Triptychs – Chapter 21
As it turned out, doing something over Christmas break, meant doing something after Christmas. Finals week ran through the second week of December, and you know, stuff just seems to happen, when you get close to Christmas; shopping, people asking you over, people coming by . . .
Al of which – the delay, I mean – all of which was actually, kind of okay with me. I guess I was a little scared, of what was happening with Noah; scared of how I seemed to be getting in deeper with him, scared of how fast things were happening –
No, that’s complete bullshit. I mean, coming from me - ?! How many times have I gone home with somebody, a couple of hours after meeting them for the first time - ?
Okay. So maybe I wasn’t so much afraid of the ‘fast’, as I was the ‘deeper’. The getting-involved part.
Still. I missed Noah, the first part of Christmas break; even as I was sort-of glad, for the time apart. So, how much of a hypocrite does that make me?
* * *
Of course, like I said, there were plenty of other things going on, to keep my mind occupied.
Like my family. The day after my last final, the first Saturday of Christmas break, my three uncles came to visit; my Uncle Ryan, my Uncle Patrick, and my Uncle Dennis; and my Aunt Rhonda, Patrick’s wife.
The idea, my mom told me, was for her to pay them back, some, for all the hospitality they’d shown her, the last few weeks, when she’d been visiting Stockton so much. So, she’d knocked herself out making Boef Bourguignon, this over-the-top French meal with steak and wine sauce and vegetables, and a lot of fancy side dishes to go along with it. She’d actually started cooking early the day before, she took the day off, and everything.
I should have had my own suspicions, about the reasons for the visit; but I didn’t.
I’m kind of in awe of my uncles, all three of them. I always have been.
I mean, they’re BIG; all three of them are big, tall, broad-shouldered men, each of them would make about two-and-a-half or so of me; how the fuck did I miss out in that part of the genetic lottery - ?
But it’s more than their size that intimidates me, some; it’s more who they are, what they are, how they act.
“Boyo,” from my Uncle Ryan, the oldest and biggest of them; and he stooped down some, and hugged me carefully in his huge arms, like he was afraid of hurting me. “When are we going to see you in Stockton again?” It came out in a kind of low, slow, woodwind rumble, as he looked at me with his sad blue eyes.
“Ummm,” I started; then all of a sudden it was my Uncle Patrick coming up and hugging me, and then Aunt Rhonda with a hug and a cheek-kiss, and then my mom was there, and everyone was talking all at once –
And then, Uncle Ryan was pulling me to one side, on the brick porch; stooping down a little, again, speaking soft. “You know, somehow we wound up with an extra Christmas tree in Stockton, between the two of our families, there; you think you could help us find a home for it?” A huge hand came down on my shoulder and squeezed it, gently, as he looked through the door, past my mom. “I THINK it’ll fit,” he went, rumbling low and thoughtful.
Yeah; it’s who they are, what they are.
Uncle Dennis lives closest to us, in Walnut Creek; he’s also the youngest uncle, my mom’s next-older brother. He’s a crane operator at the Port of Oakland; he works those big, gigantic cranes that go up hundreds of feet high, he works in the cabs, way up in the tops of the rigs, loading and unloading containers off of container ships, knowing that he can hurt or kill people if he gets careless, screws up, makes a bad move . . .
And he’s never hurt anyone yet. And there’s a quiet, aware competence about him, there always has been.
Uncle Ryan and Uncle Patrick both work at the Port of Stockton, up the San Joaquin River; they’re ILWU members, of course, but they’re both watermen, they work on tugs and barges and ships in the Delta. And that means, working with huge cables and chains on slick decks, where a mistake can cost an arm or a leg, or a life. But it also means working with GPS and marine diesels, and radar, and knowing their way through the maze of channels and tule reeds and abandoned, sunken boats, that make up the Delta, knowing what the fuck they’re doing, every minute on the job.
They’re competent; they’re adult, and competent, and physically self-assured, and I’ve always been in awe of them, some.
The competence showed, a little later, when we decorated the house. The building, I mean.
As in, the outside of the building; stringing lights in the trees in the front yard, putting icicle-light strings up under the edge of the roof, two stories up in the air.
“Steady there, Patrick?”
