted without depleting our savings.”
“A swimming pool?”
He’d laughed. “Yeah, a swimming pool. But since it doesn’t seem to float your boat, you don’t have to use it.”
I’d snorted. “Yeah, right. You’re going to put in a pool, and I’m not going to use it.”
We’d smiled at each other. Then he’d stood up and opened his arms.
I was a teenager now. Teens aren’t supposed to show their emotions much, and certainly not get physical with their parents. That’s little kid stuff. There are rules about that sort of thing. But, even if I was 13, I loved getting hugged by my dad. I’d jumped up and hugged him just as fiercely as he was hugging me. We’d held it for maybe a half a minute. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to do that, and maybe I’d feel different about it next year. For now, it had made me feel good, and I hadn’t been looking forward to the day it didn’t.
He’d shown me the plan the contractor he’d hired had come up with, getting down on the floor and spreading it out. Actually he’d spread out six of them, and asked me to pick out the one I liked best. They were all different, some all curvy, shaped like a kidney and fancy looking—looking to me more like show pools than pools that would be good for swimming in—some just rectangles, some with a spa on the side, some smaller at the deep end and widening toward the shallow end. Some had cement-slab decking, some had flagstone, some brick. I’d studied them, pursing my lips, and then pointed. “This one. It’s the best.”
“Yeah, but it’s also the most expensive!”
I’d chosen one with a spa. It was mostly rectangular but the corners were rounded. It had cement coping, then ceramic tile, which he told me was royal blue with gold streaks, surrounding the inner top edge of the pool, and a gray composite material for the decking. It looked great, but I’d easily seen it was more expensive than the others.
“So it’s expensive. So what? The whole pool is expensive, and this one can’t be too much more than the others. If it’s been a dream, and you can afford it, then I’d say, that’s the one.”
He’d wrinkled his forehead, then said, “You think so?”
“No question about it.”
“Well then, that’s the one we’re getting.”
“Because I said so?”
“No, because I signed a contract to buy it yesterday.”
I’d attacked him then. He’d been laughing too hard to put up much of a fight, and I’d had him pinned on the floor in about fifteen seconds. I’d been holding his shoulders flat on the floor, looking down at him, when I asked, “The spa, too?”
“Yep. And a heater, and bubble jets. The whole package.”
I’d let him up. Hey, he was a man who could afford a pool. I had to show some respect.
That had been forever ago. Well, it seemed that way. Dad had signed the contract in May, and now it was August. There’d been reasons for the delays, but they were boring and no matter what they were, we’d had to wait. The wait was finally over. The pool was finally ready. The chemicals had been in the water long enough. Today was the first time anyone would swim in it. And Daniel and I were going to initiate it. We’d been waiting all summer, and would go back to school too soon. But the wait was over.
The pool was beautiful. It was large, much larger than the few above-ground pools I’d gone swimming in, much larger than the drawings made it look. The contrasting decking looked fantastic. Dad had had the surrounding area landscaped with low bushes, and with our covered patio nearby and a gas barbecue off to the side, well, wow! It had turned our whole side and backyard into a showplace.
He’d needed to have the pool itself fenced in so little kids wouldn’t be able to fall in, but I liked the idea of a fence anyway. Privacy. Even a 13-year-old guy can see the possibilities of his own private pool and spa, and some of those possibilities involve privacy.
Maybe especially a 13-year-old guy.
But that was for thinking about some other time. Today, Daniel and I were about to get wet. In my own pool.
He came up to my room with me so I could change. Neither of us gave that a second thought. We’d been friends since we were six and he’d moved in down the street. It was just after my mom had been killed. I’d still been getting over that, and had been doing a lot of just riding my bike back and forth, up and down the street, kind of moping and feeling sorry for myself, feeling an emptiness inside that wouldn’t seem to go away. I wasn’t in a friendly mood at all. This new kid I’d never seen before, who didn’t know anything about my mom, was outside playing in his front yard, and was watching me pedal back and forth, going nowhere and scowling while doing it. Finally, he came and stood on the sidewalk, and when I rode past him the next time, said, “Hey, want to play with me?”
He was really cheerful and had a big smile, and I hated him. Why should he be happy when my whole life had suddenly just crumbled away and I knew for sure I’d never be happy or feel safe again?
So, I ignored him. I just rode on by without even looking at him. At the bottom of the street where there was a cul-de-sac I turned around and rode back. He was still standing there, and was waiting for me.
He said it louder this time. “Hey, you want to play?”
I just kept going. I thought I was ignoring him, that was my intention, I was entirely into myself and didn’t want to be distracted, but, I realized later, I was thinking about him, and about what I’d do if he called to me again when I next rode past. Without knowing it, he was already taking me out of myself and re-engaging me in the world.
I came back again. This time he yelled the same thing even louder, and when I ignored him again, he yelled at my back as I rode away, “Hey, I don’t want to play with any dumb deaf kid anyway.”
Well, I wasn’t going to let him get away with that! I might only have been six, but this was my street, not his, and he had no right to talk to me like that and call me names. I was in no mood to put up with his crap. I turned quickly and rode back, jumped off my bike, letting it crash to the ground, and made my hands into fists. I yelled, “I’m going to get you for that.”
He looked surprised, and then frowned. “If you’re not deaf, how come you didn’t answer?”
I’d been planning to hit him, but somehow, at six, it doesn’t take much to distract you. I had to answer his question before hitting him, and my answer led to another question, and the next thing I knew it was a couple hours later, it was lunchtime, and his mother came out front and asked if I was staying to have lunch with Daniel. I did.
We’d been together ever since, the way only two boys growing up side by side can be. We were closer than brothers. I had friends who had brothers, twins even. They never got along as well as Daniel and I did. Many of our ‘first’ experiences had been shared experiences. We’d taken our first swimming lessons together, played on the same T-ball team, even been in the same class most of the time through elementary school. I’d learned to throw and catch a baseball, and then later a football, with Daniel. We’d learned how to fall off a skateboard on the same place on the same sidewalk, and both had been successful at keeping our tears at bay. We’d been through a whole lot of other things as well. We were the same size, too, although Daniel always said he was taller. He lied a lot.
He had dark hair while mine was dark blond. He had dark, flashing eyes. Mine were hazel and I had no idea if they flashed. I’d never stopped to think whether he was handsome or cute or anything like that because we were friends and that was what was important, not how he looked. Well, I hadn’t thought about it back then. In the past few months, I’d sort of noticed that he was attractive.
We’d started puberty about the same time. He was the one who first showed me how to play with myself. His cousin had showed him. We’d done that together a few times, and I really liked doing that, but then, about a month after we’d begun, he’d told me we shouldn’t do it any more. I’d asked him why.
His family was really religious, and me and my dad weren’t. When I was over at Daniel’s house, the atmosphere was always a little different from other guys’ houses, and I think it was because of their religion. Even though I spent some time there, I never could really relax and be myself in his house. Even his personality changed when he walked through his front door. He became more sober, quieter, more passive.
But back to why we couldn’t mess around any more. Daniel had told me his mother had asked him about all the Kleenexes she was suddenly finding in his wastebasket, and he’d blushed and stammered and said he had a cold, but his mother had known that wasn’t true, and lying in that house, lying to his parents, always ended up badly. One thing Daniel didn’t like to talk to me about was how he was punished when he did anything wrong. I didn’t think they hit him or anything like that—he said they didn’t, and acted surprised when I asked that—and since I saw him without a shirt on a whole lot during the summer, I knew I’d have seen bruises, and I never had. But when he wasn’t able to come out and play, when his mother would tell me he couldn’t because he was being punished, afterwards, he wouldn’t talk about it. If he didn’t want to talk about something, he simply didn’t, and if I pushed hard enough, if I wouldn’t drop it, he’d get up without saying another word and leave, just walk away. So I never did know what went on. But he did tell me that when it was just the family together, they did talk a lot about religion.
So anyway, back to the Kleenex. His mom had known he was lying, and had told him so, and had demanded to know what was going on. He wouldn’t tell her. That evening, his father had asked him. His father was a big man, and very stern, and there was no way Daniel could get out of telling him the truth. So, he had. Told him he was jacking off and had been for several months. He hadn’t used those words, but that was what he’d meant.
When Daniel was telling me this, I was visualizing myself being in that position, and how awkward it would be, how I’d feel. It would have been awful if I’d had to tell Dad I was doing that. So awful I didn’t even want to think about it. And Daniel had actually done it with a father who was a hundred times scarier than mine. It had to have been horrible for him. I myself was a little bit afraid of Daniel’s father and terribly intimidated by him, and I couldn’t wrap my imagination around Daniel talking to his father about that, or what his father’d say or how he’d react, listening to what Daniel was telling him.
Daniel had seen me watching him as he was telling me all this, and had smiled. “It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, Alex. I thought I’d be grounded and have to… uh, well, I thought it would be bad, but actually, when I told him, what he did was, he sat down on the bed next to me and smiled. Smiled! I was scared, and he put his arm around my shoulders. He told me that I was doing what all boys do, and there was nothing wrong with it, even if some in our church thought there was. That was the first time I ever heard him say anything like that about the church! I could hardly believe it! But he said it. And he told me that God had made us, and God was perfect, and this was simply a gift God had given us.”
I’d been a little confused, but didn’t say anything because I was so interested in hearing everything he had to say. It occurred to me, right off, that if this was an OK thing to do, then why should we stop doing it? What Daniel said next cleared that up.
“Dad told me that doing what I’d been doing was just me practicing for sex, getting my body ready for it, giving me a chance to learn how my body reacted and felt when having sex. I was merely getting to know myself better. He said that was a good thing. But… he also said that sex was a God-given gift to be shared by two people, a man and a woman together, when they were old enough and only after marriage, and that was the only way it was to be used, except for what I’d been doing, practicing and learning about myself, understanding myself and my body. But then he said this: he said while almost all boys my age did what I was doing, some started doing it with girls and some even with other boys, and both of those things were wrong, were bad, were sinful, and that it was against why God had given us the pleasure of sex.
“He told me that what I was doing was all right to do, he’d talk to Mom about it and she wouldn’t discuss it with me again or embarrass me about it, but I was only to do it privately, only by myself, and never to involve anyone else in what I was doing. And so, you and I have to stop doing it together.”
Rats! What a bummer! I really liked doing it, had done it probably every day since he’d showed me how, and it was even more fun and exciting when I did it with him. But I knew from how he said that, I wasn’t going to be able to change his mind. He had a very serious side to him, he obeyed his parents, and when he made up his mind about something, something he believed in, it would take an act of Congress for him to budge. But I consoled myself with the fact that this just meant we wouldn’t be doing it together anymore; it wasn’t as if I had to stop doing it altogether.
We were finally going swimming! I quickly got undressed, and, maybe feeling a little vindictive about his part in the disappointment he’d stuck me with, maybe a little spiteful even if it wasn’t really his fault, when I was naked I started rummaging around the room looking for my bathing suit. I knew he was watching me and I wanted him to regret what he was missing as much as I was regretting it.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Looking for my suit, why?”
“Because you always keep it in your dresser, in the third drawer down, and you haven’t even looked there.”
He was giving me a look. One thing about Daniel. He was smart. Probably smarter than I was. I saw his eyes. He knew exactly what I was doing. And he didn’t look any too happy about it, either.
“Oh,” I said. “Silly me.” And then I took my suit out of the third drawer down, slipped it on, and it was pool time.
It was a hot day, as most of them were in Chillicothe in August. The water in the pool was bright and blue, glittering in the midday sun. Dad had run the heater and the water was 76˚, just perfect.
Daniel and I stood side by side, looking at it, and he said, “Do you want to be the first one in? It’s your pool, it should be your honor to go first.”
That was Daniel. Maybe it was all the religion he got at home. I didn’t get any, and I thought I was a nice guy, but no one was a nicer guy than Daniel.
“Let’s go together,” I said. I walked back to just off the edge of the decking, about six feet from the pool, up against the fence and stood there. “When I say ‘three’, we run and jump. OK?”
“Yeah,” he said, and grinned at me.
“OK. One, two, three.”
I raced across the deck and jumped, Daniel right beside me. I don’t know who hit the water first, if either of us did. I do know what I heard next, heard for the first time, something I’d hear myriad times over the next few years: “No running around the pool!” My dad was watching us from the kitchen window, and yelled through the screen.
We swam and played in the pool for probably an hour. Both of us were competitive, and we were very evenly matched at almost everything. He could beat me from one end of the pool to the other, but I could beat him if we swam five laps. Neither of us won those races by much.
We seemed to fight all our splashing matches to a tie.
We got out and rested, finally. Dad had bought some deck furniture. All the sets in the stores seemed to feature a table with an umbrella, four chairs and a chaise lounge. I’d complained to Dad when we were shopping that that wouldn’t work and might lead to World War III, so he’d harrumphed a little, then ordered a set he liked and an extra chaise lounge. Daniel and I both lay back on the two loungers that now were set in the sun side by side on the deck.
School would be starting up soon. Eighth grade beckoned. Our last year of middle school. We’d be kings of the hill. About time, too! But this was summer, glorious summer, the sun was bright in the blue sky, the air was warm and thick with humidity, I was 13 and had my own pool, and a good friend, and school was just something off ahead of us that we weren’t even thinking about. Life was pretty good, right then.
ª ª ª
Thirteen-year-old boys don’t rest for long; we get bored easily. So, we didn’t stay on those lounges more than twenty minutes or so, and that was pushing it. What we did next was something we did a lot.
I had a big backyard. And it was level, with smoothly cut grass. I should know; I was the one who cut it. It was 150 feet from our back porch to the fence line behind us that separated us from our neighbors that lived on Sycamore, the street in back of ours. They had similarly deep backyards, so there was in fact a football field’s length between the houses.
Besides stuff like wrestling, baseball, badminton, football and sometimes pitching a tent, I used that backyard for one of my most favorite things: croquet. I loved croquet, and was good at it as only an athletically-inclined, smart and competitive boy my age who practiced it a lot can be.
It was the one thing I could beat Daniel at with any regularity, and I did, probably three-quarters of the time. It says something about Daniel, who was as competitive as I was, that he continued to agree to play against me. I realized he hated losing at anything, and so I didn’t lord it over him at all. Had I, I’d have risked not only his no longer being willing to play, but maybe our friendship, at least some of the depth of it. He was sensitive and proud. If he’d have lorded it over me if he was beating me at something regularly, I knew how I’d have felt, and because Daniel was a kid who felt things like that more than I did, I didn’t do that to Daniel. I loved the fact he’d play with me, knowing he’d probably lose. Even though I was still a kid, I recognized he was doing this at least partly because he knew I loved it. He was sacrificing something for me, and it made him really special in my eyes.
We set up the equipment, each pounding in a stake out a little ways from each end of the yard, then distributing the nine wickets in their proper places. I went first. I always went first. It was a distinct advantage to go last and have the other player’s ball already out there ahead of you to play off. So, I always went first. It kept the game closer.
Croquet is a game of accuracy and touch, of knowing just how hard to hit your ball, knowing where and how to aim it, then hitting it so it’ll stop just where you want it to. But just as important is what strategy you use, and anticipation of what your opponent can do. That element of intellectual challenge, of being able to be creative when playing the game, was what made it so much fun for me.
I made it through the first three wickets—hey, I said I was pretty good at it—and set myself up to probably make the fourth on my next shot. Daniel came through the first two wickets firmly, firmly enough to be close to my ball. He hit my ball, then took his two shots to set himself up for the third wicket.
I’d have played it much differently, had I been him, but I didn’t say so. It would have sounded like gloating or arrogance. Instead, I simply hit through my wicket on my turn and, with my remaining shot, set myself up perfectly for my next shot.
Daniel went through the third wicket and aimed for the fourth. He hit it slightly too hard and rolled past where he’d wanted to stop. It would take him another shot to set up for the wicket.
