Triptychs – Chapter 5
Down another concrete path in a grassy-green slope: then, down a last set of stairs, to a kind of a broad walkway, with outdoor tables and chairs, and three, smallish, two-story buildings; and I stopped.
“Well,” I started; feeling myself beginning to grin wide, at the joke. “Here we are!”
“Here we are!” went Cole; in the same tone, but I could feel the question, in the way he said it, the way he was looking around.
“Uh-huh. This is it; the heart of the whole campus. This over here?” I nodded at the left-hand building, a place with big glass windows on the ground floor.
“It’s the University Union; well, both these buildings are, actually. But that one there, on the left? It’s the place on campus to get food.”
“THE place - ?” I watched Cole’s eyes as he looked at it.
Okay; another thing you need to understand. It’s a smallish building, really understated, and the ground-floor food area has maybe a couple of dozen plastic tables, with plastic chairs, and some hot food stations inside . . . you could see the tables through the windows, mostly empty, now.
“Uh-huh. It’s got a Panda Express, and a deli, and everything.”
And the Cal campus, the UC Berkeley campus . . . has a LOT of places to eat, the Golden Bear, the Free Speech Movement Cafe, the Bear’s Lair, the cafe at the International House . . . and lots more.
Most of them bigger than this. All of them – nicer, to be honest. I mean, this looked like a downscale Subway.
It’s the flip side of all those beautiful parking lots, on the other side of the campus. Cal State University, East Bay’s a commuter school; people come to get an education, then go off to work, or home.
I kind of like that, actually. The idea of it, anyway; it fits my roots.
Or, maybe it’s just a reaction to all the ‘Cal Bear’ stuff I’d grown up with, my whole life; could be.
Speaking of which –
“And that, over there?” I went on, nodding at the right-hand building. “That’s the bookstore.”
“I figured,” from Cole, dryly. The building had ‘PIONEER BOOKSTORE’ on it, in big letters.
“Uh-huh,” I went on, cheerfully. “The Pioneer: my new icon, my new mascot. He’s really cute-looking, in cowboy clothes, with a big mustache; kind of like Yosemite Sam. Go Pioneers!”
And THAT got me a look; believe it. Cole and me – well, we’re both about as far from having Team Spirit as you can possible get, we always have been. Even when we actually were on a team together, our high school swim team. We never really cared, we always had way, way too good a time together at meets, winning or losing; just laughing, goofing, ogling the boys on the other team . . .
“It’s not . . . all that big is it?” he went, looking at the little bookstore; choosing his words carefully, as I grinned at him.
“Hey. It’s not that big inside, but it’s really cute.” I bumped him, gently, with my shoulder. “C’mon; let’s go pick up my books, and then I’ll get you something at the Panda Express!”
Another dirty look from Cole. He HATES Chinese food.
It was all I could do, to keep from busting out laughing as we pushed through the doors, and I watched Cole’s expression, sideways.
See, the inside of the Pioneer Bookstore . . . well. I’d been here, once before.
I’d been expecting a big place, with rows and rows of bookshelves, floor to ceiling, students like me prowling around looking at the course listings and instructor names, collecting their pounds and pounds of books as they went up and down the aisles . . . That kind of bookstore.
It actually WAS that kind of bookstore; upstairs, on the second floor.
Downstairs was more like a gift shop.
Oh, there were books; a few shelves, with signs like ‘Regional Interest’, and ‘Travel’, and ‘Best Sellers’ . . . There were a lot of little espresso shops, in downtown Berkeley, with bigger and more interesting collections.
The rest of the floor space?
Well. There was a kind of rectangular area, blocked off on three sides by three or four copy machines, with a sign hanging above saying ‘Pacific Copy’ . . .
And the rest of the floor space, I swear, was all gift-shop stuff. Sweatshirts; logo-ed, CSUEB sweatshirts and t-shirts and Cal State baseball caps on nice wooden shelves; track suits, souvenirs, posters, banners . . . but mostly clothes. Nothing crowded, everything really nicely displayed, and there was a LOT of it.
As a college bookstore, it made a pretty good Gap, or Banana Republic; and I watched Cole blink as he took it all in. And so, I took pity on him, and I touched him on the shoulder.