“All right,” he went; looking down, holding on to a line. “Ready for the next string . . . ”
It was the way they worked; calm, careful, methodical, and my uncle Patrick on a ladder way, way up in the air was as comfortable as he was, an hour later, eating Boef Bourguignon at our battered kitchen table in our turquoise-painted kitchen, his face all screwed up in pleasure . . .
It was a fun, fun afternoon and evening; with lots of laughter, and my mom’s really good food, and stories and jokes and Christmas music on the stereo, in the background. The Morrisons even came down from upstairs; white-haired, frail, dressed up, and beautiful, eating tiny little plates of the beef, Mr. Morrison flushing pink-cheeked with pleasure.
And then it was time for my uncles and my aunt to go; and we were all clustered around in the little front yard of our building, and it was like a blaze of light in the cold night air, the lights in the trees and on the roofline illuminating everything. My mom’s hair looked silver, in the glow; my breath frosted out white in front of me.
And as we were all talking, and hugging, Uncle Ryan took me a little to one side, again.
“Boyo,” he went, rumbling softly. “I just wanted to say . . . you remember what we talked about, last summer - ?”
Immediate embarrassment, on my part. “Sure,” I started.
“Well . . . you read the news, you know how things are going, these days.” He looked sad, even sadder than usual; blue eyes in a lined face, thick, grey-blond beard. “A lot of our men – a lot of our people – are working short hours, giving each other shifts just to keep everybody going, that sort of thing. You understand?”
“I know, Uncle Ryan,” I said. My breath steaming out the words.
“Now, Boyo, I just want you to know the offer is still open, and it’s going to stay open. You impressed some people, at your summer job; people noticed. If you ever want to join us, in Oakland or Stockton, we’ll make it happen; that’s a promise. It just might take a little longer, right now. But all three of us want you to know, the offer’s still open to you.” Those sad eyes peered at me. “All right, lad?”
Yeah. I had a standing promise from my uncles, for an apprenticeship in the Union, a shot at a job at one of the Ports . . . they’d made the promise to me two years ago, when my dad spectacularly flamed-out of our lives, and the whole future looked incredible shaky, all of a sudden.
And it was all the more poignant to me because, of all of their children – my cousins, my older-adult cousins – none of them had followed my uncles into the Union.
And no, I didn’t want to be a dockworker; not if I had a choice. I’m going into film; one way or another, paid, unpaid, legitimate or underground.
What a gesture. You know? What a strong, loving, fantastic offer - ?
And what can you say, to an offer like that, a reassurance like that, in hard times?
So, for once in my life, I didn’t have a comeback; I didn’t say anything. I just, put my arms around him and hugged him, hard, for second after second, after second. It was like hugging a mountain.
“Thanks, Uncle Ryan,” I managed; a little late.
“No, no; we’re family, and that’s what families are for,” he rumbled, low and deep; one big hand patting my back. And then he was pulling away a little, those blue eyes peering into mine. “And besides – I meant it, that people noticed you this summer. The word is, you know how to work; and you work hard.” That big hand squeezing my shoulder again. “Makes you a McCarthy.”
All I could do was smile at him.
Around us, the goodbyes were dying down; Uncle Patrick and Aunt Rhonda were moving towards their car, and my mom looked thin and cold in the December night.
“One more thing, Boyo,” from my Uncle Ryan; his huge hand still on my shoulder.
“Okay - ?”
His lined face in profile, now, as he looked at our building, the little front yard, the brick steps going up. “Leave the lights on all night. Every night. Will you do that for me, lad - ?”
A lurch. I felt a kind of sickening lurch; as things clicked into place.
I paused, for just a second; my breath puffing out silver, in front of me.
“Yeah,” I went, eventually. Looking up at the lights, again; the way the light-strings framed the porch, the blaze of lights from the two lit-up trees. “Yeah, I promise.” Another short pause. “I already thought about that, myself.” Feeling my stomach knot up, and clench –
Another squeeze of his huge hand, on my shoulder.
My mom, of course, hadn’t been obvious at all; but I knew her.
Or maybe, I should have known; the way she’d been a-little-too-cheerful, lately, the way she’d thrown herself into the cooking this weekend . . . the way she’d shut herself off from me; in the ways that mattered.
Yeah, it meant my dad was nosing around again. Maybe had called; probably had called her. And on some level, I’d known it, I’d known it was coming; but I hadn’t figured it was so CLOSE . . .