I’d set my ball in great position for the fifth wicket. By that, I mean I could now hit my ball hard, pass through my wicket and go in the direction of the paired 6th and 7th wickets. I hit a good shot, and the ball ended up in front of those wickets, just off line for a straight shot to the stake. I had one shot left and took it, aiming for the inside of the 6th wicket. I hit that, bounced off and rolled through, now aligned perfectly. With my remaining shot, I rolled through the 7th wicket and hit the stake. Then I came out of the two wickets hard, rolling toward Daniel’s ball. I had two shots, and used the first to position my ball close to but not touching his ball, and the second to hit his ball hard, rolling it in the direction of my next wicket.
It worked perfectly. His ball stopped a couple of feet from my next wicket, and on the opposite side from where I needed to be. I set my ball a mallet’s club-head distance from his and used my two shots to roll through the wicket the wrong way and then come back through, close to Daniel’s ball. I hit his ball hard again, driving it toward the middle wicket, my ball following it. When his ball stopped, I had a shot at the middle wicket, and his ball was on the same side I was, which was the other side from where he needed to be for his next shot.
I left his ball alone after that. I tapped my ball through the middle wicket and then hit it so as to set up my next shot. I hit it nicely, and would be able to make my next wicket on my next shot.
Daniel had a decision. He could try to hit my ball, a long, tough shot, or he could set himself up to make the middle wicket on his following shot. About his only chance of winning the game would be to hit me, as after passing through the next wicket on my next shot, I’d probably only need two more turns to win the game.
He looked over the field, then turned toward my ball and aimed his toward it. He missed, but only by inches. His ball stopped between mine and my wicket, directly in front of it. I very lightly tapped his ball with mine, not moving it. Then I placed my ball next to his at the proper angle, held my ball steady with my fingers and tapped it gently, rolling his ball about a foot, just past my next wicket. On my remaining shot, I went through the wicket, and then hit him again, hard. This time, I pile drove his ball to the other end of the field, and used my remaining shot to set myself square in front of the last two wickets.
Daniel hit his ball as hard as he could toward me, but missed my ball by ten feet. I rolled though the wickets, hit the stake, grinned and asked if he wanted to play again. He nodded, a grin on his face, too. “You were lucky,” he said. I laughed. “Well, a little. Twice I made tough shots that worked out perfectly; that might have involved just a little touch of luck.”
“I guess! I probably should have pile driven you on my first turn.”
“Maybe.” I laughed then. And wondered if I’d be as good a sport if our places were changed. I wasn’t sure I would be.
ª ª ª
That evening, after Daniel had left and Dad and I were by ourselves, he was reading his paper and had started the crossword puzzle while I watched TV. I was also getting tired. We’d been in the pool again after more croquet, and then ridden our bikes around the neighborhood, stopping occasionally and chatting with friends. I was about ready for bed. I glanced at the clock and saw it was almost ten. Good. That’s what I’d been waiting for.
About two weeks ago I’d made a discovery and now, every night, I anticipated the clock reaching ten. I stood up, stretched, forced myself to yawn even though Dad was ignoring me, and said, “Think I’ll head up. ’Night, Dad.”
He muttered, “’Night, Alex,” without looking up. I headed for the stairs, knowing it’d be at least an hour before he came up.
My bedroom was on the rear side of the house, with a window looking out over the backyard. It was a corner room and had a window in the side wall, too. I stepped into my room and didn’t turn on the light. I left the door open a wide crack so light from the hall allowed me to see. I walked to the side window, climbed onto my bed and looked out. I had a view of our street, and of our neighbor’s house and backyard through the cherry tree. I could see farther than that, too. I was looking at the house beyond and cattycorner to our neighbor’s house, a house facing on Sycamore, and two houses down from us. Our cherry tree didn’t block my view at all. There weren’t any large trees between that house and ours, and I could see the back and side of the house. I could also see into the windows if lights were on at night. I’d been looking at that house for two weeks now. At ten o’clock.
There was a boy that lived in that house about my age. I didn’t know him. The family had moved into the house during the summer. It was just by chance that one night I’d happened to look over there after I’d gone to bed and my room was dark. The window was lit up, and there was someone walking back and forth in the room. It was all too far away to see anything clearly, but I was curious. I jumped out of bed and grabbed the pair of binoculars that was on the top of my dresser. They were my dad’s but I kept them in my room; I used them more than he did. I crawled up on my bed with them and used them to look over at that house.
I could clearly see into the lighted room using the binoculars. My room was dark, so no one could see me looking. I adjusted the focus, and then saw who was walking back and forth. It was the boy who lived there. He was looking out the window, not in my direction, just looking out. And all I could see of him, from about his waist up, was bare skin.
As I watched, he moved away from the window and moved around the room, sometimes escaping my view, but often in it. He sat down on the bed, which I could see fully, and I saw he was totally naked. He started touching himself. As he responded, so did I, in a big way.
He did what boys our age do, and I watched him do it, and by the time he finished, his solo bravura performance had become a duet. When he’d finished and gone to bed, when he’d turned out his light and there was nothing left to see, I’d put the binoculars away and gone back to bed myself, glancing at the clock as I did. It had been 10:09.
I’d been rewarded with a bedtime show every night since then. It was a show that he had no way of knowing had become a participation sport.
I’d wondered at first if he knew he could be seen, but had decided not. He was in an upstairs room, and so from the ground, the angle of view would only show him probably from his shoulders up unless he was right up against the window. If he were standing in the window doing what he did, maybe someone could see down to his stomach, but not below that. And I’d never seen him do it standing up. Actually, the way the houses were positioned and where the trees were located, mine was the only house that had a good view into that window. He never looked my way when he was looking out the window, other than letting his gaze pass over our house as he glanced around. I decided he thought he couldn’t be seen, that when I’d first seen him come to the window he’d been checking that he couldn’t be seen, and he wasn’t doing what he was doing as any sort of exhibitionism.
I understood that what I was doing—watching him—was an invasion of his privacy and it was wrong. That just made it more exciting.
This nightly ritual had become something I looked forward to, something I really liked. It was now a part of me, looking at the clock at night, waiting, anticipating. When Daniel had told me we wouldn’t be doing anything together any longer, I’d been upset. When I discovered what this guy was doing and knew I’d be able to watch him, I was immediately consoled by the thought that I had someone else other than Daniel to focus on now, that I wouldn’t be entirely without a partner any longer. Even if he wasn’t a whole lot more than an imaginary one. I still hadn’t met the kid. I doubted he even knew I existed.
While I was watching him that night, while I was matching his actions, which I’d taken to doing, something else occurred to me. I’d learned about homosexuality in sex ed classes, but hadn’t given it much thought. Now, I did think about it, watching this other boy, and realized I really was turned on by the male body. I didn’t think much about girls at all.
I remembered we’d been told that it was normal to be interested in, to be turned on by—although the teacher didn’t say it like that—kids of our own gender at our ages. So, maybe that’s what this was. I didn’t know, and didn’t especially worry about it. After all, I was just doing what Daniel did, wasn’t I? Practicing? What I thought about while doing it, and while not doing it for that matter, it was just part of all this. Just growing up, I guessed.
That night, being tired after swimming with Daniel, after I’d put my book down and turned off my light, I thought about that a little more, about liking boys’ bodies, being excited by them. I thought about doing what I’d been doing, both the real thing with Daniel and watching this other boy. I thought how much more exciting what I’d done with Daniel had been—being in the same room with him, sharing something with him—than it was watching someone from afar who didn’t know I existed.
I wondered if the boy in the window might like to take Daniel’s place. But I had no idea how to find out. I didn’t even know how to meet him. And if or when I did, how could I possibly ask him about anything like what I was thinking?
I did know one thing, however. I did know he really liked doing what he did. I could see that clearly. And that had to work in my favor, didn’t it? And it was very exciting, thinking about it.
ª ª ª
Daniel dove from the diving board, kicking up a huge splash as his feet followed him into the water at a different angle than the rest of his body. He came up, shaking his hair out of his face. “I can’t seem to get the hang of it.”
“It’s just a matter of practice. Of course, it’s harder for you: being coordinated would help. Here, watch this.” I jumped up and walked briskly—no running—to the board and stood at the back end of it, feet together. I took a deep breath, then sprinted to the end and did a straight, racing dive, keeping my feet together and trying to keep my body and legs in a straight line.
I came up out of the water and Daniel was laughing. “That was worse than mine!”
I grinned. “Well, maybe we both need coaching.”
We’d been in for a while by then, so got out and hit the loungers. I lay on my stomach. The air was muggy as it usually is in Southern Ohio in late summer, and the sun was warm and felt good on my back. We were both brown now after less than a week of having the pool. He was browner than I was because he tanned while I mostly reddened. We’d spent part of every day wet.
“I was thinking,” I said, after letting the sun toast me for a few minutes. “There aren’t a lot of kids around here, but we ought to have a pool party. You know, invite all the neighbor kids our age. It would be a nice thing to do.” I added that last part because Daniel was all about being nice to people; it was who he was. I thought adding that last part would get him enthusiastic about my idea. He didn’t have to know about any ulterior motives I might have. I was 13; I think it was expected of me to be a little sneaky.
He propped himself up on his forearm and looked at me. “How many kids, do you think?”
“We wouldn’t want too many, just ones from right around here. Let’s see. There’s Reid on our street, and Evan, but that’s about it; the others are too young, and we don’t want that. What about on Hawthorne and Sycamore?” Those were the streets we were sandwiched between. “We need more kids than just those two on our street.”
Daniel bit. “There’s a new kid on Sycamore. I haven’t met him, but I think he’s about our age. This would be a good way to get to know him. And the twins live on Hawthorne. If we got all those it would be seven kids. Is that enough?”
“Eight might be better. It’s an even number. How about Arnie?”
Daniel sort of frowned, but then nodded. It was that ‘nice’ thing kicking in. He didn’t much like Arnie because Arnie was loud and something of a jerk. He lived on Sycamore; the twins, Joel and Jonah, lived on Hawthorne. All these kids were in our grade. I didn’t know about the age of my nighttime sex partner who lived on Sycamore, not far from Arnie. We’d find out how old he was, and other stuff, too. If he wanted to come. He probably would. He’d probably like to get to know kids his age in the neighborhood.
“So, how do we go about asking them?”
“Hadn’t you better ask your dad first?” I should have known Daniel would come up with that.
“Yeah,” I said, and rolled over so I could get some sun on my front. “But it’ll be all right. I’ll ask him tonight. Assuming he’ll say it’s OK, how should we go about it, the invitations I mean?”
“We’ll just ride around on our bikes, go to their houses, and ask them.”
“That’s best,” I agreed. “Especially this new kid. You know him at all?”
“Nope, but I saw the moving van unloading and sort of saw a kid our age standing in the garage, watching the movers haul stuff into the house. I waved at him. He didn’t wave back, but I don’t think he saw me.”
I didn’t answer that. I didn’t want to seem too curious, and Daniel didn’t know him as well as I did. I knew what he looked like naked.
“Want to go make some sandwiches?” I asked. It was lunchtime.
ª ª ª
We rode over to Hawthorne first. It was early afternoon and already hot and humid. We rode right by Reid’s house, but we wanted to ask the twins first. We liked them better. They were identical, they were uber smart, and lots of fun. They teased each other mercilessly but never got mad. I think they got a kick out of who could think of the cleverest insult. Even though they were identical, their personalities were a little different. I liked Jonah better, but only a little. They were both great guys. Jonah was slightly less outgoing than Joel and a little bit more thoughtful. I liked that. I was serious sometimes, too, and related to Jonah that way.
We dropped our bikes on the front lawn and rang the front doorbell. Joel answered, and Daniel told him about the pool being ready to swim in now, that we were having a pool party on Saturday, in the afternoon, and that my dad would barbecue some hamburgers and hot dogs after the swimming. He asked if they could come.
Joel stepped outside, pulling the door almost closed, and said in a soft voice, “Yeah, I can make it, but I don’t want Jonah to know. He can’t swim, but will want to come along anyway, and I’ll have to put those floaty deals on his arms that little kids wear and tug him around the pool all day and I’ll feel ridiculous, so we’ll just leave him here, OK? It’ll be better that way.”
At that point, Jonah yanked the door all the way open. He was wearing only a towel he was holding closed around his waist, and his hair was all messed up and wet, as was the rest of him. He’d pretty obviously just come from the shower. “Don’t listen to him!” he yelled. “In fact, stay away from him! He has foot and mouth disease, and it’s contagious. He refuses to wear his quarantine sign around his neck, says the spikes on the chain chafe, but he is contagious. He’s always sucking on his toes, his foot’s always in his mouth, I’ve been warning him but he won’t stop, and now he’s caught the disease. So, he’ll contaminate your pool. You’d have to drain and scrub it. With bleach! We’ll leave him home and I’ll come and eat twice as much food just to make up for his absence.”
That’s the sort of thing we always got from those two. They agreed to come, eventually, after Joel had told us not to invite any younger kids because Jonah was showing early signs of being a child molester—he’d had to let two kids go that very morning that he’d found Jonah had locked in a cage in the basement—and we rode back to our street. With those two at the party, everyone would have a good time.
We came to Evan’s house first, and I invited him. Evan was really shy, and didn’t hang out much with any of us because of that. He’d been home-schooled up until fourth grade, and I always thought that was why he was shy around other kids. He seemed pleased to be invited, though, and said he’d be there.
That left Reid. I had reservations about inviting him. But he was on our street, he’d been in school with us since kindergarten, both Daniel and I knew him, and it didn’t seem fair not to invite him. It was just that, well, Reid was a nerd. Big time. He was uncoordinated, didn’t seem to play sports at all, he wore glasses that he was always pushing up on his nose, his looks were sort of strange, he sometimes said things that were socially awkward, and in elementary school he had always read a book at recess rather than join in all the playground stuff the rest of the school did. I mean, who reads a book during recess? Come on!
I talked to him when I needed to, when it would have been awkward not to talk to him. We weren’t enemies. We didn’t dislike each other. In fact, a couple of weeks ago, I’d even lent him a book. I’d been riding my bike one afternoon, just riding to be outside doing something, and had passed him. He’d been sitting on his front lawn, reading. The reading a book part was normal for him, but doing it sitting in the middle of his lawn? That looked so strange I stopped, stared at him for a moment, then asked, “Hey Reid, why are you reading in the middle of your front yard?” He’d looked at me, rather blankly as he often did, then said, “Mom kicked me out of the house. Said it was a nice day, and to go outside. So, I did.”
I just shook my head, and was about to ride off, when I saw what he was reading. It was The Ringworld Throne. I thought, why not, and asked, “Have you read all of those?” He scrunched his eyes at me and said, “No, I just found this at the library. I like science fiction. Are there more of these? Have you read them?” So I told him what I knew about Larry Niven and the Ringworld series, and that I had all four books at home, and if he wanted I’d loan him the first of the series and then the others as he was ready for them. He didn’t know he was reading the third book. His face lit up like a Christmas tree while I was talking to him, and he told me thanks, that he’d come over to my house to get the first one when he was done with the one he was reading. He actually did it, too.
There was the other thing about him. His father had run off when he was a baby. His mother tried to make ends meet the best she could, but everyone knew they didn’t have much money. He dressed that way. So, he was poor, he wasn’t athletic, and from the way he acted at recess, he didn’t seem terribly comfortable hanging out with the rest of us boys. He just didn’t fit in, and because he seemed awkward around us, I sort of felt awkward being with him, too.
It wasn’t that anyone really disliked him. He was just one of those kids who seemed to be separated from the pack by some sort of kind of natural selection deal. And I had difficulty picturing him swimming and fooling around with the rest of us. I thought he’d put a damper on anything we were doing.
But he was someone I’d used when I was planning my ulterior motive scam. I knew if I mentioned inviting him, Daniel would be pleased. Daniel had gone out of his way, more than the rest of us, to include Reid in things. It hadn’t worked because Reid was Reid, but I knew Daniel cared, and I knew he’d be pleased if I invited Reid. Daniel kept me happy, and I tried to do the same for him. I didn’t mind having Reid there, but thought there was a good chance he wouldn’t enjoy himself much. I also thought there’d be a good chance he’d turn down the invitation, but Daniel would still know I’d thought of him.