“Hey. The real part’s upstairs. Honest,” and I kind of motioned with my head towards the broad stairs, towards the back.
And Cole just looked at me.
And everything about this day – Cole’s expression, right that second, this first-impression of the bookstore, this weird, scaled-down FOREIGN college campus, so unlike the Cal Berkeley campus we’d grown up on – everything just brought me crashing, so, so painfully, back to our argument.
The Argument. The only real, serious argument Cole and I have ever had.
* * *
Yeah; it’s another scene I remember really, really vividly; down to tiny details, down to the word-by-word replay. Well, I guess I should; it was less than a year ago, after all.
We were on the UC Berkeley campus, in this little, semi-private kind of landscaped semicircle, near Mulford Hall; a kind of meditation circle, screened off from the rest of the campus by plants, a little fountain gurgling in the center of everything. It was one of the places we used to go, to grab a smoke, back when we still smoked.
I’d just told Cole I wasn’t applying to UC Berkeley.
It was the hardest thing I’d ever had to tell him; it was so, SO hard, because I’d known how much it would hurt him, even as it hurt me to say it, to make it all final. You know? Have you ever had to give somebody, somebody you love, news like that?
And of course he’d known what I was going to say, before I said it. Of course he’d known; he knows me, he reads me, just like I read him.
Well, I should have been reading him, that day; I was totally unprepared for his counter-attack. His counter-offer, actually; the offer that I couldn’t accept. And didn’t.
And that had set him off. Big time.
“What the fuck? What the fuck! I don’t understand you. It’s just money. It doesn’t mean anything!! And think about the difference it makes to your future! Think about the difference it makes to OUR future!”
I’d told Cole, I couldn’t afford to come here, to UC Berkeley. And Cole’d offered to get his dad to pay my tuition.
He’d do it, too; Cole can get his dad to do almost anything, to make up for his dad not paying enough attention to him. And I’d had to tell him, no.
And so he’d been hammering on me, about it, for the last five minutes. At length. At volume.
“Cole – I appreciate it, I really do, God, I do, but I can’t . . . ” I was repeating myself, now. Wincing, under the impact of his words.
“Why? WHY can’t you? It’s only money! My dad’s getting a bonus in January, you have any idea how big it’ll be? He could pay both our tuitions for all four years, and it would only make a dent in it! And he doesn’t even CARE about it, the money’s just a game to him!”
You need to understand . . . Cole’s dad is an investment banker, in Southern California, and he’s totally loaded, and Cole hates talking about his dad’s money, he just HATES it, which just shows how upset he was, right then.
I never understood that, I never did. If my dad bad been successful at something, I’d have been so proud of him, really proud, whether he spent most of his time ignoring me, or not. Hell, I’d have been happy if my dad weren’t –
No. Off topic.
There’s another thing you have to understand about Cole. He’s a really strong personality, REALLY strong; he’s used to getting his own way, in the end.
And he wasn’t giving up on me.
“Hell, if you don’t want to just take the money, count it as a loan, okay? A no-interest loan, pay it back whenever you want! It’s perfect, it’s not charity, it’s just a damn loan, it’ll make such a difference to you, I just don’t see WHY you won’t – ”
And finally, finally, I lost it.
God forgive me, for the first, and please God the only, time in my life, I lost it . . . with Cole. At Cole; aimed at Cole. I just lost it.
“Fuck. Fuck! FUCK!! Don’t you get it? Don’t you fucking understand?!”
My voice was going up, getting louder, shouting, and my hands were out flat, gesturing, clenching, and part of me was standing off to one side, looking on in horror . . . but I couldn’t help myself, I was seeing red again, I was out of control again, and I hated it, but I couldn’t help myself.
“Don’t you get it? Don’t you fucking GET it? You’re the one, single most important thing in my whole goddamn fucking pathetic, crap-shit life, you always have been, and if I take money from you or your family, it’ll fuck that all up!”
Full stop. Echoing silence; just the tinkling sound of the little fountain.
And all I could do, at that moment, that second, was look at Cole . . .
And Cole – stopped.
I remember that part, so vividly; I remember him, right at that moment. His face was red, contorted, not-beautiful at all, just then; his eyes were wide and furious, mad at ME, and his mouth was open . . . and he held that expression for a second, two seconds, more . . . panting, so angry, looking me in the eyes . . .