And on another level, I hadn’t wanted to deal with it. I’d known it was coming; but I hadn’t wanted to deal with it.
Like mother, like son.
“Boyo,” from my Uncle Ryan; and those sad, blue eyes were looking into mine, close. Embarrassed, partly, but intent. “Remember you’ve got family, close by. You’ll call me if you need us; all right? You’ll call me?”
I noticed the emphasis on the ‘me’; and I knew what it meant. That he was serious.
“I promise,” I went; quietly. Looking down, and a little away.
* * *
So if my dad, or the looming threat of my dad, was one distraction, that season – there was another one that was a lot closer to my heart, a lot more meaningful to me.
It was Cole, of course. The Tuesday before Christmas, Cole and I went to Stinson Beach, just for the day. Just for the fuck of it.
And of course, it was a stupid thing to do. You know? I mean, Stinson Beach is in Marin County, way north of San Francisco, a hell of a long way from Berkeley. Getting there was a huge waste of time, and a huge, huge waste of gas, especially in the truck, and it sure as fuck wasn’t a green thing to do.
Going up to Stinson every once in awhile has gotten to be kind of a tradition for Cole and me; we’ve been doing it since I got my license, and in a way, it helps keep me sane. To the extent that I am sane, anyway.
“I always forget how long this part is,” from Cole; as we went around yet another tree-lined, hairpin curve, then another one, oncoming traffic passing us by inches on our left.
I was driving, this time. The road to Stinson, Highway One, is really narrow, has lots of curves, and way too many suicidal, spandex-wearing bicyclists cranking up and downhill on really expensive Italian racing bikes . . . Did I mention, the road is narrow?
I hadn’t offered to let Cole drive, and he hadn’t said anything about it, when we got in the truck.
“Yeah,” I said; slowing way down, to get the F-150 around a tight curve, really close to the battered white guardrail on one side, trying not to edge across the yellow line, on the other. “Yeah, me too. It’s been awhile since we did this.” I flashed a quick grin over at him. “It feels good.”
See, we started coming to Stinson Beach, mostly because it’s incredibly beautiful . . . but also because it’s so far away. From Berkeley, I mean; from where we live. It’s really beautiful, and on the coast, and way far north, and not that easy to get to, honestly; it’s a different world.
And that means coming here . . . is a kind of vacation, for us; a chance to get away, get to a different place. It’s a kind of substitute vacation.
Especially for me. Cole travels a lot more than me, mostly to see his dad in Santa Monica . . . but other places, too.
Me, I haven’t been anyplace but Berkeley and Hayward in months and months and months. Since my mom and me went out boating with my uncles in the Delta last summer, actually.
Well, no. I’m forgetting my dates with Erik in San Francisco.
No. Going up to Stinson was a vacation for me, and I wasn’t going to let anything spoil it.
Truth to tell, even thinking that, thinking about Erik for a second . . . didn’t bother me, it was barely a blip.
I was happy, just then. So happy. For no particularly good reason.
“I’m glad you’re here for Christmas, this year. Instead of Santa Monica, I mean.” I steered us around another sharp bend, more than ninety degrees, downhill; in front of us, a white Acura braked hard, briefly, then decided to go too fast, again. “I’m going to need the moral support, when I go on my Big Date. I’m out of practice; I may need to call you, to ask you what to do.” I grinned over at him, quick.
“I think it’ll come back to you,” from Cole. Dryly.
“No, I’m serious!” I went on, still grinning. “I mean, this is a date-date; not a go-home-with-someone date. I haven’t been on a date-date in a long time! Well, except for . . . you know.” I made a face, my eyes on the road. “And he didn’t count; I knew him too well.”
“I thought you told Noah you were going to, like, make out with him, somewhere - ?” That Cole, upturned-half-smile, in the corner of my eye, just briefly; as we curved to the right.
“Well, yeah. So what’s your point - ?” I went, playing off him, gleefully.
“You are such a dick-breath,” Cole went, admiringly.
“Only if I get really lucky,” from me; braking for the stupid Acura again. “No, I think it’s just going to be a date-date, this time . . . but he DOES kiss really, really well.”
“Mmmph,” from Cole; turning it into muffled laughter.
Yeah; I was happy, just then.