We stopped at his house and knocked. His mother waitressed during the days and we figured she wouldn’t be home. We had to wait a bit, but then Reid opened the door wearing what looked like a pajama top and Bermuda shorts. The pajama top had little teddy bears speckled over it. And this kid was 13? Didn’t he have any self-respect at all?
“Hey, Reid.” Daniel took the lead on this one. “Alex is having a pool party to break in his new pool. We’re asking a bunch of neighborhood kids to come. It’ll be Saturday afternoon, and there’ll be food after. Can you come?”
Reid looked at Daniel, then me, and then broke out in a smile. I hadn’t ever seen him smile before that I could remember. He didn’t look quite so dorky, smiling. “Really? You want me to come?”
I beat Daniel to the punch. “Sure. Wear your bathing suit. Bring a towel or you can use one of ours.”
Reid looked really happy, and then, like a switch being thrown, the smile turned to a look of apprehension. “Uh, I don’t swim real well. I’ve never had much practice.”
“That’s no problem,” I reassured him. “You can stay in the shallow end, or hold on to the sides. There’ll be eight of us. Nobody’ll care.”
“OK,” he said, and as he was closing his door, his face showed me I probably hadn’t relieved all his worries. I was a little surprised he’d agreed to get together with a bunch of lively kids in a swimming pool. Maybe he had a waterproof book he could bring along.
So now all we had to do was get the two kids from Sycamore Street.
I wanted to save the new kid for last. I think I was nervous. I had no reason to be. I was sure he was unaware I was watching him every night, and joining in. I wasn’t sure why I was nervous, but that wasn’t really true. I knew, I just didn’t want to admit it. I sort of wanted the ‘joining in’ to move up to another level, and by meeting him, I was taking a step in that direction. Meeting him was the first step in finding out if I liked him, and if we could be the sort of friends who did things together. Meeting him might lead to those things. Meeting him could be the first step toward actually doing those things. Or, maybe it would lead to finding out that this was all a dream that wasn’t about to come true. I was thinking both those things at the same time, which added to my nervousness. Yeah, I know. Sort of nuts, huh?
First, though, was Arnie.
We rode over to his house. He lived three houses farther down his street than the new kid, farther away from my house. I couldn’t see in his windows. Not that I wanted to.
He was our age, in our classes, but as I said, he was a jerk. Not a bully, exactly, but one of those kids who liked to show off, liked to point out when another kid had done something wrong, and always provided his opinion on everything. In a loud, grating voice. There were times when kids, all kids, didn’t want attention drawn to them; that was when he’d be most likely to speak up.
He had red hair. On some kids, red hair can look really cool. His was curly and messy, always in need of cutting, and jutted out all over; his hair wasn’t cool, and neither was he. His hair was just one more thing about him that was irritating. Most everything about Arnie was irritating.
But, he was one of us, and we needed an eighth. Or at least it seemed that way to me.
I rang the doorbell, and Arnie opened the door. He had a sandwich in his hand, and said through a mouthful of food, “Getting up a game?” Then he burped. And made it last.
Arnie was annoying, but he was a regular participant when we got up touch football or baseball games in the street, or a basketball game in someone’s driveway. We didn’t include him in much else we did, so his assumption was a natural one.
“No, we’re inviting kids to a pool party at Alex’s.” Daniel liked everyone, cut everyone some slack, but even he had problems with Arnie. I could hear it in his tone of voice but it was very subtle, and anyone who didn’t know Daniel as well as I did would have missed it. Daniel gave Arnie the details, and Arnie said he’d come. As we left, I was wondering why I’d thought we needed eight. Oh well. It was too late now.
We were five for five with the invites, and this left only the new kid.
We rode up his driveway and left our bikes there. This house was probably the largest on the street and had the best landscaping. We were properly impressed. We walked up to the front door and I rang the bell. It took a minute or two, and I was about to ring again, when a pretty woman answered.
“Oh, hello,” she said, and smiled at us. “Are you looking for Vinnie?”
Well, I had a name now to go with a naked body. Unless she had two kids our age.
Daniel answered while I was still chewing on ‘Vinnie’ to see if it fit the image. “Probably,” he said, and grinned. No one can resist Daniel’s smile. She smiled back as he continued. “If he’s our age, then yes, we’re here to see Vinnie.”
She turned and called into the house, “Vinnie, there are some boys here to see you.” Then she turned back to us and said, “He’ll be right here.”
We heard someone tromping down the stairs, pretty much the same noise I made, and then there he was. The boy I’d been jerking off with every night.
He was gorgeous. I realized right then I’d spent more time looking at him below the waist than above. He had dirty blond hair a shade lighter than mine that had been styled attractively, a really cute face, and he was wearing A&F shorts and a polo shirt. He had on a pair of name brand athletic shoes that I knew ran well over $100. Everything about the house, and about Vinnie, yelled ‘money’.
He was a little taller than me or Daniel, but about the same weight, I guessed, which meant he was a little skinnier. On him, the word ‘slender’ seemed to fit better than ‘skinny’.
His mother walked away, leaving him in the doorway looking at us. He had a tentative smile on his face. “Hey guys, what’s up?” he said.
I thought I should speak. I wanted to make a good first impression, and I wanted him focusing on me, not Daniel. So, I said, “Hi. I’m Alex, and this is Daniel. We live on the street behind you, Buckeye. We wanted to say hello, and welcome to the neighborhood, and to invite you to a pool party at my house on Saturday afternoon. The pool was just put in, and we’re sort of breaking it in. There’ll be seven kids our age there, or eight if you come, all from around here, so you can meet them as well as enjoy the pool.”
I grinned at him. Dad said I had a cute grin. If so, it wouldn’t hurt to advertise a little.
“I’m Vin,” he said, grinning back. “I’m trying to cure my mom of calling me Vinnie. I hate that. It’s a little kid’s name. I’ve been trying out either Vincent or Vin, and think I’m going with Vin. You guys want to come in, hang for a while?”
I looked at Daniel and he shrugged, so we went in. I wanted to see his room up close. I knew what it looked like from about a hundred yards away.
His house was very nice. I’m a kid, and how houses look inside isn’t very important, but I’d never been in a house like that before. It was spacious, the furniture all looked new and elegant, not like the stuff in the houses I visited that was sort of beaten up and a little ratty. His room was a little bigger than mine, a lot neater, and he had games and electronic stuff that none of my friends had, and I certainly didn’t. I saw his bed up close for the first time; the bedspread was shiny and thick and expensive-looking.
We played a video game, and it was set up on his own widescreen TV. I’d never played like that before except in an arcade. It was pretty neat.
Vin seemed to have an outgoing personality free from any shyness, and in fact he might have been a bit over-confident, a trait I generally don’t like. He acted like we’d been friends for years, which I thought was a little peculiar. But he was easy to get to know and I liked that.
When we finally were leaving, Vin said he was looking forward to Saturday. I smiled at him, and he smiled back. I wondered if those looks meant anything. I sure hoped so. He was sexy as hell, and the way he looked at me made me feel something in my stomach. He’d seemed to be paying more attention to me than to Daniel.
Riding home, I asked Daniel what he thought of him. Daniel didn’t answer right away. In fact he didn’t say anything till we reached his driveway and he turned off. He stopped then, and I raised my eyebrows. He sort of grimaced, then said, “We’ll see, Alex. We don’t know him yet.”
ª ª ª
Everyone was there on Saturday when Vin showed up. We were in the pool, and I heard the doorbell ring. Dad had had the guy who’d installed the electrical equipment for the pool also wire up another bell to the back of the house so we could hear it if we were both in the pool, or if I was alone back there and Dad was out.
I hopped out and grabbed a towel, then headed to the door. Vin was standing there dressed in clothes, not a bathing suit, but he was carrying a rolled up towel, so I assumed his suit was in that.
“Hey, come on in. Everyone else’s already here.” I stepped back out of his way, and he came in.
“I guess I need to change then. Could we do it in your room? I’d like to see it.”
“Sure. Come on up.” I climbed the stairs with him right behind me.
I was 13 and didn’t have a mom to nag me, so my room looked like how you might expect it to look. The bed wasn’t made—I didn’t do all my chores every day; jeez!—clothes were scattered all over, and there was a slightly funky smell. I wasn’t embarrassed, however. This was the way my friends’ rooms looked, too. Except Vin’s, of course. But I was used to guys’ bedrooms looking like this, and I assumed he was, too.
He ignored the mess and looked at my posters on the wall. I had a couple of rock bands, but the one I like best was my Joey Votto poster. It hung over my bed, and below on my nightstand, along with the jumble of my clock radio, a box of Kleenex and a pile of books I was either now reading or about to read next, I had my Joey Votto bobblehead doll. Dad had taken me to a Cincinnati Reds’ game last year and it had been Joey Votto Bobblehead Doll Night. It didn’t look a whole lot like him, but that didn’t matter. I loved it.
The one thing he didn’t see was my binoculars. I’d taken to putting them away after using them every night. I’d figured I’d better. I’m sort of lazy sometimes, and I was afraid if I let myself, I’d get in the habit of leaving them on the windowsill, and if Dad saw them there, especially if he saw them there frequently, he might get ideas. Out of sight, out of mind seemed safest to me, and so I’d been stuffing them in my dresser under my sweaters every night. I was very happy now that they weren’t where Vin could see them.
I didn’t have nearly all the stuff Vin had. We weren’t as rich as his family. But I was proud of my room and my stuff. He looked around, told me he liked the two bands whose posters I had displayed, and asked if I had all their CDs. He said I could borrow the ones I didn’t have whenever I wanted to.
When he’d seen what there was to see, he said, “I can just change here, can’t I?” And without waiting for a reply, started pulling his shirt off.
I sort of froze. I was standing next to my bed, and he was in the middle of the room. He dropped his shirt on the floor where it nestled together with a couple of my shirts. Then he unbuttoned and unzipped his shorts and let them fall down around his ankles. He kicked his shoes off and the shorts with them. He had boxers on, light gray ones with darker gray pinstripes, and he simply reached up and yanked them down, too. Then he walked toward me.
I gulped. It had all happened so fast, I’d not had time to think, let alone react. Then he was standing next to me, and I don’t know what my face was showing, but I didn’t know what his was showing either as that wasn’t the part of him I was looking at.
He reached down for the rolled up towel he’d laid on the bed when he’d first come into the room. He unrolled it and I saw he had a bright red Speedo inside. He picked it up, then said, “Is anyone else wearing a Speedo? It always feels funny to be the only one.”
I had to look up at him to answer. He was smiling at me. His eyes told me he knew where I’d been looking, and it didn’t seem to bother him any. If anything, he was amused by it. I was glad we both were looking in each other’s eyes at that point because I was now responding to his nakedness, his proximity, the overall effect he was having on me, and I was only wearing a thin bathing suit. In another couple seconds, it would be oh so obvious.
“Uh—” I said. His grin got bigger, and then he glanced down. And laughed. “That happens to me all the time, too.” I was blushing big time by then, and he saw that, too. “No need to be embarrassed. It happens. Me too. See?” And I dropped my eyes and saw he was hardening, too.
He stood there, letting it happen, holding his Speedos in one hand, making no attempt to hide himself or put the bathing suit on.
I was getting in the same condition he was, but while he seemed to feel entirely comfortable with it, I wasn’t. Yeah, I’d hoped we’d get to know each other. Yeah, I’d hoped that eventually we might get to a point where we could maybe fool around a little together. In my mind, this was going to be a process we worked through. I wasn’t really ready for it to happen almost instantaneously. Even if a big part of me thought differently.
So I chickened out. I put my hand over myself and brushed past him, saying, “Yeah, it does happen, but it’s still embarrassing. I’ll wait for you in the hall.” And I left my room, then stood in the hall, hoping for mine to go down. Sometimes that took forever. I really didn’t want this to be one of those times.
I guess it took him a while, too, because it must have been almost five minutes before he came out, wearing the red Speedos and carrying his rolled up towel. His Speedos showed that he was still at least a little excited. He had a huge grin on his face. I couldn’t help grinning, too, in response.
“That was fun,” he said.
“Yeah, it was,” I agreed. I had to be positive. If I told him I was embarrassed or uncomfortable or hadn’t liked it, we’d possibly never do anything together, and I wanted us to. Even more than before, now that I had a much better feeling that he’d be into doing stuff as much as I was. And since I now knew how attractive he was from seeing him up close.
Our mutual grins turned into smiles, and our eyes seemed to communicate with each other. There was an air, and unspoken something between us. Standing in that hallway, it felt like we were sharing a secret.
The pool party went great. The twins were a riot, as I’d known they would be. Daniel spent most of his time around Evan, trying to get him to relax and just enjoy wading in the shallow end, and fending off the twins who were rambunctious and not terribly careful when waging war with each other. They seemed to be trying to pull each other’s suit off, which I thought a little weird as my dad was in the house and probably watching us. They kept trying strange dives, too, and ending up with one screaming and the other laughing when they hit the water wrong.
Of course, they had to compete with Arnie for the diving board. He spent almost all his time doing cannonballs, splashing about half the water out of the pool, and walking around the pool pushing any kid sitting on the side off into the water.
Reid spent most of his time just watching everyone. He stayed in the shallow end, avoiding the twins. Daniel spoke to him now and then, but mostly he was alone.
That of course left Vin and me. He looked so hot in his red Speedo that, along with what had happened upstairs, I was glad to stay in the water most of the time so nothing would be noticed. He was introduced to everyone else, and of course, as he wasn’t a bit shy, his natural charisma had him friends with everyone pretty quickly, but he seemed to be spending most of his time with me, which elevated my ego no end.
Dad finally brought the meat out and arranged it on the barbecue. It wasn’t long before the smell of cooking hamburgers and hot dogs had us all drooling, and we started getting out and gathering around watching it all cook.
I’d helped Dad fix a place for us to eat earlier. The table with the umbrella wouldn’t hold us all. Dad had some four foot by eight foot sheets of 3/4” plywood in the garage, and he cut a foot off parallel to the long side so we had an eight by three foot table to eat at. I’d helped set it up on three sawhorses, and then we’d put eight chairs around, four on each side. Dad had made some potato salad while I’d carried ketchup and onions and pickles and sliced cheese and buns and mustard and glasses and plates and mayonnaise and napkins and salt and pepper and silverware and I don’t know what all out onto that table. Daniel had come over while I’d been doing that and watched me, and when I’d eventually frowned and asked why he wasn’t helping, he’d said he couldn’t figure out what I was doing.
“What’d mean? I’m taking stuff out to the table? It’s obvious, isn’t it?”
“What’s obvious is to put everything you can on a tray and make one or two trips, not wear a path between the house and the table.”
I’d felt silly when he’d said that. But it had reminded me of what I already knew: that he was probably smarter and certainly less impulsive than I was.
Everyone was in high spirits as we ate. People wanted to get to know Vin so he was doing a lot of talking, which I could see he liked doing. Daniel looked at me a couple times with an unreadable expression on his face when Vin was telling about being on the track team of his old school, a private school, and how he’d been president of his class the past couple of years, and how he’d had to give a speech to the whole school to welcome the incoming freshmen last year, and how his father was a lawyer who was a partner at a large firm downtown and, well, you get the idea. Hey, it wasn’t his fault; he kept getting asked. And then I realized, Joel was doing most of the asking, and Jonah was making a lot of encouraging aahs and mmms while working hard to keep from smiling. Vin didn’t seem to notice.
When everyone was fed and full, it was time to wrap things up. Vin told me he needed to change and asked me to come up with him, and his eyes were sparkling and I thought about it, but I needed to say goodbye to everyone as they left and Daniel was watching me and, somehow, I thought it might be better to let Vin go up by himself. It had already been a pretty exciting day. And there was no rush. I’d figured out things were going to happen with us. They didn’t have to start right that minute.
That night, I watched him again. I wanted to see if he looked at the corner of my house he could see from his room. I hadn’t seen him looking out my window and I didn’t have any idea how good his sense of direction and space was. Perhaps he didn’t realize I could see his house. But I wanted to see if he’d look my way. He hadn’t, before.