And then his eyes slid away, and, still panting, he turned his head, a little, looking a little bewildered, and he shook his head, slowly . . . still breathing heavy . . . blinking . . .
And my first reaction was, I’d blown it, I’d so completely blown it, I’d blown my cover after pretending these five years, and, oh God, I’d blown it –
But it came to me, it wasn’t embarrassment or shock I was seeing on his face . . . And it came to me, late, that whatever perverse feelings I had for Cole, HID from Cole, we really WERE that important to each other; we really were like brothers, only closer. Closer. We both knew it.
However I loved him, loved him to excess, and not in the right way – I knew he loved me back; as a brother. I knew we were close, I knew I was more important to him than anybody, except maybe Jeremy. I KNEW it.
So. Maybe . . . I hadn’t really blown it, after all. Maybe I hadn’t given it all away.
I never will blow it, with Cole, I swear it. I’ll never tell him how I really feel. For his sake. I swear it.
If I can help it.
“Cole . . . ” I started. The rush of anger all gone, now; a kind of sick feeling, instead. “I promise . . . I’ll transfer back here, if I can. I’ll work at the Port summers, and save what I can, and I’ll transfer back up here, if I can. If I can possibly afford it. I promise.”
Not knowing, that second, that moment, if I’d actually blown it, or not. Revealed too much of myself to him, or not.
It was like doing self-help surgery, without anesthetics.
More panting, from Cole; and his eyes slowly drifted back to mine, his face raw, vulnerable, and – I could see it – sad. Shockingly sad.
Silence, for a long stretch of seconds.
“We were supposed to go here, together. We were supposed to.”
“Yeah.” It was all I could say.
More silence. More silence, for beat, after beat, after beat.
“I’ll hold you to that,” he said, quietly; at last. Still looking at me, directly; still so sad, so hurt. “About transferring back. About trying to. I’ll hold you to that.”
And we never, ever talked about it directly, again.
* * *
My textbooks came up to even more than I’d been afraid they would, and I had a knot in my stomach as the cash-register kid slid my mom’s credit card through the reader.
“Sign here,” he went, in a bored voice; then he took the slip, let the receipt print out, and slapped it down on the worn counter, with a printed brochure. “This is our return policy, which covers the first seven days. And this – ” he turned the brochure over – “is the buyback policy, starting the last week of the quarter.” He ran through the whole piece in a kind of a run-on monotone.
“Thanks.” I put away the credit card, and looked around for Cole; he’d gone off to look at the Regional Interest section, I think just to keep from embarrassing me, by witnessing how much I had to pay.
And he was back at the counter in a second, of course; he’d been watching. He opened his bookbag, took some of my textbooks and started loading them in.
“And here,” the counter kid went on, “is our online ordering procedure.” He slipped another brochure into one of the used books, one of the ones that wasn’t shrink-wrapped. “You can save yourself a trip, next time.” It was more pre-rehearsed rote.
“No thanks.” I opened up my own backpack. “I need to buy used, and I like to see what I’m buying.” Meaning; I hate, HATE other people’s highlighting and underlining, it really distracts me from the text, it bothers the living hell out of me. You know?
“Whatever.” It came out utterly bored and indifferent, and I could feel Cole giving the kid a look.
“C’mon,” I said, as I buckled up my backpack, and hoisted it on my shoulder.
Back outside in the heat and the glare; looking around, again, at the outdoor tables lining the walkway, the two University Union buildings, the trees and the lawns and the low, understated classroom buildings beyond them. A couple of girls sipping some soft drinks, at one of the tables; a really heavy guy in short shorts and flip-flops, making his way loudly down the walkway, ‘flip, flip, flip, flip’ . . .
“So, what now?” went Cole; putting his arm through the other strap of his backpack, and hoisting it up higher. He glanced back at the bookstore, with a little ironic curl at one side of his mouth. “HE was just enthusiastic as hell, wasn’t he?”
And I couldn’t help it, the whole joke of the experience was too much, and the grin was back all over my face, and it was SO hard not to laugh, it really was.
“Hey,” I said. Trying to say it straight; trying not to spoil it. “You shouldn’t talk about one of my future co-workers like that. Him and me, we’ll probably be best buds, this time next week.”