And you know how sometimes it just – happens? How everything just, comes together, for no particular good reason, and all of a sudden you’re feeling peaceful, and happy, and the world is full of color, and bright, and beautiful - ?
It was that kind of happiness I was feeling, totally a mood, totally irrational – but real, regardless. Maybe it’s brain chemistry, maybe serotonin, who the fuck knows – but I was feeling that really rare feeling of gentleness, of peace, and the world around us was beautiful.
Well, I did have some good, rational reasons to be happy. I was spending quality time with Cole, and the two of us were going to one of my favorite places in the world, and my mom was going to a Christmas party after work, so I didn’t have to be home early . . .
I did have one other specific thing to be happy about. For once in my life, for once in my recent life, anyway – I could do something for Cole. Was doing it, actually; just by taking this trip.
“So, have you heard from Jeremy, yet?” As we eased around one of the last sharp curves; the blue of the ocean to our left, the green of the Marin hillsides to our right, the sky a winter-scrubbed blue above us, blue-grey clouds scudding in the wind. I felt the beauty of if almost spike through me, sharp.
“No,” from Cole; neutrally. A short silence. Then – “He’ll call me tonight, after they’ve all gone to bed. He always does. He thinks it’s rude to get away from his family just to make calls, when he’s down there.”
“He’s got a point,” I went; and Cole shrugged.
Yeah. Cole was – a little worried, maybe, about Jeremy. Concerned for him, anyway. And this trip was partly a way for me to get Cole’s mind off the subject.
Or at least, a way to offer a little comfort. Me, I was sure they didn’t have a thing to worry about; and that made the day’s mission, all the more delicious, all the more enjoyable.
“Are you sure he’s going to talk to them tonight - ?” I asked it casually, as we topped a little rise, and Stinson Beach – the little town, I mean – came into view, way down the road.
“He said he would.” Cole scowled. “He said he had it all set up, with his sister Lisa . . . ”
Yeah. Jeremy was coming out to his parents, to his family, tonight.
Not about being gay; he’d already done that, carefully, gradually, that summer – the summer after Cole turned eighteen; there was no way he’d do it before then, and I totally understood.
He was coming out about Cole.
Well, even that isn’t exactly true; I mean, his family knew, now, that he had a boyfriend, and that his name was Cole; and that he and Jeremy’d been together two years, already.
What they didn’t know was Cole’s age. They didn’t know he was eighteen. Well, eighteen and a half, anyway; or a little more than that, actually, now in December.
And since legal age-of-consent is eighteen in California, and since they’d been together for two years, and since the penalties for underage-sex – it’s statutory rape, under the law – are so strict, and since Jeremy’s father is a lawyer, an Officer of the Court . . .
They’d talked about keeping it a secret, keeping Cole a secret, until the statue of limitations ran out; until it was too late to prosecute Jeremy, even if he told the truth. But Jeremy hated the idea, he’d always hated lying to his family . . . he’d always, for those two years, wanted to bring Cole down to meet his family, wanted to share Cole with his family . . .
I can so totally understand. I mean, it’s Cole. Who wouldn’t?
So Jeremy was going to break it to his family, his parents and his sisters – well, the sister who didn’t already know – tonight.
And Cole, of course, was worried for Jeremy, worried about what he was going through, and wishing he was with Jeremy, down in San Diego. Duh.
“And no word yet, about the Christmas card - ?” I glanced over at him.
As part of the whole plot – as a way to start the conversation – Jeremy’d sent a virtual Christmas card to his parents, and his sisters, and to his best friend Derrick, of course. And the card had a really nice picture of Cole and Jeremy together; Cole just beaming with happiness, in his high-school-graduation-day cap and gown, his arm around Jeremy’s waist, Jeremy’s face just shining with love. It was the single best picture I took, that day; if I do say so, myself.
Yeah. Did I mention, our lives are all kind of wrapped up, entangled with each other?
“Lisa said I was ‘cute’.” He said it dryly, almost acidly; looking ahead, down the road.
“Well, you are,” I went, reasonably.
THAT got me a look; and I tried to keep a straight face, tried not to grin “Nothing from the parents yet, nothing from Dianne,” Cole went on.