I was upstairs early, at nine-thirty, telling Dad I was tired. I was. But not that tired.
I kept the light off and my door slightly open as usual, got the binoculars out from my drawer, kneeled on my bed as usual and looked. His room was dark. I got up and used the bathroom, checked the window, and then wondered what to do with myself. I decided to do what I always did after watching him. I shut my curtains, turned on my light, and read my current book.
At five till ten, I turned my light off and opened the curtains. His window was still dark. But, as I watched, his light went on.
I grabbed the binoculars and started my nightly vigil. He fussed with something on his dresser, moved out of my view and back in a couple of times, then started undressing. Unlike me, he put his dirty clothes in a hamper in his room which, luckily for me, was where I could see it, and so I could watch him undress. He was quickly naked, and then lay back on his bed, which was located where I could see all of everything. He started touching himself, and I followed suit. He had several variations on his main theme that I’d gotten to know pretty well.
It took him about ten minutes, all told, and when he was done, he got under the covers and turned off his light. I quickly cleaned up, shut my curtains, put away my binoculars, got in bed myself and reopened my book. I was smiling. Never once had he come to the window, or even looked in my direction from his bed. I was sure I was safe.
I didn’t read very long. I had a lot of things to think about—well, fantasize about—and wanted to do that more than I wanted to finish my chapter. I realized I wasn’t paying any attention to the words I was reading, so quickly shut the book and turned the light off, and got comfortable, snuggling into my pillow with just a sheet over me. I didn’t have long enough, thinking about everything I wanted to think about, Vin in my room, Vin undressing in front of me, Vin walking toward me, his smile, how all that felt, all the rest. I fell asleep way too fast that night.
ª ª ª
Daniel came over as I was finishing breakfast.
I nodded, my mouth full of cereal. When I could speak, I asked, “You come over to help clean up?”
He grinned, then sank down onto the chair across from me, Dad’s chair, and reached for a banana in the fruit bowl. “No, to watch you clean up. Your house, your pool, your mess.” The ‘mess’ part was said filtered through a mouthful of banana.
I grinned too, because I knew Daniel. He’d say that, then pitch in without being asked. He simply didn’t want to admit he was a goody two shoes and had come over because he knew I’d want the help.
We’d brought in all the food and condiments and stuff like that last night but there was still a lot to do. We carried the table into the garage and stored it away where we could use it again if we had another party, or if Dad decided he wanted to have an adult pool party. Daniel put the chairs back where they’d come from and I picked up all the towels the guys had left on the decking or hanging over chairs and took them to the laundry room. The pool refilled itself automatically, but I checked the chemical levels as Dad had shown me how to do and added some to bring the balances back to where they belonged.
When we were all done, I looked at Daniel and raised my eyebrows and he sighed and said, “Yeah, OK, set it up, but then we’re playing football.” So I got out the croquet set, we both set it up, and I beat him two out of three games. And I might have slacked off a little in the third one. No one, not even someone as good-natured as Daniel, likes to get trounced.
Then we put it all away and took turns being a running back. We had four downs to get from one end of the yard to the other. The defensive player had to get five yards back from the person with the ball, and the play started when the ball carrier took his first step. It was tackle, and we didn’t have equipment, but we were both the same size, and where he might have been a step faster than I was, I was shiftier, so they were always good games, leaving us exhausted and always a little bruised. Daniel won, five touchdowns to three. I think he was trying harder than usual. I’d have to remember to play football first next time.
We got soft drinks and sprawled out on the chaise lounges, after having dragged them into the shade. We were sweaty, we had grass stains on our skin and shorts, and we were ready for a break. I rubbed my shoulder, saw Daniel smile at that, and asked him, “You think everyone had a good time yesterday?”
“Yeah, I think so. Evan was kind of tense at first, but loosened up and was even chatting a little with Jonah after a while. He sat next to him at dinner, too; you see that? It’d be great if those two became friends. I think it would be good for Joel and Jonah, too.”
“What about Reid?”
He scratched some blades of grass off where they had been ground into his knee, then turned to look at me. “He has problems, doesn’t he?” When I nodded, he said, “But you know, yesterday, he was really trying. I don’t think he minded not having friends when he was younger, but maybe he’s feeling lonely now. I saw him try to talk to Joel a couple of times, but that wasn’t his best choice, of course. Joel could stand some growing up. Everything isn’t always a joke.”
“He’s smart enough to know that, too,” I said, agreeing with him. “He probably does realize that.”
Daniel nodded. “Probably a defense mechanism; keeps him from having to be serious, which he may not be emotionally comfortable with.”
I turned to look at Daniel. “What’s this, amateur psychology? ‘Defense mechanism’? ‘Emotionally comfortable’? Where’s that coming from?”
Daniel grinned. “I read a lot, just like you, but Dad doesn’t like me reading all fiction. He says there’s more to life than fantasy and science fiction.”
“There is?” I asked, sounding very surprised. Daniel threw his empty pop can at me.
I dodged, the best one can while lying down, and said, as casually as I could, “It seemed everyone got along well with Vin.”
Daniel didn’t respond. When Daniel goes quiet, there’s always a reason. I knew he’d heard me. I waited, and when he didn’t say anything, looked at him and asked, cautiously, “Did you think Joel and Josh were making fun of him at dinner?”
Daniel had gone back to lying on his back, but that made him turn his head toward me. “Well, duh!” he said. How he got as much sarcasm as he did into two words, I wasn’t sure.
“What? You thought it was OK for them to pick on him?”
“You’re defending him?” he threw right back at me. “He’s a snob, and way too full of himself. He’s a new kid here. He’s supposed to try to fit in with us, not tell us how great he is! Joel and Jonah were just cutting him down to size. He wasn’t smart enough to pick up on it. You would have. The J’s would have. Maybe even I would have.”
As I said, Daniel’s probably smarter than I am, and I always say ‘probably’ so I won’t hurt my feelings. There’s no question he’s more modest than I am, too.
We talked some more, about having to go back to school soon, what teachers we hoped to get and not to get, about a church camp Daniel would be going to for a week just before the summer ended, about TV shows we were following, about the crap kids talk about. He had to go home for lunch, and said he had to go shopping with his mom that afternoon but would come over in the morning the next day unless he had chores, in which case it wouldn’t be till the afternoon.
He left, and I remained lying on my chaise lounge, just thinking. Thinking mainly about how I was going to get together with Vin.
It was getting muggier as the afternoon lengthened. The sun was still high. When the sweat was rolling down my sides even though I was lying in the shade, I got up and looked at the pool. No one was around. No one was home. Our one next door neighbor’s house was on the other side of our house from the pool. Trees obscured the pool from the house behind ours, and the new security fence helped shield it from the street. I started feeling a little daring, a little excited, but mostly I was feeling hot and sweaty.
I stepped through the gate onto the pool decking, toed off my sneaks, and then with some trepidation and a quickly beating heart, slid down my shorts and briefs. I stood there, outside in the daylight, naked, for a couple of seconds, just feeling what that was like, and then jumped into the pool.
ª ª ª
Vin called me that evening. He wondered if he could come swimming the next day. Actually, what he said was, “I’d like to come over tomorrow. We could swim and, you know, other stuff. Is your father going to be there during the day?”
I was glad this was over the phone as just saying that was enough to get me stirring. I told him my dad would be gone—he had a job teaching summer school and then administering an after school program at the high school—but Daniel would probably be over sometime during the day. Vin told me I should call him and find out when he’d be over, and Vin could be over when he’d left, or before he got there. He didn’t have to explain what he meant by that; I could hear the excitement in his voice. I wondered if he could hear anything in mine other than nervousness. I’d only ever done anything with Daniel, that had only been a couple of times, and we hadn’t even touched each other. Just watched.
So I was really nervous, wondering what he’d want to do, and whether I’d want to do it, and what it would be like. Excited, and eager, but nervous, too.
I called Daniel. He said he’d be over in the morning but had to be home for lunch and then go somewhere with his mom. When he got vague like that, it usually meant he had to do something involving his church. It embarrassed him to talk about it because he knew I wasn’t into religion at all, so he was evasive, but I could guess that was what it was.
I called Vin back. “Daniel will be over till just before lunch. You could come over at ten or eleven, we could all hang together for a while, then when he leaves, we could, well, go swimming or whatever.”
“Whatever,” he repeated, and then laughed. “I haven’t called it that before,” he said, and laughed some more. I laughed, too, but mine was a much more subdued laugh than his. No less eager, but more subdued.
ª ª ª
Daniel and I were playing croquet when Vin arrived. Daniel was ahead and wanted to finish the game instead of just stopping. I think he could taste the blood in the water. I asked Vin if he minded and he said, no, he’d never played the game and so would be happy watching. He watched, and I was so distracted having him there and thinking what we’d soon be doing that I made a couple of lousy shots. It really only takes one bad shot in a close match, and Daniel had been winning. He won. Oh well, it did happen occasionally when I wasn’t intentionally letting down a bit.
I asked Vin if he wanted to play a next game with us, and he said no, so we stopped and picked up the game equipment. Vin didn’t want to play football either, and I didn’t want to toss a Frisbee around. Vin said what he would like to do was swim. Daniel hadn’t brought his suit, and it wouldn’t be that long before he’d have to leave anyway, so he said he’d just watch us. Vin said he’d go up to my room with me to change, and I said OK, and then the doorbell rang. I told Vin to go on ahead and I’d be up as soon as I’d got rid of whoever was at the door.
Vin didn’t go up, though. He stood at the bottom of the stairs, watching, and Daniel was there too when I opened the door. Reid was standing there, looking nervous.
When I saw him, my emotions went into turmoil. Of all the people to come over, and right then! He never came over. I’d been as nice as I could to him at the pool party, and told him he could come again, but I hadn’t expected this. It would only be a few minutes before Daniel would have to go, and then....
“Hi, Reid. What do you want?” OK, that wasn’t the most cordial greetings, but I didn’t want him there.
“Uh, well, I just thought....”
And he stopped. I needed to get rid of him. My afternoon lay ahead of me, and it didn’t include Reid. I had plans!
“Well, I’m kind of busy, and already have someone over, so, uh, why don’t you come back another time? OK?”
Reid was looking over my shoulder. I knew he could see both Vin and Daniel. He looked back at me, and I saw pain in his eyes. I saw his hesitancy, his insecurity, his awkwardness, turn to sadness, and then pain.
“OK,” he said. “I’m sorry, Alex.” And then he turned and walked away.
When I closed the door and turned around, Vin was grinning at me. Then he turned and walked upstairs. Leaving me with Daniel. Who, it turned out, was livid.
“What the hell was that!” he asked, and not quietly. He was more than angry.
You have to know Daniel. He never swore. Ever. This was the first time I’d ever heard him say anything like that. He didn’t say ‘damn’, he said ‘darn’. He didn’t even say, ‘Oh my God’. Sometimes he said ‘gosh’, but that was about it.
For him to say what he did, he had to be furious. He was.
I took a step backward, and my back hit the door. “Uh, well, I was just going to swim. He didn’t have a suit.”
He just looked at me. He knew I was making that up. So first I was intentionally rude to someone Daniel had been trying to be friendly with, trying to help, and now I was lying to him about it, and we both knew it.
“I can’t believe you did that,” he finally said. There was something that sounded like disgust in his voice. “What’s wrong with you? You know how hard that was for him, to come over here? You totally shot him down. And why? You had no reason at all to do that. What in the world were you thinking? Alex!”
I didn’t know what to say. I knew why I’d done it. I simply hadn’t been thinking of the effect it might have on Reid. Even now, knowing I’d hurt him, I couldn’t forget that Vin was upstairs, right now, and probably naked.
Daniel’s eyes were boring into me, and when I didn’t answer him, he gave me a disgusted shake of his head and said, “I’m going after him. I can’t believe you did that. That’s not who I thought you were.” And he roughly pushed me aside, actually put both hands on my shoulder and shoved me out of the way, opened the door and walked out of the house. He looked back at me, standing there feeling totally lost at what was happening so suddenly. “One of the reasons I really liked you Alex, why we were best friends, was because you were such a nice guy.”
Just like that, what I’d been expecting to be one of the best days of my life was turning into one of the worst.
I turned so my back was to the door and slumped against, then slid down it so I was sitting on the floor. I couldn’t lose Daniel as my friend. I simply couldn’t. He was too much a part of my life. But he was different from me. He had principles and morals and ethics that were a big part of him. He was my friend, but I knew he could decide he didn’t want me to be his any longer.
The fact was, I didn’t know who I was either, if I could do what I’d just done. I didn’t think I was a selfish boy, but I knew selfishness played a role in how I was acting with Vin. I wanted to be alone with him. It was more than just the sex part, too. I really liked the thought that this new kid who was sort of larger than life and had a charisma about him that none of my friends had could like me better than anyone else. That had seemed a possibility to me, especially if we were doing things together that he wasn’t doing with anyone else. I wasn’t really a super popular kid at school. If Vin was my friend, that might change. I already knew, just by looking at him and how sure of himself he was and how rich he was, he’d be a popular kid as soon as he entered the school.
But as good as that might be, there was no way I wanted it if the price would be Daniel. And I could see losing Daniel might be exactly what would happen now.
I was still sitting on the floor when Vin walked back down. “What’s the matter” he asked. He sounded curious, not concerned.
“Uh, nothing I guess.” I didn’t know how to answer that. I stood up and said, “I thought you were changing.” He was still carrying his rolled up towel and suit.
“I was, and then got a call on my cell. Mom wants me home. Damn it, I was so looking forward to this. Well, we’ll do it again. I’ll call you.”
He walked to the door. I’d gotten up and was opening it. He sort of stumbled into me, and in catching his balance, his hand landed on my crotch. He pressed in as he righted himself, grinned at me and left.
That night, I was really mixed up. I’d called Daniel’s house after dinner, and his dad told me he couldn’t come to the phone, and then said goodbye and hung up. What was that all about? Daniel could always come to the phone, even if it was just to tell me he couldn’t talk right then. Politeness was the rule of the day, every single day, in that house.
So I was in a foul mood when I went upstairs at ten. But I was addicted, and went up, and did what I always did, checking that Dad was occupied and then leaving the door slightly open so light from the hall could spill into the room. I got out the binoculars, stripped and got on the bed and looked out the window. Vin was on his bed, already started. Even with the mood I was in, I was still horny enough to join in.
We were coming down the homestretch, me pacing myself, knowing how close he was because I’d been watching him for several days now, one hand on my binoculars, one on me, when suddenly I heard a gasp and, “Oh uh—” and when I turned my head, Reid was standing in my doorway, looking at me.
“What the hell?” I exclaimed. I couldn’t pull the covers up to hide behind because I was kneeling on them. All I could do was dive down on the bed so I was lying on the important stuff. I turned my face to him. He was looking scared, and interested, and his expression kept changing so fast I couldn’t keep up with it. Having the light coming from behind him didn’t help me read it any better, either.
“I was just bringing your book back. Your dad told me just to come up, and your door was open. I didn’t know….” His voice sounded breathy and sort of scared, sort of upset.
“Well, leave it then.” I said. I wasn’t really in a good position to be bossy, but I wanted him gone.
He did. He glanced around, then set the book he was carrying on the floor right where he was and turned to go. He stopped, and without turning back to look at me, said, softly, “I’m sorry, Alex.”
It wasn’t till much later I realized it was the second time that day he’d said the exact same words.
ª ª ª
The next day was hard, and didn’t get easier. What kept going through my mind was, Reid had seen what I was doing. He’d seen me with the binoculars. And what was worst of all, he was a kid who’d had no friends, but now apparently wanted one. And then there was Daniel, who was mad at me, and was trying to be nice to Reid, and what would be more than likely was that they’d get together, and they’d talk, and Reid would tell Daniel what he’d seen.
I thought about it and thought about it and I felt pretty sure that’s what would happen. If I were in Reid’s shoes, and had the opportunity to make a friend, and at the same time make my new friend’s old friend look bad, would I do it? I probably would. I didn’t have Daniel’s decency. I was a lot weaker than he was.