I just LOVE surprising Cole like that; getting him like that.
And it did get him, I watched his expression change; I watched him blink, for a couple of seconds.
“No shit? You mean, like, you’ll be working here?” He glanced over at the door we’d just come out of. “At this place, the bookstore?”
“Uh huh. I’m a ‘Student Assistant II’. The Pioneer Bookstore’s going to be my happy home away from home, for this coming quarter, at least.” I grinned at him.
And it was so hilarious, in a twisted way, watching his reaction; he didn’t say anything, but I swear, I know him so well, I could see his expression flicker as he thought of five or eight different ways to come back to a ridiculous statement like that . . . and in the end, bless him, he didn’t. He just looked at me, instead; and I felt a little guilty, for steering us so close to The Argument again.
Even if it WAS still hilarious; to catch him, like that.
“Okay,” I said, a little apologetically; after a couple of beats. “Okay, I should have told you; I’m sorry.” I touched his shoulder. “Buy you some espresso, to make up for it? And, oh,” I went on, a little more guiltily. “There’s an espresso place, and more places to eat, in the middle University Union building, this one here, next to the bookstore. It’s like a whole food court in there . . . it’s okay.”
He looked at me, expressionlessly, for a long moment. Then –
“What, you’re going to cheat me out of the Panda Express?”
“Not if you really want to go there.” I felt myself grinning at him, all over again, relieved. I really DO love Cole, on so many levels.
“Espresso. That’ll work. A double espresso will do it.”
I considered, for a second. Yeah. We COULD do the espresso first . . . but I really wanted to show him that last, best thing about the campus. And I didn’t want to spoil it, by letting him catch a glimpse of it too early.
This was too delicious to put off.
“Okay. Yeah. But first – I’ve got a surprise for you.”
“Yeah?” An amused expression, back at me.
“Yeah. Two surprises, actually.” I looked around, a second, left and right. “Now, close your eyes.”
“What - ?!” There was laughter in his voice, now.
“Close your eyes! How can it be a surprise, if you don’t close your eyes first?”
He closed his eyes. “If you think I’m going to, like, stick out my tongue, you are SO wrong.”
“Did I say, ‘stick out your tongue’? Or, ‘open your mouth’?” I hitched up my own backpack, a little higher. “Now, give me your hand.”
“Give me your hand! I have to show you something, so I have to lead you there. Come on . . . ” And I took his hand, warm in mine; and I started to pull him, gently, towards the pathway to the left of the bookstore, the one heading to the back of the building.
“I’m not sure this is such a good idea,” he went, still half-laughing, as we shuffled along. “Remember that time in swimming, that team-building thing, when I was supposed to fall backwards, and you were supposed to catch me - ?”
“That wasn’t my fault!” I spluttered back, laughing, myself, now. “It was Gareth’s fault; he, like, distracted me.” I looked at him, close, a second, then behind me, the direction I was pulling him, then back at him. “Shithead! Keep your eyes closed, okay?”
“Okay, okay!” More laughter, under the surface. “And I know exactly how Gareth was distracting you . . . ” By getting a spectacular hard-on in his Speedo, he didn’t have to say; Gareth used to do that, a lot.
“No you don’t! You weren’t watching!”
And as we shuffled along, people looking at us, I couldn’t help thinking . . . this was perfect, this was so right; this was such a perfect antidote to The Argument, and its after-echoes.
“Okay. Stairs here; going down. Just a few.”
“Fuck! Are you serious - ?”
“Don’t look!” I pulled him, gently, to the top step. “Okay; step down . . . ”
Yeah. Part of it, was, holding Cole by the hand like this. It’s not something I get to do, very often. It was a rush . . . a definite rush, and I knew I was going to remember this, keep a little recording of this in my head, for the future . . . that hand-in-hand contact; that warmth, that closeness. We really ARE that close, all of my fucked-up issues aside.
“Almost there,” I told him; checking for traffic before pulling him across the street (in the crosswalk, thank you!) and into yet another parking lot. A smaller one; this one was for faculty, and it was on the west side of the campus, but we weren’t there for the cars. I pulled Cole to the far edge of the lot, and I positioned him, carefully, before I told him, “Okay. You can open your eyes now.”