“It’s only been a couple of days,” I said; steering us around a big curve –
And all of sudden, the wooden, white-painted buildings of Stinson Beach were right on either side of us; little cafes, corner stores offering picnic supplies, a tiny motel, all surrounded by green Monterey pines, the glowing grass-green of the coast hills rising up behind everything. My happiness just spiking, all over again, at the sight of it all.
“I mean, look; you’re eighteen now, you’re legal. And, and . . . it’s JEREMY. You really think his parents would, like, disown him, or something - ?”
Meaning; Jeremy was one of the gentlest, sweetest, most loving humans on earth. And I couldn’t imagine the parents who raised him, doing anything to hurt him; hell, I couldn’t imagine them doing anything but adopting Cole as another son.
“Maybe not,” from Cole, after a long pause. “Maybe . . . ”
And I tried not to grin, in sympathy.
I mean, It’s easy for me; I’ve got a little distance, a little perspective; I wasn’t the one who was going to wind up meeting Jeremy’s parents as Son-In-Law-Number-Three.
I wondered, briefly, what that would feel like; meeting your boyfriend’s parents, your more-than-boyfriend’s parents, for the first time . . . ?
“I think this is our turn, coming up,” from Cole; a little abruptly.
“Yeah,” from me; slowing down, putting on the turn signal, looking into the rear-view mirror. Still trying not to grin.
When you park at Stinson Beach, it’s at the southern end, of the beach and the town; and it’s more a series of little parking lots in a big, green park with picnic tables and lots of trees, than anything else, it’s actually all really nice.
And the park itself is right on the beach; just a few steps away, so we did what all the locals do, we rolled up our pants legs, left our shoes in the truck, and went barefoot over the sun-warmed asphalt and onto the soft sand. Bundled up in our heavy jackets; the wind clean and cold, the light just, beautiful.
Did I mention, that I was feeling absurdly happy? Happy, and ridiculously-peaceful, just then? I felt it, all over, and the feelings just intensified, and set in, as we trudged our way down to the wet sand by the water.
Stinson’s a really broad beach, it stretches north for two or three miles, curving gently to the west, and eventually it actually turns into a private beach, up at its northern tip – which is pretty rare, in Northern California. But most of it is public, and it’s broad, and quiet, at least this part of year, and it’s so, so beautiful.
Not that we were alone.
Stinson Beach is also a kind of a playground, for the richer people of Marin County; there are houses on thick concrete pilings on the edge of the beach, houses for rent with kayaks out on the sand, beach houses on flimsy wooden stilts that look weathered but are really expensive, houses on the ground where the sand comes up almost to the walls, and you wonder what it’s like, there, when a storm comes in at high tide . . .
And of course, being a beach, it’s dog heaven. Dogs running all over the place; on leashes, dragging their leashes, happily digging into the sand with their front paws – at least half the cars in the mostly-empty parking lots, were people bringing their dogs here to run around.
And surfers. I knew THAT would get Cole’s attention.
“Mmmmmm,” from me; under my breath. At a boy walking up from the water; maybe fifteen, maybe sixteen, carrying his board under his arm, in a black wetsuit that totally showed off the lines of his cute, skinny body. His hair was wet and blond, a little darker than mine. He didn’t look at us, as he passed by, a few feet away. “Yum!”
A sideways, ironic glance from Cole. “That’s different.”
“What - ?” I grinned over at him.
“Not exactly your type, is he?”
“Hey, I’m branching out.” I glanced back at the kid, over my shoulder. “Besides, did you see that cute little butt? Mmmm-mmmm!” And as I looked back, walking, I almost tripped on a little rise of sand, and Cole had to reach out and grab me; which made me laugh.
“You are turning into an even bigger perv that you used to be,” from Cole, puffing out his own laugh, as he let me go. “I didn’t think that was possible!”
“Well, LOOK at him,” I went; watching the surfer-boy, behind us. Then I turned my grin on Cole. Pointedly. “Huh. Is that what YOUR butt looks like, in a wetsuit - ?”
“Perv,” from Cole; smiling crooked as we started back down towards the water. Then – “I don’t know, we’ve only been surfing twice.” In Santa Monica, I knew, where Cole’s dad lives. Another short pause. “But Jeremy’s butt looks pretty nice in his wetsuit, I have to admit.” He said it with a small smile, not looking at me, and I just threw back my head and laughed.
And that was kind of the opening.