This wasn’t something I could talk to Daniel about, even if he was talking to me. He wasn’t. He wouldn’t answer the phone, and when I knocked on his door, his mother said he was busy, then closed the door. I felt about two inches high, taking that long walk back across the street, thinking everyone probably was looking out their windows at me.
My dad asked me what the matter was when he came home for lunch, as he sometimes did. I said, “Nothing,” and that was all I said, and didn’t look at him when I said it. That was to become my pattern for the rest of the week. He was the only one I had to talk to, and somehow that first curt remark to him developed into a mantra. I had no one else to take out my bitterness on, and he was there. It wasn’t fair, I knew that, but I was upset and playing fair didn’t come into it. I was hurting and wanted other people hurting, too.
Something else happened then that put the icing on the cake. The next night, after I’d spent the day brooding about what Reid would do, and getting the cold shoulder from Daniel’s house, I wasn’t in a horny mood at all, but thought maybe, just maybe, going upstairs as usual might make me feel better. So, I did. I got ready, got on the bed, and looked over. Vin was walking around in his room, into and out of my view, still dressed. I wasn’t really ready to do anything anyway, my mood being what it was, so I just watched. And one time when he walked by where I could see him, he walked over to his dresser and opened it up, and took something out. And even though it was small, I recognized what it was. It was a bobblehead doll, and looked a lot, by the color and size, like the one I had. I glanced over at my nightstand.
My Joey Votto doll wasn’t there.
I jumped off the bed and went looking. Maybe I’d bumped it during the night and it had fallen behind the stand. But it wasn’t there. I shut my door and closed my curtains and turned on the light. It was gone.
I turned the light back off and looked out again. Vin had put the doll on top of the dresser, and now was on the bed, doing what he did. I just stared at the doll more than him. And started getting madder and madder. That son of a bitch had stolen my Joey Votto!
Daniel was right again. He was always right. He’d said we didn’t really know Vin. I’d ignored that. This week was not helping my ego at all.
The next few days I spent trying to figure out what to do. What should I do when Vin called? What should I say? Did I still want to do stuff with him, knowing he wasn’t just a thief, but a thief who stole from people he was friends with, people he was planning to do intimate, private things with. And I’d risked a friendship with Daniel for him?
Maybe I deserved this. That’s the only thing I could come up with. Why had all this happened? Was there something wrong with me that had caused everything to come crashing down on me?
What I missed most was Daniel. I did see him occasionally, riding his bike down to Reid’s house. He didn’t even look in my direction while doing so. I wanted to be mad at him, but I couldn’t be. All I could be was disappointed in myself, and sad that what was the best relationship I’d ever had, could ever expect to have, seemed to be over.
That was a bad few days. I didn’t talk to dad, even though he tried. Vin never did call, so there was nothing going on there, no resolution, no nothing. I didn’t go out much. We had a brand new pool, and I didn’t use it. I read some, but mostly I sat and thought. Brooded, really. About what had happened, and why, trying to understand. And that didn’t help either.
ª ª ª
The farmlands outside the car rolled by. I’d gotten up the nerve to speak, and before it failed me, I began. And I surprised myself: once begun, I didn’t chicken out. I felt like it a few times, but I plowed through it. I told him how I’d hurt Reid. How Daniel wasn’t speaking to me and maybe would never be my friend again. How he wouldn’t even talk to me. And then, feeling almost nauseous about doing so, I began telling him how I’d seen Vin through my window, what he’d been doing, and that I spied on him every night, and that I did what I saw him doing while watching him.
That was hard, and the one thing that gave me the courage to say it was that Daniel had told his father he did it, and it had been OK. That might have been the only reason I was able to tell my dad.
He glanced at me when I said it, but I was looking out the front windshield so he couldn’t catch my eyes. He didn’t say anything, but, to my surprise, patted my leg. Just a couple pats. Then he was looking out front again.
I’d had to tell him about watching Vin, and what I’d been doing, because I had to tell him Reid had caught me doing it, and that was a major part of my problem now. I told Dad I was pretty sure he’d told Daniel, and that was another reason why Daniel wasn’t talking to me.
Once I got talking, I pretty much told him everything. About what had happened when Vin was changing in my bedroom before the pool party. About what Daniel said as he was leaving, and how calling me his best friend had all been in past tense. About now knowing Vin was a thief.
Dad was quiet for a few moments. Then he reached over and squeezed my thigh. “What makes you feel worst in all this?” he asked, softly and calmly. His natural calmness was so welcome right then.
I had to think about that. Finally, I said, “All of it. But I can’t stand the thought that Daniel won’t be my friend any longer. And I don’t think he will. Reid will have told him what he saw. He might even tell kids at school. I hurt Reid’s feelings, and he has the perfect way to get back at me for that.”
I took a deep breath. “I hate it that I misjudged Vin. I’m pissed that he stole my doll, but I can get over that. What’s worse, now that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, maybe worst of all is that I hurt Reid’s feelings without giving it a thought. I was more concerned about my feelings right then, what I wanted to do. Daniel was right: I’m not as nice a person as I thought I was. I hate that, and I hate that Daniel thinks that too. Knows it.” I hesitated, and then blurted out, “And I don’t like that I’ve disappointed you.”
“Me?” Dad sat up a little straighter and gave me a quick glance. I was still looking straight ahead. “How have you done that? You made some mistakes, but boys make mistakes. Everyone does, but boys seem especially adroit.” He glanced at me, said firmly, “Alex, I’m not disappointed in you.”
He sounded like he meant it, which I couldn’t really comprehend. “You’re not? You mean, uh, you mean, it doesn’t bother you that I’m gay?”
“Oh! That. You’ve been worrying about that. I should have realized.” His voice sounded very normal. I didn’t get it.
“Tell me about that,” he said, continuing on. “How long have you known you were gay? What makes you sure you are?”
“I’m sure. I like looking at boys more than girls. I find them much more attractive. And I like thinking about doing things with them. We learned about it in sex ed.”
He didn’t speak for a moment, thinking I guess. Then he asked, “Do you find girls at all attractive?”
“Well sure, some of them.”
“And do any of them get you excited? I mean, well, you know what I mean.”
“Dad, I’m 13. Lots of things get me excited.”
“Including some girls?”
Damn, he was persistent. “Sure, some girls do. But boys more often. I really like looking at boys.” Damn! What a thing to have to say to my father! It was like I was having to convince him I was gay.
“When did you start knowing you were gay? When they talked about it in sex ed? Or long before that.”
“No, it’s only been recently. Since, well, since I’ve been more horny. Dad, should we be talking about this? It’s embarrassing!”
“Don’t you feel better, now that you’ve told me why you’ve been so mopey lately?”
“Well, yeah.” And I did. Some of the pressure was off.
“So talking’s good, and this is something else that’s been bothering you. Don’t be embarrassed. I was your age, way back when. I went through the same stuff, more or less. And I didn’t want to talk to your grandfather about any of it either. For the most part, I didn’t. Parents and kids didn’t communicate well about sex stuff, back then. Alex, I had crushes on boys at your age. I think most boys do. Just like most boys masturbate. Men do too, you know. It isn’t something we discuss, generally, but parents know sons do that. It’s no problem, and I’m not even embarrassed that you told me. But that you do that, and that you enjoyed watching Vin do it, and that you think boys are attractive, those aren’t really signs you’re gay. They’re signs you might be, but not that you are. If you’re having crushes on boys when you’re 18, that might be a better sign. That would be more telling. But you’re 13. You’re supposed to find boys attractive.”
He glanced at me, but I still wasn’t looking at him. I let him keep talking. “I remember having crushes on girls, too, but a lot more on boys when I was 12 and 13. What about you?”
I didn’t have to think about that very hard. “Sure, I’ve had crushes on girls. Not so much lately, though.”
We drove on, and I began to wonder when he was going to turn around. We were getting a long way from home.
“Alex,” he said, finally, “You might be gay. You might not be. You’re going to get to know yourself better and better as time passes, and in a few years, you’ll probably have it figured out for sure. But don’t label yourself now, because if you do, you’ll try to live up to that label. Labels are dangerous. Just go with the flow, as we used to say back in my era. But before we leave this subject, I have to say this: I don’t care if you’re straight or gay. I really, truly don’t. I do care if you’re happy, and making yourself proud by the way you act. If you’re doing what you have to do to be a good person in your own eyes, then I’ll be proud of you too. But whether I’m proud or not, what I will always do is love you. I cannot imagine not loving you. I’m your dad, you’re my son, and I love you, and those are three things that will never change.”
Eventually, he turned the car around. That made me feel good, because it seemed to mean we’d resolved some things, and it was OK to be going home.
I felt better than I had in a week, and I guess we had resolved the issue of my not talking to him, but I didn’t think we’d resolved anything else. Well, OK, I wasn’t worried about Dad finding out I was gay anymore. I guess I had been worried about whether he’d still love me when he found out I was gay. I still thought I was, but knowing it didn’t matter to him had been awfully reassuring. And I agreed, to myself, that I’d keep an open mind on the subject. That thing about not living up to labels made a lot of sense.
But Daniel, and Vin, and Reid? Nothing had changed there, and I didn’t see how it could. Dad had other ideas about that. But first....
We stopped at a fast food place. Dad hates fast food. He also is aware that I have a perverse love of it. He stopped, and we went inside. Before we went inside, he hugged me. Right out in the open. It would have upset me if it hadn’t felt so good, if I hadn’t needed that hug so badly. In the restaurant, he ordered a cup of coffee. I had two large burgers, a large fries and a milkshake. I hadn’t been eating much this last week, and suddenly, I was feeling hungry. We didn’t talk. I was too busy stuffing my face.
Back in the car, headed for home, he started talking again.
“So,” he began, “you’re not friends with Reid. What don’t you like about him?”
“This is all embarrassing, Dad.” I also thought this was a strange place to begin. I was much more worried about my relationship with Daniel, and he had to know that.
“Everything seems to be embarrassing to you. It’s a good thing you’re talking to me about it rather than a friend, then.”
It only took me about a second, thinking about that, to realize, as crazy as it sounded, he was right. I’d already told him the bad stuff, and it didn’t seem to have affected him much at all. He was still on my side. I didn’t know how my friends would react to what I’d just told him, but I had a pretty good idea. It would be disastrous. With him, it hadn’t been. Go figure.
“So?” Man, he wasn’t going to give me a break at all.
“I don’t want to talk about this. It makes me feel bad. I’m not proud of myself when it comes to him, and talking about it will be even worse. And telling you about it won’t help.”
“Well, if you want to take a nap, I’ll wake you when we reach the bridge over the Ohio.”
Jeez! Well, screw it! I had some pride left. I didn’t talk to him. I talked to the windshield again instead. “I don’t like to be around Reid because he’s not cool, I guess. Most of my friends are pretty cool. Maybe not the most popular kids, but certainly kids everyone likes well enough, and, I guess, respects. But Reid isn’t cool at all, and isn’t at all popular, and I don’t want to encourage him and then have him hanging around me all the time.”
I blushed. It sounded awful. I knew that. But, well, how I looked to other kids was important. It was! Maybe you had to be 13 to understand.
“So what we’re talking about here is your image?”
I almost shuddered. But this whole conversation had been tough from the beginning, and at least I hadn’t chickened out. No reason to begin now. “Yeah, my image.”
We were both quiet then, thinking I guess. I was. I was thinking about what he’d said before, about him being proud of me if I behaved in a way such that I was proud of myself. That really, really sounded good to me. What I’d just said sounded bad.
“And Daniel. How mad at you is he?”
“I don’t know, but since he won’t talk to me, it’s pretty bad. Dad, I need him! He’s much more important than anything else in this whole mess.”
“What are you going to do to get him back, then?”
“Dad! I don’t know! Maybe I can’t!”
He turned to look at me then, and for once, I turned to look back. He could see the agony I was in. I wanted him to see.
Guys who are 13 don’t cry. But I was darned close. And frustrated. Didn’t he realize I’d been sweating this all week? If I’d known what to do about it, I’d have already done it. Asking me what I was going to do wasn’t helping at all!
We drove some more in silence. Then he said, “You do know, of course. You just don’t want to do it.”
Arrrrggg! And I thought he was on my side!
I just sat and fumed, and I guessed he’d had enough of that, a week of that, so he said, “What’s the only way you’re going to be friends again? The only way.”
Well, that was pretty easy to answer. “We have to talk.”
“Exactly! You have to talk to him. And what will you say?”
I opened my mouth, then shut it. That was a more difficult question. What could I say?
I had to think about that, and more miles passed beneath us.
I’d been thinking all week, but not like I was doing now. Now, I was only focusing on what I could say to Daniel to improve things, to get them back to how they were before. That was different from having all sorts of thoughts about everything that had happened jumbled up in my mind all at once. But that’s what I started doing, concentrating, focusing, and for the first time in a week, productive ideas started to come to me. It became clear what I needed to do, had to happen to make things right. And when I knew that, plans began to develop. I found one that might have some chance of working, and that led me in another direction, and I considered that, and before I knew it, I’d sort of worked out a couple of things. I now had a plan of action, of sorts. And, coincidentally, we were pulling into our driveway.
When we got out, I made it a point to hug my dad again, even if the neighbors could see. I’d left our house a few hours ago a complete mess, certain I’d screwed up my life, and lost my best friend. Now I’d returned and was feeling the beginnings of optimism. My dad had done that. He deserved at least a hug, and if it had to be in public, well, he was my dad.
ª ª ª
I slept on my plan to fix things, and the next day, feeling less optimistic as I approached the kick-off point but more determined than ever to go ahead and not wanting to spend another day sitting and staring at the walls, I got up, ate breakfast, took a deep breath, and walked out the front door.
I walked down the street to his house and up to his door and knocked. Had to wait a few minutes, but was expecting that. No teenager likes to be up before noon in the summer.
I finally heard the front door being unlocked, and then there he was, yawning and again decked out in multiple teddy bears, only this time it was top and bottom both. He looked at me myopically; he’d neglected to put on his glasses.
“Reid,” I said. I wasn’t sure how he’d react to my visit. If I’d been him, I’d probably have closed the door and gone back to bed.
“Oh, hi Alex. What are you doing over here in the middle of the night?”
Huh? Reid was making a joke? A joke when he was still half asleep? That was more than amazing. It was astounding. But, it served a great purpose. It told me he wasn’t upset with me, at least not near as bad as I’d expected him to be, and with that, about half my nervousness went away.
“Can I come in?” I tried to hold his eyes with my most persuasive look, but as he wasn’t wearing his glasses and had decided to scratch his back just then and was sort of half twisted into a pretzel, I didn’t think he’d noticed.
He straightened back up and said, “Oh, sure. Come on in.”
He stepped back from the door, and I entered.
I’d never been in his house before. I didn’t know what to expect. I knew they didn’t have much money, but the yard always looked good. I saw Reid out mowing it and edging it every week in the summer, and raking it in the fall.
The inside was a surprise. The furniture looked as if it had been there for a while, but everything was very neat, very clean. Even the windows were clean. Our house only looked like this one when Dad’s mom and dad were going to visit. We weren’t slobs but we were two guys, and housework didn’t appeal to either of us. So we kept things basically looking OK, it didn’t embarrass me any, but no one would ever give our efforts the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.
They might for this house. The stuff they had may have been old, but the housekeeping was immaculate. And the way the room was decorated was special, too. There were pillows on the living room couch that contrasted with the color of the couch and matched the upholstery of the chairs. There was an oval rug on the hardwood floor with bright reds and blues threaded into it, and those reds and blues were picked up in the artwork on the walls. None of it looked expensive, but it all looked just right, comfortable and esthetically pleasing, somehow. Thought and attention and care had gone into this room, even if not much money had.
“Let’s go to my room. I might as well get dressed.” He led me down a short hall off the living room. His room wasn’t much like mine. Mine had stuff scattered all over it. Dad had me keep my door closed, but didn’t expect tidiness. I was supposed to make my bed every day, but he didn’t check and I wasn’t all that conscientious about it. Reid’s room was smaller than mine and he didn’t have much electronic stuff at all, although he did have a computer. His room was neat, though, even if his bed wasn’t made. It was obvious I’d gotten him up.