The look on his face was priceless; it made it all worth while. I felt myself grinning wider than ever, looking at him, his expression.
See – another name for the campus was ‘CSUEB, Hayward Hills’. It’s WAY up on top of the East Bay Hills . . . and I’d brought us to the very edge of it all, a place with a huge drop-off below us, and a view of San Francisco Bay that you couldn’t FIND anyplace else. I mean, it’s spectacular – the Bay from San Jose to San Francisco, glittering in the afternoon sun, the coast-side hills looming up behind that . . . yeah. You could also see the brown of the smog; but. It was still spectacular, and beautiful as all hell.
Okay. So it wasn’t a total drop-off, a total cliff; there was a soccer field below us, forty or fifty feet or so, a kind of shelf in the hillside, and some uniformed players were running around, playing seriously . . . you can always tell when they’re serious.
But I couldn’t see what was below that; there was just the field, the drop-off, and the view.
“Wow,” Cole said, softly; his eyes scanning, left to right, slowly, then back again, a big, delighted smile all over his face. “Wow . . . Look at this.”
“Yeah,” I said. Looking at the view; but turning to look at him, too, at his profile, the reddening, afternoon sunlight full on his face; lighting his brown hair, turning his skin a little more golden; just looking at him, warm, sun-drenched, alive. “Yeah.”
Another mental, digital-picture; another frame, to store away. Fuck me! that it’s only memory, that I can’t get it down right, down to the last pixel, the way I want!
I made myself look away from him, back at the view.
“See that over there?” I pointed to the extreme north. “You can just make it out . . . that’s Sutro Tower in San Francisco.” It’s the huge, three-legged TV and radio tower on the highest hill in San Francisco, it looms way up over everything like, well, a big, skeletal Burning Man; it’s kind of creepy, actually. “And that, down there?” I pointed about midway down the Bay. “That’s the San Mateo – Hayward Bay Bridge.”
“I’ve only seen it from airplanes, coming in to land at SFO,” he went. Still with that smile; still sunlit, beautiful. “Usually from lower than this. A lot lower.”
“No shit,” I said, happily, still looking around, north and south; it really IS an incredible view, and I was so glad to be sharing it with Cole, I really was. I’d been planning this in my head for a couple of weeks, now.
“You can’t see home from here?” he asked, meaning, Berkeley, of course.
“Nope. It’s behind those bushes, over there.”
There wasn’t much of a breeze, but what there was, was warm and gentle; it felt just right, after the heat and stickiness of the earlier part of the day.
“And what’s that mountain, over there?” he asked; pointing in front of us. It was a big peak in the coastside hills, looming up in back of San Mateo.
“No idea; I’ll have to look it up.” I grinned over at him, sideways. “Okay; so, this is the first surprise I had for you. I told you there were two.”
“Yeah?” He turned his half-smile on me; that really slight head-tilt, again. “Do I have to close my eyes - ?”
“Not this time.” I slung my backpack off – Fuck, it was heavy! – and set it on the ground. I opened up the flap, and felt around for the plastic bag with the present I’d bought for Cole, the last time I was on campus; I found it, and pulled it out.
“Uh-oh,” from Cole.
“Uh-huh,” from me, happily. I pulled out the baseball cap I’d bought, and I held it up frontways to him, so he could see the proud letter stitching; ‘CSUEB’. “Here,” I said, and I stood up and I gently, carefully put it on his head – he ducked down a little, so I could do it – and then I stood back, to look at him; just feeling the grin, all over my face.
I’d known it would fit, Cole and me have the same head size. I hadn’t figured he’d look so cute in it, though.
And it was a peace offering from me, of course; a kind of, I’m-sorry-about-the-argument offering. A, sorry-I-can’t-be-at-Berkeley offering; a, sorry-I’ve-hurt-you offering. I meant it with all my heart, I really did; and I knew he’d understand.
And just then, that one moment, his expression was priceless. Surprised; embarrassed, maybe; blinking at me, a little; and then, after a couple of beats, that corner of his mouth was turning up, and then that knowing, ironic, accepting smile spreading over his face, and his head was tilting, a little, again.
“So. Go Pioneers,” he said, with a careful, ironic lack of enthusiasm. I just grinned back at him, delighted. “Woo-hoo,” he went, twirling his finger, gently, in the air.