The two of us, walking on the firm, wet sand now; frigid little waves just barely coming up to our feet, once in awhile, washing over our ankles. Talking, in the middle of all that beauty.
Cole, first, talking about maybe surfing with Jeremy in San Diego, like Jeremy’d promised; using Jeremy’s boards, and gear . . . which led, of course, duh, to Jeremy’s family. To what Jeremy was doing tonight, telling them about Cole, and everything.
It turned out, Cole agreed with me. It wasn’t all that likely, that Jeremy’s family would disown him, or do something horrible.
But the stakes were high. Cole knew how much Jeremy loved his family; how important his family was, to him. And Jeremy’s so, so sensitive . . .
Cole was worried about a wounded, hurting Jeremy coming back to Berkeley, after Christmas. Maybe not disowned; but hurting. And although he didn’t say it, exactly, I knew how painful it would be for Cole to see that, to share that with Jeremy . . . Knowing, he was the cause . . .
Yeah, I thought; looking at Cole’s face in profile, his hair whipped by the cold breeze, in the pale winter sun. Yeah; it can be harder seeing someone you love get hurt, then to get hurt yourself.
That was a lesson I’d learned, really, really well. Thinking back, to Cole and Michael . . .
So I changed the subject.
Hey. Changing the subject, getting Cole’s mind off of worrying about Jeremy, was a big part of the day’s agenda; right?
It didn’t turn out the way I planned. It got out of control, fast.
“So he likes you,” from Cole, beside me; his head a little down, his hands in his jacket pockets. His bare feet, like mine, leaving wet prints in the dark, wet sand. “So he’s got good taste. I don’t see what the problem is.”
I wasn’t explaining it very well.
“It’s not that he likes me . . . it’s well, fuck.” I groped for words. “It’s just that he, he LIKES me . . . and he doesn’t even know me. I mean, we’ve only ever been together, talked to each other, on campus . . . ”
A flash of Cole’s eyes, at me; with just a hint of a smirk. “You’ve done more than just talk to each other.”
“Dipshit.” I grinned at him; but I actually felt . . . embarrassed. Me! “Yeah, we’ve kissed a few times. At work, when nobody was looking. In the fucking bookstore!”
“Like that doesn’t count - ?”
I didn’t say anything, for a couple of steps. The feel of the smooth, wet sand under my feet; the sharp breeze on my face.
“The point is . . . he doesn’t really know me.” I paused, for a second. “And . . . he really likes me. A lot. He tries not to show it, but I can tell . . . ”
“Like, when you’re kissing?” from Cole; dryly. Pressing the point, again.
I just looked over at him, a second; then back ahead.
“Yeah,” I said, finally. For once in my life, not laughing; not smiling. A pause, in the cool breeze. “Yeah; then, and at other times, too. And, I don’t know how I feel, about that . . . ”
Nothing from Cole, as we walked on, a few more steps; then I felt him look sideways at me.
“You know,” he went, “when we started up, for awhile Jeremy was more into me that I was into him . . . ”
I just blinked at him, for a second. “No shit - ?” I went, at last.
“That what he says, anyway . . . and I kind of remember, sort-of-knowing it.” He shrugged, looking down, as we walked along, slow. “It was more like, me being careful, after the whole mess with Michael, I think. And it didn’t take me long to come around.”
“No shit!” I said again, grinning at him, this time. Remembering.
Another wry, sideways look from Cole. “Yeah.” A silent step, then, and then another one. “But the thing is . . . I remember, being a little bit scared, of Jeremy. Mostly, being scared of, like, hurting him. You know what he’s like . . . I was really scared of hurting him.” A shrug from him, looking down and away, a little.
Cole knows me. He so knows me; just like I know him.
“And the thing is,” he went on, “that’s totally normal, to be afraid of hurting another person, whey you start dating – ”
“Yeah,” I launched in, immediately; like we’d already been talking about it for the last hour, arguing about it for the last hour. “And there’s maybe hurting somebody, and then there’s maybe fucking up somebody’s life completely. I mean, fuck, he’s really kind of young, and shy, and quiet, and look at my family, look at my mom, my dad - !”
“Wait a minute,” from Cole; he stopped, and then we were kind of half-facing each other, on the wet sand. I could see the white foam of the breakers, over his left shoulder. “Wait a minute. You think you’re the only one around, with a weird family - ?” His head tilted, in that way he has, and I blinked at him.