I was looking around while he was getting a pair of shorts and a T shirt out of his dresser, along with briefs and socks. He threw the stuff on his bed, then shucked out of his pajama top, and I started getting nervous. But he put the top in a clothes hamper at the bottom of his bed, then picked up what he’d taken from his dresser and said, “I’ll be back in a sec.”
He left the room, and I heard what I assumed was the bathroom door close.
Left alone in his room, I snooped. Well, who wouldn’t? The outstanding feature of the room was its bookcases. He had four of them, and they were all full of books. Lots and lots of science fiction, some fantasy, and some other books that I wasn’t sure what they were. One thick one had a strange title, Leaves of Grass, and, being curious, I pulled it out and opened it up. Poetry! What 13-year-old boy reads poetry?
I tried to read some of the poems, but they made little sense to me. I put the book back and tried another thick one, and it too was poems. I’d known Reid read a lot. I hadn’t known he read poems!
I then saw a book I recognized. Right there with the other poems. It was Milne’s When We Were Very Young. I took it out an opened it.
So many poems, and so many memories. I remembered Ernest the elephant and Leonard the lion and the special fondness I’d had for James, even if he was very small. Maybe because he was very small and I wasn’t very big myself when I got to know him.
My mom had read these to me, over and over. Along with Winnie the Pooh, of course, but she’d loved the poems, and had read them to me often. Holding the book, reading it, memories of being in bed, and her sitting with me, reading out loud in her soft voice, sort of running her fingers through my hair as she did, suddenly cascaded down on me. Memories of her that I’d forgotten flooded over me, and I felt almost dizzy, and was practically overcome. Suddenly, I was overwhelmed, and was lucky his bed was only a step away.
I sat on his bed and when I could, riffled through the book, reading favorites as I came to them. Of course, there was Mary Jane, the girl who didn’t like rice pudding and whose behavior I had understood even when I was five. And James Dupree, James James, who’d lost his mother because she was silly enough to go to town without taking him along to look after her. It had been my mother who had read to me about James, and somehow, someway, I’d never thought, since I’d lost her, about James James being upset with his mother. I’d never made the connection, even when I’d gone through a period of being upset with her because she’d abandoned me by dying.
I sat on the bed and read about the foxes without sockses, and visiting the biffalo-buffalo-bisons at the zoo, and had gotten all the way to the God bless Mummy at the end when I noticed Reid standing in the doorway, looking at me with a strange expression on his face. I understood when I felt wetness on my cheeks.
I quickly stood up, brushed off my tears, and put the book back where it had been on his shelves. “Sorry,” I said huskily, speaking to the wall more than him.
He didn’t say anything. Just came over and sat on the bed. Silently.
I wasn’t going to talk about what he’d just seen. This was the second time he’d caught me in an embarrassing position. The other time, he’d just walked away. Now, he was just sitting, not even looking at me. It occurred to me, suddenly, to wonder if indeed he had told Daniel about what he’d seen. He had to have, certainly. Most anyone would, and certainly someone trying to get in good with a new friend.
But I looked at him, and saw his demeanor now, and wondered.
Then I shook that off. I’d come here for something, and the time was now.
He looked up. “Yeah?”
“I came to apologize.”
He looked surprised, and then confused. “Oh... really?”
“Yeah. Why, what did you think I came for?”
“Uh, well, never mind.” And he looked away.
I waited, and when he didn’t speak, said, “Anyway, I came to apologize. For what I did the other day.” No reaction from him. “For when you came over, and I sent you away.” Still no reaction. “At the front door.”
He looked up then. “Oh. That. OK.”
“No,” I said, a little less tentatively. “No, it wasn’t OK. I need to talk to you about it. Tell you why, even though it’s so embarrassing. But I need to. Can I sit down?”
He blushed. “Oh, I’m sorry. Do you want to talk here, or maybe in the kitchen?”
“Here is fine. Let me pull up your computer chair.” I did that, putting it in front of him, and sat down. “This is going to be hard for me, Reid, but you deserve to know why I did that, and it’s good punishment for me, because what I did was wrong.”
He looked up at me, met my eyes, but didn’t say anything. I was sitting close enough that I got a look at his eyes magnified through his glasses. They looked huge. And very blue. I hadn’t known he had blue eyes. I realized I’d never really looked at him very closely before.
Reid was watching me, and I couldn’t read anything from his expression. Maybe that was good. Maybe that made it easier.
“I... uh... well... damn! OK, see, Vin had come over, and we’d made plans to swim together, and hang afterward, and, well, I wanted to make friends with him. And you’d have been in the way. So I did what I did, and I knew as soon as I did it I shouldn’t have. It was rude and, and ....”
I stopped. I’d meant to—I’d come here planning to—tell him about wanting to fool around with Vin, but I just couldn’t. He wasn’t someone I knew well, and telling an almost stranger that, even if it would help me with Daniel... well, I couldn’t. Now, though, having told him what I just had, I realized my excuse for kicking him out was even worse. Worse as far as he was concerned. Getting rid of him because I wanted to fool around with someone probably would have made good sense. He was 13 too. But getting rid of him because I wanted to make friends with someone else and not make friends with him? This was awful!
He looked at me, and I could see the hurt in his eyes. I understood it; I’d have been pissed as hell if someone had told me what I’d just said. I had to keep talking.
“I shouldn’t have done it, Reid. As soon as I did it, I knew how bad it was. I’m not like that. I don’t want to be like that. What I’d like is to try to make up for it. If you’ll let me. I can understand if you won’t.”
He didn’t say anything, just kept looking at me. Again, I knew I had to say something. “You need to know I’m sorry it happened, and, and something else. I want you to come over and swim more often. As often as you like. Or just to hang. I want us to be friends, and do stuff together.”
“Do stuff?” he asked.
“Yeah, do stuff that friends do, like go to the movies, or go get a pizza, or play video games, or just talk, just hang. I want us to be friends.”
He was looking at me intently now, his expression still unreadable. He didn’t say anything right away, but this time I stayed quiet, waiting for him.
What he finally said was, “And this being friends, is that part of your punishment? Being friends with me is a punishment?”
I dropped my head. “No. I didn’t mean that at all, but I deserve that. I can see why you’d think that. I haven’t been nice to you all along. Not like I should have been. I want to change that. I don’t think I’ve been a very nice person lately, and want that to change. This is just one way I can do that.”
“I don’t think we have much in common,” he said, after thinking about what I’d said. “You like sports stuff. You play in the street a lot, with the other guys. I’m not very athletic.”
“Do you mean you don’t like playing those games, or you’re just not good at them?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t played them enough to know. When I’ve tried, everyone else was better and I kept hearing comments, so I stopped.”
“We’ll find out. When we play next time, you’ll be on my side, and there won’t be any comments. You might still not like it, but you’ll have a good chance to find out. I’m going to show you how to swim, too. Help you with it. Everyone should be able to swim, no matter how athletic they are or aren’t, and I’m going to teach you. And we do have stuff in common. I read a lot, too, and a lot of the books you have, I’ve read.”
That made him look at me again, right at me. But then he said, “Why? Why do you want to spend so much time with me? I don’t get it.”
“As I said. I’m not very proud of myself right now, and how I’ve treated you is part of that. I want to do better with you. Not just for you. For me, too. I want another friend, and you’re it. If you discover you don’t want to do this, that spending time with me isn’t something you want to do, that’s OK, because that’ll be your decision. Mine is that I want to do what I should have been doing with you all along, getting to know you better and giving us a chance to be friends. Hey, it might not work. We might not be compatible. But we haven’t had a chance and it’s because of me. So I want to correct that.”
He met my eyes. I think he wanted to see if I was serious. I met his, and we held them a second or two. Then he said, “OK. I know why you didn’t want to be friends before. No one wanted to be. I was a mess, and didn’t try to make friends. I’m still a mess, but don’t want to be, now. I was OK with that, up until a few months ago. I’m not sure what it was, maybe puberty, but I suddenly started watching other kids and instead of just not caring much that I wasn’t with them, I started wanting to be. But I didn’t, don’t, know how to fit in. The books call it social skills. I don’t have any.”
He stood up then, and walked over to his bookcase, and back. He seemed edgy, or nervous or something.
“I was getting really lonely and didn’t know how to do anything about it, and then you invited me to your party. I would have said no thanks, before, but I went, and had a good time, for me. And then I tried to come over to your house without being invited. Yeah, it hurt when you shot me down. But Daniel’s been coming over here since then, and that’s helped. Now you want to do this, and I want to, too, even though what you’re doing is more for you than for me. So, OK. We can try. I can try. Can we swim this afternoon?”
I felt pretty good, walking home. I hadn’t been sure how he’d feel about me. I’d known there’d be a good chance he’d be pissed and want nothing to do with me, that he’d shut the door in my face when he opened it and saw who it was. I deserved that. But it had all gone well, super well.
Better than I’d deserved.
ª ª ª
We swam that afternoon, and it wasn’t bad. He was awkward, both swimming and talking to me, but I was making an effort to overlook his awkwardness. He was a kid, my age, and we had a lot more in common than we had things that made us different. He was still a little nerdish, but he was comfortable with himself, and so why shouldn’t I be, too?
We swam, and I showed him how to improve, and he tried what I suggested and slowly made some progress. He already could swim, just not well. He kept his head out of the water, and no one swims well that way. He tended to splash on his stroke instead of pulling through the water. His kicking wasn’t coordinated with his stroking. I showed him how to do those things better, showed him what he was doing so he could see it compared to the right way, and he learned.
We got out after a while and lay on the lounges and talked, just talked. He was interesting. He had a different slant on some things than I did. He knew an awful lot of things. He was relaxed, and lying there, seemed a little less awkward than I was used to him being.
When he went home, I felt good about what had happened that day. This might well work.
Vin called me that night. He wanted to come over the next day. I didn’t want him to, but I didn’t want to make waves with him, either. So, I told him I was grounded because I’d popped off at my dad, but we could get together in a few days, that I wanted to do that real bad. He bought it. I told him I’d call him.
That night, I went up at ten, but closed my curtain, turned on my light and read until I was sleepy.
ª ª ª
Reid came over the next day, uninvited. Well, that’s not true. He hadn’t been specifically invited. I’d given him a blanket invitation yesterday. I was delighted he’d taken advantage of it. I think, when he saw my smile, he stopped being so nervous I’d kick him out again.
We swam, and as he was still there at lunchtime, I barbecued some burgers that had been in the refrigerator since the party. We ate them, then moved the chaise lounges out onto the lawn in the shade of our elms at the back of the yard and sprawled lazily on them. We mostly just enjoyed the warm weather, talking desultorily about mostly nothing. I asked him, after a time of silence, just out of idle curiosity and nothing more, what they did when Daniel came over.
I got dead silence in return. Thinking maybe he’d fallen asleep, I raised up and said, “Reid?”
He turned to glance over at me, an unreadable look on his face.
“I asked you something. Did you hear me?”
“Uh, yeaaaah. I’m right here.”
Sarcasm? From Reid?
“I thought maybe you’d fallen asleep. So, what’s the answer?”
He grinned at me. And shook his head.
“Huh?” I said.
What was this? “Why not?”
“Oh, that explains it.” I felt the sudden need to show him that we both could be sarcastic. I’d been careful with him so far. No sarcasm. No teasing. I wasn’t sure he’d understand, and if he did, how he’d react. Whether his ego was strong enough. But if he was able to do it to me, I guessed I could do it back. And then back off it he didn’t take it well.
He leaned forward, grinned again, then settled back on his chaise lounge.
I wondered. I did. I wondered if.... See, I really did want to be friends with him. That wasn’t just a scam I was running. Yeah, I was doing it with ulterior motives, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t being honest with him. I wanted, truly wanted, to be friends. Now, I thought, how would I react if a real friend, let’s say, uh, maybe Daniel, if Daniel had said to me what Reid had, and then just lay there as though he didn’t have a care in the world? What would I have done?
Well, I knew what I would have done. With Daniel. I wondered: could I do that with Reid?
Well, why not? Why the hell now? Only one way to know. Try it. So, I got up from my chaise lounge and stood next to him, looking down, grinning, and attacked! I leaned over him and began tickling him. “’Cause, huh? Not telling, huh?” And I continued tickling, although by now he was screaming and had fallen off his chaise and was rolling on the grass and I was crawling right after him.
“OK, OK,” he screamed, and I let up. Although I found I’d enjoyed the few moments I’d been lying on top of him. He was my size, and maybe a bit chubbier. But I quickly found I’d enjoyed lying on top of him too much, and rolled off before he could notice. It isn’t always good being as horny as your typical 13-year-old is. There are lots of times you wish you had better control of things.
“So talk,” I said.
“Well....” That was all. He stopped and when I rolled up on one elbow, I saw he was grinning at me.
“You want more?” I asked.
“No, just getting my breath back. I haven’t been tickled in years. I liked it!”
“You weren’t supposed to like it,” I grumbled, though I was just pretending. I’d liked it, too.
“Well, I did. But don’t do it again.”
He didn’t sound like he meant that, it sounded more like he was tempting me, but I was more curious than I was anything else, so I just said, “Then talk.”
“All right, but he told me not to.”
Huh? Daniel had told him not to talk to me about what they did? Now he really had me interested.
“But you’re going to, aren’t you?” And I wiggled my fingers like claws at him.
He grinned. “Yeah, all right. What we’ve been doing is talking a lot. He talks about you, mostly. And then the other thing.”
What other thing?”
“He’s been teaching me how to play croquet.”
ª ª ª
I’ve already said Daniel was smart. It took me no time at all to see that he’d figured out the same thing I had, only he’d figured it out almost a week before I had. He’d figured out that if Reid and I were friends, he wouldn’t have to be mad at me any more. And I guess he’d also decided Reid and I would need to have more in common than just reading. Reading’s great, but isn’t much of a participation sport.
But, as I considered this, I realized that he’d had an advantage over me in figuring out how we could be friends again. He’d known right away that he wanted that. All he’d had to do was figure out how. I hadn’t known that he wanted us to get back together, and so spent most of my time worrying about that and regretting what I’d lost.
No matter, though. It was all beside the point now. Because, I now knew I hadn’t lost just about the most important thing in my life. Daniel still wanted us to be friends. He wanted it on his terms, but that was OK. They weren’t tough terms, me and Reid becoming friends. I wanted that too.
The feeling I had right then, of relief, of not having to worry any more, was amazing. Just like that, the cloud I’d been under for way too long lifted. I suddenly felt whole again.
Reid and I didn’t play croquet that day. We were talking and I was enjoying that, and the feeling of peace that had so suddenly descended on me was something I wanted to hold onto a bit longer. So, we just stayed where we were, and I got to know Reid a little better. Yeah, he was a nerd; he had been, and he would remain one. But I was learning that wasn’t the worst thing in the world, and my rejection of him was more based on my aversion to being associated with him, a feeling that I wouldn't be seen as cool if I had him for a friend. As he talked, and as I realized how similar to me he was, I began to see just how shallow my thinking had been, and I began to feel more ashamed of myself. This was a kid just like me, just like any of us, and we’d all culled him from the herd. Yeah, he’d done a lot of that himself, he’d been more comfortable on the outside looking in, but I’d gone along with it. I’d used his nerdiness as an excuse to justify my behavior. I could see that now.
I could see something else, too. I extrapolated this experience, and began to wonder if other people I so easily rejected as being different from me, or as people I wouldn’t want other kids to link me to, might have redeeming qualities just as Reid did. That thought was both disturbing and exciting.
ª ª ª
I was putting up the croquet set with Reid’s help the next day when Daniel walked into the backyard.
I saw him and stood up from pounding the stake in the ground. We looked at each other, and he got a sort of wry grin on his face, a private grin that contained equal parts empathy and challenge and intelligence, one I only ever saw from Daniel and that I knew like I knew my own name, and he said, “Hey.”
“Hey.” And I grinned at him, too. Just like that, my life was back together again.
“You going to play?” I asked him.
“Nah. I’m going to watch. I’d get in the way.”
That didn’t make much sense, but the game was just as much fun with two as with three. It tended to be more intense with two, more competitive, but I liked it either way. Daniel liked to play more than he liked to watch, however. Maybe he was still feeling everything out. We’d never had a fight like this before.
The course was set up, and I asked Reid, “You know the rules and everything?”
“Sure. I have a set at home, and I played with Daniel, like I said.”
“You said he’d been teaching you how to play.”
He looked over at Daniel, then back at me. “Well, he was. I already knew the rules.”
That didn’t make much sense to me, but, what the hell, I was ready to play. “I’ll go first.”
“That’s OK,” he said. “Let me.”
I looked at Daniel. What had he taught him, after all? “Look, Reid, there’s an advantage in going second. Why don’t you let me go first?” And I placed my ball in front of the stake, just behind the first wicket.
Reid gently tapped it out of the way and replaced it with his ball. “Well, I don’t want any advantages. Or any excuses from you about having gone first when I win.”
Huh? Him winning? I’d never even given that a thought. What I’d been wondering is how badly I’d have to play to keep it competitive.
“When you win?” I asked, not doing a very good job of keeping all the surprise out of my voice.
“What, you don’t think I can win?”
He glanced back at Daniel, who grinned at him, then stepped up to his ball. He tapped it through the first two wickets, then got on the wrong side of it and used his two shots to knock it about five feet behind the stake instead of toward his next wicket.
I just looked at his ball, then at him. “You sure you know how to play? You’re supposed to go through that wicket over there,” I said, pointing at the third wicket.
“Ohhhh.” He shrugged. “Too late now. Go ahead. I’ll probably learn a lot by watching you.”
I shook my head, and suggested we start over, and he said no, he was just learning, it was just a game, and to go ahead. So I did. I shot through the two wickets, then used both my shots to set my ball up to go through the next one. Normally, I’d have tried to set up to make that wicket on my first shot and to go through it on my second, something I was able to do with some regularity, but he was a beginner and anyway, setting the ball up perfectly would allow me to make both this and the next wicket on my next turn.
He took his turn by hitting his ball in the direction of mine, but his ball didn’t come very close. Had he shot his ball closer to mine, I might have decided to hit it and use it, but it wasn’t in a place that would be very helpful to me, or him, either; I was better off just going with my original plan.
I hit through my wicket but didn’t get it set up well for my next shot. I used my last shot to do that. I was now pretty well set for the fourth wicket, and to hit it in the direction of the fifth.
Reid used his shot to come closer to the third wicket. I thought he might roll through it, he hit a good shot, but it was just a bit too soft. He stopped directly in front of but just short of the wicket.
I hit through the fourth wicket, then set myself up so on the next turn I could pass through the fifth wicket and hopefully come close to the sixth.
I looked back and waited for Reid to tap through the third wicket and aim for the fourth. He didn’t. Instead, he looked at my ball, then hit his ball fairly hard, directly at my ball, ignoring the fourth wicket altogether. He went through the third wicket and rolled, and rolled, and finally stopped about two feet away from my ball, just past it on its right.
He got a gleeful look on his face, and then looked at Daniel, who was trying as hard as he could to keep a smug grin off his. Daniel looked at me and very innocently, too innocently, lifted his eyebrows and shrugged.
Reid hit my ball, and hit it hard enough with his that it rolled back toward the fourth wicket. It stopped about ten feet away from it and about halfway between it and the 6th wicket. He looked at it, seriously studying it and the wickets, and then, just as seriously, set his ball down a mallet’s-head distance away from mine and hit it back, setting himself up for the fourth wicket. He came through that wicket and with his one remaining shot, hit me again. He again took two shots, the first to set up for the fifth wicket, setting himself up so he could go through toward the sixth wicket and, incidentally, toward my ball as well.
No one had said a word while this was going on. I think Reid and Daniel were grinning too hard to talk, and I was somewhat in shock.
Reid hit through the wicket firmly and rolled so he was about halfway between the sixth wicket and my ball. He studied his next shot carefully, looking from the wicket to his ball and to my ball, then back to the wicket. Either way, he had about an eight-foot shot. He finally decided, and aimed at me.
It was an easy shot, if you were any good, and he was good enough to make it. Then he took two shots to go through the wickets and hit the stake. He came out of the two wickets firmly enough to get near my ball. He used his first shot to set his ball inches away from mine on the side away from his next wicket, then hit me hard on his second shot, driving me in the direction he wanted to go. My ball almost hit his next wicket and then rolled out of bounds nearby. He picked up my ball and set it back inbounds where it had rolled out, then left it alone, playing two shots to set up for and then go through the wicket, hard, and then hit toward the center wicket, the 11th, stopping where he had a good shot of going through on his next turn. That was the end of his turn.
I was in deep do-do, and my emotions were in a whirl. How was this happening? This was Reid! He was nerdy, not athletic, hadn’t played the game much, and he was beating me. Beating me badly at my own game! Me! And suddenly, right there, right then, I, a 13-year-old kid, had one of those things happen I’d read about: one of those things where everything I’d been thinking about and worrying about and brooding about came clear. I couldn’t think of the word, but it was something like empathy. Whatever it was, I suddenly saw things that I hadn’t seen before. I suddenly knew why what had happened to me had happened, and, what was wrong with me. Why Daniel had been so mad at me. And, incidentally, why I was losing this game.
I’d been self-centered, and arrogant. I’d been worried about only my own feelings, my image, what I wanted. I’d seen Reid was a nerd, and had just dismissed him because of that. He was a good guy, with lots going for him, he was a lot like I was, and I’d ignored all that, never even given him a chance, because I had him labeled as a nerd. Similarly, I’d labeled Vin as a friend and someone to fool around with, and hadn’t looked at all the signs others had seen; I hadn’t looked at the person he was. The twins had, right off, and Daniel had too. I hadn’t because I was looking at what I wanted, what was good for me, and didn’t see Vin for the real person he was.
Daniel knew. Of course he knew. He knew I was thinking of myself, being selfish, changing from the nice person I’d always been and now mostly thinking of myself. I’d thought that he wanted to find a way so Reid and I could be friends, knowing that would only happen if I could get past the label I’d stuck on Reid, get past that and see him as a guy like us. Just a nerdy one.
I wondered if there’d been even more to it than that. Could he also have told Reid how to beat me for a reason? Had he thought that if Reid could do that, I might, just might, think about how that had happened, and realize it was because I was only focused on myself? Did he think that might be what was needed to get me to change?
He’d seen how self-centered I’d become. I knew now that’s what those looks I’d gotten from him recently that I couldn’t understand had meant. He knew I’d been thinking of myself to the exclusion of much else. Here I was patting myself on the back for being a nice guy, and I was being the opposite. A nice guy cares about the people he associates with. I wasn’t caring about the people I was with. I was caring about how they could make my life better.
I stood there, and saw the game I was playing, a game I’d never thought I could lose, and realized that was arrogance, too. I hadn’t taken Reid seriously, I hadn’t paid attention to how he was playing, only to my own shots. This was the result. Kind of like my life had been going.
It was my turn.
I still had to go through the fifth wicket. I was a long way from it. If I was really lucky, I mean really, I could hit my ball from where it was and leave it set up to go through on my next shot. But that still left going through the sixth and seventh wickets, and by that time, Reid would be through the 11th and possibly the 12th wicket, probably setting up for the winning two wickets.
My other option was to go after his ball. That too was a very tough shot, but if I did it the other way, it seemed pretty likely I’d lose anyway. And, I’d made tough shots before. I was pretty good at them, actually. So, I decided to aim for his ball. And then, getting ready, I noticed that where I was positioned, the tenth wicket was directly between my ball and his. There was no way I could hit him.
“Grrrrrrr,” I said.
“Problems?” asked Daniel, sweetly. His innocence was getting to me.
“You know damned well I have problems!”
“Temper, temper,” he said, shaking his head and frowning, then smiling beatifically.
I just gave him a disgusted look, and shot toward the fifth wicket. I’d decided to hit it hard enough to go out of bounds on that side of the field so that when it was replaced on the boundary, I’d have a shot at the wicket. That would be the best chance I had of not totally screwing myself. I had to make that wicket on my next shot if I was going to have any chance at all. I hit it hard, it went out of bounds just where I wanted it to, Daniel took off chasing it, and I turned to look what Reid would do.
He hit through his wicket, then hit towards the 12th wicket. It wasn’t a great shot. He might have to take another shot to set up for it. That meant I still had a chance. Not a good one, but a chance.
I was very careful and took my time. Because Reid would need one turn to set up, and then another to go through the wicket and set up for the last wickets, and one to do that and hit the stake, that meant he needed three turns to win. Since I was going ahead of him, I therefore had three turns left, too. How best to use them, that was my question to answer.
I decided not to go through my wicket, but to set up for it. I did, and did so very well. On my next turn, I’d go through the wicket and, if I were lucky, be able to go through the 6th and 7th wickets, too, with my extra shot.
Reid studied where I was, and I could see the gears turning in his head. He knew what I was going to do. He figured out what he should do. Instead of trying to make his wicket, he set up for it, leaving his ball in position to go through and set up for the last wickets all in one shot. That meant he wasn’t going to need three turns. Just one more would be enough, if he executed his shots effectively.
So. I only had this last turn as well. I hit through my wicket and left the ball in front of the two paired wickets. I rolled through them and hit the stake. I came out of them hard, almost to the middle wicket. I now had two shots to hit him. I hit my first shot to about ten feet short of him, and hit him with my second. However, he’d been set up right by his wicket, and the force of my shot knocked him through. Damn! I hadn’t wanted to do that. There also was another problem: he’d stopped just through wicket, making my next shot much tougher.
I wanted to drive us both down to the other end of the field, but the wicket he’d just passed through was right in my way. Crap! I couldn’t do what I wanted. So, instead, I did what I could, which was to drive us both back through his wicket, both out of bounds, but well short of where I’d wanted to go. I used my last shot to try to set up for my tenth wicket, but I was too far away to do it well. I’d need another shot to set up for it.
Reid only needed the last two wickets. He was a long way away, but I was in a lot worse shape than him. He looked at my ball, and at his, and smiled. Then he took his time, and hit his ball toward the final wickets. It was a long shot, and I figured he’d try to leave his ball short of and in front of the wickets so he could win next time. And there’d be nothing I could do about it. I had to go through my wicket before I could hit him again.
His ball rolled toward his target, and rolled, and rolled, and I was shocked to see it actually rolled into, and then through the 13th wicket. He was shocked too, and then leaped in the air and pumped his fist. “Yeah!” he yelled, and then ran over and high fived Daniel.
He had another shot, and used it to hit through the last wicket, and then he hit the stake.
“NO!” yelled Daniel. “You should have declared yourself ‘poison’ and gone after him instead of hitting the stake. Humiliation! You could have done it.”
Reid turned to look at me. I was glaring at Daniel. “No,” he said, “it’s enough that I won. I didn’t think I could. Everything went my way. I was lucky.”
I was mad, mostly at Daniel, but that was just my competitiveness. I hated losing, and I’d never, ever, expected to lose to Reid in croquet. But as I looked at Daniel, I could read a question in his eyes. He wasn’t gloating, but looking back at me.
I was mad, and I’d had a bad week, but I now knew why, because of what had come to me during the game, and that knowledge was there in me, too. And looking at Daniel, and into his eyes, into his once again unreadable eyes, made me remember all that.
Had I learned anything? Anything at all?
Yeah. I had. I forced myself to smile and walked over to Reid, and patted him on the back. “That was about the best game of croquet I’ve had all summer. Thanks. We’ll do this again. You’d better believe we’ll do this again. It’s going to be so great, playing with someone as good as I am. But I need to decompress first. How about going in the pool?”
I glanced at Daniel. He was smiling. Really smiling. There was nothing unreadable in his eyes right then. Maybe I’d done the right thing. Maybe I’d learned something, too.
ª ª ª
The next few days were really fun. Daniel and I were back together, but we were a threesome now, and rather than that being an annoyance, it added something. It didn’t detract from the closeness Daniel and I had as I thought it would. More often than not, Reid would be with us, but we still managed to spend time alone.
One of those times, when it was just me and Daniel and we were lying on the lawn, no lounges, just us on the grass after playing tackle, both exhausted and steaming in the humid heat, I asked him. “Why didn’t you just tell me I was turning into a self-centered prick?”
We’d collapsed after he’d tackled me one last time, both too hot to get up. He was lying with his head on my stomach, so all he had to do was twist a bit to look into my eyes. “I wanted to. But I thought about what would’ve happened if you’d told me that. I’d have denied it, and been offended, and gotten really defensive. I’d never have believed it. I figured for you to believe it, I needed to find a way that you could see it for yourself.”
The three of us spent a lot of time swimming and playing croquet. Daniel and I tried to get Reid interested in our football games, but he wasn’t nearly as rough-and-tumble a kid as we were. I’ll give him this: he tried. I don’t think he was doing it just for our sakes, either. He wanted to learn what he liked and didn’t, and found he didn’t like tackle football. That was fine with me. I liked tackling Daniel, and I think vice versa, too, even if we did get bruised up some by doing it. We really were competitive.
But as much as we had going on, we spent more time talking than anything else. I told dad he needed to buy another chaise lounge and he just frowned at me and said, “I hear Meadowside Dairy is hiring. They have some cows you could get up close and personal with. ’Course, I think they start at four in the morning, and since I’m not getting up that early, you’d probably have to get up at three to ride there on your bike.” Sometimes it didn’t do a bit of good trying to talk to that man.
But we solved the problem. Reid had a chaise lounge at his house and dragged it over.
One of those times we were talking, not about anything important, and Daniel and Reid were arguing about favorite sci-fi authors and I was listening, something occurred to me. Since I’d got back with Daniel, not once had he mentioned Vin. I was sure Reid had told him what he’d seen. I hadn’t discussed it with Reid, either, but that wasn’t as surprising. I talked about everything with Daniel, and hadn’t reached that stage of trust with Reid yet. But, why hadn’t Daniel said anything to me?
The more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. I didn’t want anything to be standing between us. If there was something he was worried about discussing with me, then we still weren’t the same as we’d been before. I didn’t like that idea. Well, I hated that idea. It made me uncomfortable, just when everything had been going so well.
I thought I’d wait till I was alone with Daniel, and then had another thought. What if Reid hadn’t told him? Then I’d be spilling the beans to Daniel, and he might be upset, because why hadn’t I ever talked about this with him before? That’s what was upsetting me, that there might be distance now, a kind of reserve, between us that hadn’t been there before. Wouldn’t he have the same feeling if I now told him something that I thought he already knew, but I’d never told him myself? Wouldn’t he wonder why I hadn’t told him?
I could only think of one surefire way to find out without upsetting anyone.
“Hey, guys?” I said softly, because I wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing. But I wanted to get this settled.
They stopped arguing, and Daniel said, “Yeah?”
I paused, but waiting wasn’t going to help. I sat up and straightened the back on my lounger so I wouldn’t be lying back as I talked to them. I needed to be able to see both their faces.
“I have something to tell you. Both of you.”
They must have heard something in my voice because Daniel stopped smiling and both of them sat up.
“Uh, well, this is embarrassing, but, well, Daniel, remember when I suggested the pool party?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Well, I had a reason I didn’t tell you about.” I kept talking, and told them about having seen Vin through my window at night, and then watching him and joining in every night after that, and then suggesting the pool party as a way to meet him. Wanting to meet him so we might get to do stuff together, like the stuff I’d been watching. I didn’t say anything about Daniel telling me he and I couldn’t do stuff together anymore. Reid wasn’t going to find out about that from me. I told them about what happened when Vin first came over, and then told them about not watching him any longer, not since I’d seen him with my bobblehead doll and knew he’d stolen it from me.
Then I looked at Daniel and said, “And Reid came over and caught me with the binoculars. Doing what Vin was doing.” And then I turned to Reid and said, “I was sure you’d told Daniel. It was one of the things I was so upset about all that week.”