“Cole – ”
I could tell, he’d been thinking about it. Preparing his own arguments.
“No, I mean it! Look at my family. Look at my dad, the Cyborg Investment Banker who’s been out of our lives for ten years; when I go down to visit him I sometimes think the first thing I should do is check for a pulse, except he’s too busy talking on his cell for me to touch him. And my mother!” He shook his head. “My mother! Would you call her, ‘normal’?” He looked to one side, a second, and gave a little laugh, a kind of wondering breath; then he looked back at me. “You know how much I love her – but do you think I wanted to get Jeremy mixed up with HER - ? You think that didn’t scare the living shit out of me, back when we started dating - ?”
And all at once he stopped, and we were just standing there in the wet sand, looking at each other. Overhead a seagull wheeled by, slowly, squawking.
“Well,” I went, eventually. “You know my dad is a little strange, too . . . ”
We just held the pose, for a second, then two, then three; then – I couldn’t help it, I puffed out a laugh, then I grinned at him, and he quirked up a kind of grin, too . . .
And then I looked back down. Not grinning.
“It’s not just my family,” I went on, quietly; after a couple of breaths. “It’s not just them; it’s me. It’s me . . . ” I paused, for a second. “You know who I am, better than anybody. You know how fucked-up I am, better than anybody else in the world.” I looked down, at my wet, bare feet. “I don’t want to be, like, toxic for him. I don’t want to be, like poison, for him.”
Pause. Long pause, then he stepped in toward me, and his arms were around me, hugging me tight, tight, and his cheek was pressed against mine.
“Fuck you,” he went, fiercely, low, into my ear; I could feel his breath. “Fuck you. Don’t talk like that!”
I blinked. He was actually mad; I could tell. I felt him squeeze, hard, again, and then he was back a little, resting his forehead on mine, breathing heavy.
“Fuck you! It’s always the same thing with you, isn’t it? Why? Why - ?!”
Because I’m not good enough for you, I didn’t say. Feeling the old, worn thought go through me, like a knife. Because you didn’t choose me.
“Cole,” I started, instead –
“No. Listen to me,” he breathed out; his forehead still on mine, his arms over my shoulders, both of us looking down. “You are not like that. You hear me? You’re no more fucked up than anybody else. You’re not fucked up.”
A pause, and a breath from me, that came out as a little bit of a snort. I mean, we both knew better.
“Stop it!” from Cole. His hands moved to my upper arms; I felt him holding me, fierce. “You are the finest, coolest, best person I know; and I mean it.” Another pause, as I kept looking down. “You’re fucking brave, you’re not afraid of anything, you laugh at everything, you know how much I envy that? You’ll be laughing at something, you’ll be laughing at yourself on your deathbed. I so fucking envy that!”
“And you’re brave, and you’re strong, and you’ve got compassion, you’ve got SO much compassion, you’re incredibly generous – you give away way too much of your money, way too much of yourself, you dipshit – and, and you’re so much fucking FUN . . . ”
I finally found my voice. “You mean I’ve got a great personality - ?” Trying it as a joke.
“Stop it!” Cole’s hands squeezed my upper arms, harder. “Stop it!”
A few more breaths; the sound of the waves, washing gently on the flat beach; and then, his forehead was back down on mine, again, touching, both of us looking down.
“You’re my brother,” he went; at last. His voice softer. “You’re part of me. You’re part of me, and I love you, I never would have made it, without you. Would you please, please give yourself a break? Give yourself a chance? For me?”
So many feelings, so many feelings at war with each other, all at once . . .
And it was all so complicated, and so wrapped up in our history together, our lives, that I couldn’t say anything, not a word –
But I could pull Cole into a hug. A long, long hug, expressing all the love I couldn’t trust myself to express with words.
So I did.
The cold sea breeze; the pale blue sky, the chill of the water on our feet, as we walked . . .
Things got easier between us, Cole and me, as we went. Still a little raw around the edges; with the echoes of what’d just happened. Duh. But, easier. Happy.