Reid shook his head. “I wouldn’t have done that. It would have been mean.”
I smiled at him. “I know that now. I didn’t know you then.”
Neither of them said anything after I said that. I guess they were both thinking about what I’d said, thinking about all of it.
I gathered up all the courage I had at that point and said, into their silence, “And Reid, I have to tell you something, too. I didn’t tell you the truth, at least the whole truth, when I came over to your house the other day. It was true that I wanted to be friends with Vin. But, we weren’t just planning to get to know each other better when you came to my door and I sent you off. We were going to do things, fool around together. That’s why I got rid of you, not because I liked him better than you.”
Neither of them quite knew what to say at that point, and I said to myself, what the hell, and decided to add something. Now was the time. “Uh, guys? I guess I should tell you, I, uh, sort of think I’m gay.”
Neither of them jumped up and left, which I thought was a good sign.
Daniel looked at me with a funny expression on his face. Reid said, “I think I am, too.”
Daniel jerked his head around to look at Reid, and then a big smile crossed his face. “I knew it!” he said. “Well, I didn’t know for sure about you, Alex, but was pretty sure about Reid.”
“You should have been,” Reid said, and giggled. “I told you last week.”
“Well, yeah, that was my first clue.” Daniel got up and came over to me and sat down next to me on my chaise lounge. “Are you sure?”
“No, I’m not sure. I just think so. My dad says to wait before calling myself that because it’ll be better to keep an open mind and give myself a chance to see what I like and don’t like first. We’ve talked about it some. He said if I’d felt I was different from the other boys, somehow different all along, then perhaps that might mean something else, but I’ve only felt this way since I began puberty. He said in that case, I should give it some time, and not label myself.”
Reid nodded. “Yeah, I get that. I’ve felt like I was different since I can remember, and when I first learned about being gay, it all fit. But you guys are the first I’ve ever told. I haven’t told my mom. How did you have the courage to tell your dad?”
I glanced at Daniel as I answered Reid. “I was really upset about a lot of things, what I’d done to you, Reid, and you, Daniel, being mad at me, and thinking Reid’d told you what he’d caught me doing, and Vin, and, well, I’d been taking it out a little bit on my dad. I’d been sniping at him, and he got fed up and made me talk to him. Once I started talking, it all came out.”
Daniel put his arm around my shoulders. “I’m sorry. But I was mad, and you had been a jerk.”
Reid asked, “Didn’t your father get mad?”
“No. He told me he loved me, and always would.”
“You’ve got a great father.”
I smiled. “Yeah. I know.”
I looked at Daniel then. His arm around my shoulder told me a lot, but I wasn’t in the mood for anything but absolutes, especially if it was as important as this. “It doesn’t bother you, if I am?”
Daniel squeezed my shoulder, then dropped his arm from mine so he could turn slightly and face me more directly. “My church is against homosexuality, but also says judging other people is something for God to do, not us. If you’re going to be gay, Alex, that’s your business. My business is to be the best friend I can be while you’re figuring it all out, and then afterward, too.”
There was a pause then, all of us thinking our own thoughts, before suddenly Daniel stood up. “What are we going to do about Vin?” he asked.
ª ª ª
They wanted to see what I’d been looking at, so I showed them. We had a sleepover. I had a king-sized bed, and three 13-year-old boys, only one of them slightly chubby, fit with room to spare. Daniel and Reid ended up squabbling over the binoculars a lot. When Daniel was using them, he started saying, “Eeewww,” and “Oh my gosh!” and other comments, and I was sure he was doing it just to get Reid going. And Reid would say, “Let me see! Let me see!” and tug on the binoculars and I ended up laughing and not even caring that I wasn’t getting any turns at all. I’d already seen everything many times, and besides, I had no use at all for Vin any more.
Both Daniel and Reid were showing the effects of watching. I think each one was embarrassed, but neither wanted to stop looking till it was over. It finally was and that was when they noticed each other, and when they blushed.
“So you used to watch this every night?” Daniel asked me.
“And you never told me?”
“You know why,” I said, and then Daniel did, and dropped the subject. He turned to Reid instead and said, “And you caught him watching and, and he was doing what Vin was doing, and didn’t tell me?”
“That just seemed wrong to me. He didn’t mean for me to see that, and was embarrassed by it. You wouldn't have told if you’d caught me doing that and knew I was embarrassed, would you?”
Daniel had to think for a second, but then said, “You’re right. You did exactly the right thing.”
Reid blushed again. I guess he wasn’t used to getting compliments.
We were all in our sleeping gear. In my case, that was a pair of sleeping shorts and nothing else. Reid had pajamas on, not the teddy bear ones, thankfully. Daniel was dressed as I was. We’d had sleepovers many times and had learned to dress the same.
I pulled back the covers and we all got in bed. I was in the middle. I never had to get up in the night to pee, but maybe they did.
We talked awhile, and then Daniel repeated his question of the afternoon: what were we going to do about Vin? We kicked it around, starting with the sort of fantastic plans 13-year-olds come up with, probably from reading too many comic books or all the science fiction we read. Then I had an idea, and Daniel made it into an even better one, and Reid fleshed it out and dressed it up, and we all were thinking about it, and grinning, when I fell asleep.
ª ª ª
They slept over the next night, too. Reid’s mother seemed really happy about that. Daniel sleeping over twice in a row was no big deal, and anyway Daniel told his parents it was because he was going to camp soon, and we were making up for lost time. Hey, I already said he lies a lot. But it’s usually to me.
We’d decided what to do. Way before ten o’clock we experimented and worked things out, and then ten came and passed and when we were finally ready for sleep, way more than an hour later, I was looking forward to the next day.
We got up at ten the next morning. Reid surprised us by making pancakes, with bacon and sausage. I can make pancakes, but sometimes burn them and almost always overcook them, and tend to make the sausage either burned or raw, take your pick. Reid’s food was all good. The boy had hidden talents. He didn’t seem so nerdy now that I knew him. And I had to respect anyone who could give me a good match at croquet.
After breakfast, I waited till 11, and called Vin.
“Hi. Sorry for not calling earlier, but I just got off grounding. I want to see you.”
“OK, me too. Should I come over and we can swim, maybe after?”
“No, I want to come over there.”
“Over here? My mom’s home!”
“You’re not real noisy, are you?” Reid let out a snort, and Daniel put a quick hand over his mouth.
“No, but, I just thought we’d have more privacy at your house. You’re alone, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, but I want to come over there. I want to show you something. I’ll be there in fifteen, OK?”
“Uh, yeah, I guess.”
I hung up and grinned, and we all high fived each other. Reid did it awkwardly, then said, “I need more practice at that,” so we all did it again. “I like it!” Reid laughed.
We all trooped out of the house ten minutes later. It took less than five minutes to walk to his house, ordinarily, so we walked slowly. They were giggling, but I was nervous.
I rang the bell, and pretty quickly Vin opened the door. He looked surprised that I wasn’t alone. “Uh, hi, Alex. I thought we uh....”
“Hi. Can we go up to your room?”
“Well, sure. But, what’s going on?”
“I’ll tell you upstairs.”
He looked at me, then at them and then turned around and we followed him into the house and upstairs. His room was tidy, like last time, and his bed made. I looked around and didn’t see my doll.
Reid was the last one in, and he closed the door, as planned.
I spoke before Vin could say anything. “Vin, I’ve come to get my bobblehead doll back. You stole it from my room.”
“What?! I didn’t steal anything.”
“You did. And I’ll tell you how I know. See, I’ve been watching you, at night, when you go to bed. And what you do before you go to bed. And while I was watching you, I saw you with my doll. I want it back.”
Vin’s eyes got big, and he looked at us. We looked back. He looked at the door, and Daniel moved in front of it. Daniel said, “You could call your mother, but you might not want to do that. There’s a lot Alex could tell her.”
Vin moved his eyes from Daniel to me. Then he turned around and took a couple of steps, then sat down on his bed, trying his best to look unruffled. He was still looking at me, and I saw his face change, saw his eyes become challenging. “So you’ve been watching me? For how long? And you never said anything. You must have enjoyed it. Did you get off too, watching?”
So he was going to try to brazen it out. OK. Fine with me.
“Actually, no. I watched once or twice, at first, but then it was just boring. You didn’t seem very good at it. Not much variety.”
He looked at me, then started to smile. “Bullshit. You watched. Probably every night. My mom insists I go up at ten, and that’s when I do it, and I’ll bet you went up then too. And watched, and probably jacked off right with me.” He stopped for a moment, then continued with, “Otherwise, how’d you ever see me with the doll?”
“So you admit it,” I said.
“I admit I have a bobblehead doll, but it isn’t yours. Wasn’t. Ever. It’s my own and I didn’t steal it. You can’t prove I did. And if you ever get the idea to tell anyone about what you saw me doing, I’ll tell them that you’re a Peeping Tom, that you’re a perv who watches people. Who’ll look worse, you or me? Everyone does what I was doing. Most guys don’t watch someone else. All I was doing is what everyone does.”
I didn’t back down at all. I knew I had the upper hand here. “Except that isn’t true. I only watched you a couple of times. Once when you first moved in, and then again after the pool party. That’s when I saw you with the doll. You can enjoy thinking that story you’ve made up about me peeping is true, even if it isn’t. And you can even tell people that I watched you every night, too, and I can’t stop you. But what I can do is make up a story that’s as good as the one you’re making up. Maybe even better. How about this: I’ll say I did catch you doing it, and told you I saw you and told you to draw your curtains, and you told me no, you liked people looking. So neither of us would come out on top with that.”
I moved a step closer to him. “I knew there was a possibility you’d do this, simply deny everything. I knew I’d need something more than just an accusation you’d stolen my Joey Votto, something that would make you give it back. So I got it. We got it. Something you don’t want me showing around at school.”
His face was impassive. I didn’t think he believed me. I reached into my pocket and took out a computer memory stick. “I took a video of you through my binoculars. I can show you playing with yourself in all your glory to anyone I want. People will want to see it. They’ll all be talking about it. You’ll be famous before the end of your first day of school.”
“You have a video?”
“Turn on your computer.” I handed him the stick.
His computer was already on, just asleep. He put the drive in and brought it up, and there he was. We’d had to work with the binoculars and my little Canon digital camera, but eventually we’d got it just right, and we’d taken a short video of him.
He snatched the memory stick out of the computer and held it in his hand, and when I reached out for it, shook his head. I smiled. “That’s OK. I was just going to trade it for my doll anyway. You can keep it. I’ve got several more.”
Daniel spoke. There was no friendliness in his voice. “We want the doll, Vin. We want it right now. Give it up, and we won’t say anything more about this, and no one’ll see the video. Or don’t and they will, and then hear about how you’re a thief. How you steal things from your friends. Your choice.”
He looked at us for a moment. I could see from his face he didn’t like being told what to do. But, he really didn’t have much choice, and I saw him figure that out. He stood up and walked to the dresser he’d had the doll sitting on when I’d seen it, opened a lower drawer, took it out an handed it to me. “I wasn’t going to keep it,” he said. “It was just a joke I was playing on you.”
“Yeah, right,” I said, and then we left.
Daniel did go to camp. While he was there, I spent most of my days with Reid. We had a few more sleepovers at my house, too, and I spent the night at his house once. By the time Daniel returned, we were even better friends. Vin never once crossed my mind.
Daniel finally came home, and we were a threesome again. I did get Reid to play baseball and even football with us in the street, and he got to be a decent player even if he never was a very enthusiastic one. He told me he liked croquet better. Well, duh! I did too. We had good matches together, and I never was able to beat him as regularly as I could Daniel. He played like I did, analytically and creatively with a lot of imagination, and he became a very good shot. I had to change my game, become for defensive, because I knew he’d do things that Daniel never tried, and that made a difference, too. The game became even more fun for me with that higher degree of competition. We had great games, and he learned how talk trash to me. Reid, of all people. The talk didn’t bother me any, but the laughing I did when I heard it may have made me miss some shots. He’d have to be careful or he’d lose his nerd tag altogether.
At dinner the Friday night of the first week school was back in session, just Dad and I, he started talking about the summer we’d had. You have to know my dad. He usually starts a serious conversation with something in mind. I might have learned my sneakiness, my use of ulterior motives from him.
He talked about putting in the pool, the party we’d had, and I knew he was going somewhere with it. I was right, too.
“Alex,” he eventually said, “I don’t think it was just a busy summer. I think it was more than that. This was a summer of change, of growth. I’ve seen a change in you, a change I like. I think you learned a lot this summer, and began maturing some, too. I learned some things too, things I hadn’t known about you. You’re OK, kid, and I don’t tell you this enough, but I’m proud of you. Really proud.”
I blushed a little. He didn’t say things like that very often. I sort of knew by the way he acted that he was proud of me. It was nice hearing it, though.
“I was wondering, though, thinking about the summer. Can you tell me what you think might be the most important lesson you learned this summer? I know you learned quite a few things. What was most important? Or maybe I should ask it like this: what did you learn that will serve you best as you continue growing up?”
I had to think for a moment. Then I said, “I learned I’ve been wrong about a lot of things. A lot.”
He smiled. “That’s very important, learning what you’ve done wrong, and how not to make the same mistakes again. Anything in particular?”
Well, yeah, a lot of things, actually. But I didn’t want to discuss them, not yet, maybe never. Dad had helped me tremendously this summer, but I’d embarrassed myself enough, telling him what I had during that car ride. Listing everything I’d learned since then would just cause me more embarrassment, and I hadn’t even worked everything out in my head yet. I’d spoken to him in the car because I’d had to. No teenager wants to say the things I’d said to his parent. I wasn’t about to embarrass myself again.
I had to say something, though. So, I did. “The most important? Well, I’ve got all sorts of grief from Daniel. He saw me get out of the car that day we took that drive. He saw me hug you, and he won’t let me forget it. ‘Not cool, Alex, not cool,’ he says and shakes his head. He was really disappointed in me about that. I think the most important thing I learned was, I shouldn’t be hugging my dad in public.”
Dad looked at me, long and hard, and then slowly nodded. “Very wise, Alex. Very wise. I think you’ve definitely hit the nail on the head with that one. Yep, that certainly covers it; don’t hug your dad in public.”
He scowled at me, and I grinned back at him, and soon he was laughing.
I thought about that when I went to bed that night. That conversation, and what I’d actually learned.
One of the things, just one, was that there are several types of dads. Maybe the worst type was the one who took himself and his position of authority very seriously and wanted to run your life for you, wanted complete control of you. Arnie had one of those, and I’d seen him come and collect his son from one of our baseball games, jerking him out of it and almost dragging him down the street, forcing him to trot awkwardly alongside him, holding his arm in his big meaty hand. He didn’t even think of how he was embarrassing Arnie. Arnie’s feelings didn’t matter to him. He was yelling at him because Arnie hadn’t done something he’d asked him to do exactly when he’d wanted it done.
Then there was the kind of dad who gave you some leeway to make your own mistakes and learn from them, and stepped in to help when you needed it. I have the last kind. I think that’s the very best kind to have.
The next day, Saturday, we’d scheduled a touch football game in the street in front of our house. Joel, Jonah and Arnie against me, Daniel and a somewhat reluctant Reid. When I was finishing breakfast there was a knock on the door, and Daniel was there, grinning in anticipation. He loved football, in any of its various formats. “Come on,” he said a little breathlessly, turning to go to where the others were waiting in the street. “And bring your football.” I trotted back into the kitchen, finished my milk, put the dishes in the sink, wiped my mouth with the back of my hand, grabbed my football from the front closet, all in about 30 seconds, and was opening the front door when Dad came down the stairs.
“Football?” he said.
“Yeah. We’re going to cream ’em.”
He smiled at me. I pushed open the screen door and stepped out, took a couple of steps, then threw the ball to Daniel and turned back. Dad was now standing in the doorway, holding the screen door open, just watching. I walked back to him, reached out and gave him a big hug, a hard, tight, really big one that I held for a few seconds. Then I turned and ran to join the others.