And as we went, Cole told me more about him and Jeremy . . . little things, mostly, little bits from back when they were just beginning to date . . . like the time Cole’d discovered, Jeremy was afraid of bees. As in, really afraid of bees; not because he was allergic or anything, he was just afraid of them, and as Cole imitated Jeremy damn near perfectly, getting his voice, his expressions, even his posture just right, I had to laugh . . .
And I tried to describe Noah better to Cole; the way he didn’t say much verbally, using his expressions, his moves, instead; but also how, when he did say things, they tended to be kind of deep. Thoughtful. Pointed, even.
“Hmmmm,” from Cole; looking halfway-out to sea, the pale light glinting in his eyes.
“What - ?”
“You know I’m going to have to meet him. Sooner or later.” A sideways-glance at me, with a half-smile, but also the memory of the stuff we’d just said. I knew he meant it.
“Uhhhh . . . ” I had to stifle a laugh. “Uh, you know, we haven’t even been on a date, yet.”
“You will.” That Cole self-assurance, that I knew so well. “Yeah, I have to meet him. We have to meet him,” he went on, meaning, him and Jeremy, I knew. “How about dinner? You can bring him over to our house, for dinner. After the new semester – I mean, after the new quarter starts.”
Weird, mixed feelings from me; the idea of Cole meeting Noah . . . two entirely different worlds colliding, two entirely different pieces of ME colliding . . . but I knew he was right. I mean, I had to introduce them. “Yeah . . . IF we go on dating.”
“You will,” from Cole again, with a smug look; and it occurred to me, he’d never been certain like that, he’d never been encouraging like that, when we were talking about me and Erik . . .
The sheer beauty of the beach; the glow of happiness from just being there, back again, the glow of happiness from being there with Cole . . .
The afterglow of his words. Of him believing in me; of loving me, like a brother.
I slowed us down, taking pictures; yeah, I’d brought one of my cameras, and my ultralight, collapsible tripod, and for the first time since school started in September I was actually taking pictures, and fuck-me, it felt so GOOD to do that, to be shooting something again, to be doing something visual, again, after all this time . . .
With Cole, of course. So close to Cole.
And the feeling struck me, as we walked, and talked, me glancing over at his face, his profile, every once in awhile . . . the feeling struck me, hard, all of a sudden, the poignancy of the moment struck me, hard.
Because for once in my life – I was actually, honestly, talking about somebody else with Cole. Somebody I was dating, I mean; not a one-night-stand, not a quasi-pretend-would-be date like Erik, not a made-up excuse for not-dating . . . I was actually talking honestly with Cole; about dating. I was sharing my heart with Cole; and he was sharing his heart with me.
And, fuck-me . . . it felt good; it felt amazingly good, being honest with Cole . . . But. It also felt like the end of something; it felt like the end of something really important in my life, and when I glanced over at him, it was like I was memorizing his face, memorizing the moment; storing it all, for the future, as if he was going away, or something . . .
The feeling was so strong that I actually had to blink, and look away, at the water, and then back down the beach, the way we’d come; and then –
“What?” from Cole; as I stood still and blinked, and blinked again; startled.
I didn’t say anything, at first. Then – “One more photo op.” I paused. “Sorry, I can’t resist.” I grinned over in his general direction, as I unslung my backpack, and took out my tripod.
It was perfect.
I mean, it framed itself; the light blue of the sky, the darker, winter-blue of the ocean, flecked with white . . . the dark greens and browns of the hills, to the left –
And trailing down the wet brown sand, back into the distance, two sets of footprints; meandering here and there, closer to the water, then higher up the slope . . . but always together. Always side by side. Glistening wet, in the light.
Yeah, it was a good shot. A REALLY good shot; anybody with a halfway-decent eye would have jumped on it.
And it was symbolic as all hell. It really was. And I figured I either had to capture the shot, or break out and start crying . . . and that would be hard to explain to Cole. You know?
So I did the usual photography-thing; putting the camera on the tripod, adjusting the aperture and shutter speed, taking shots, then tweaking the settings and taking more shots . . . Cole’s used to me taking dozens and dozens of pictures, for every one that I keep; he stood by, patiently.
“You know,” he said, quietly, at last, as I was snapping away, crouched down behind my tripod. “I’ll always be there for you, Trev. I promise.”
And so, that shot – the last shot of the footprint-scene, the last shot of that day – turned out a little blurred.
I must have jerked on the cable release, or something . . .