The bell rang and another school day was over. You’d think there was a fire, the way kids rushed out of the classroom, yet they congregated in the hallway in groups, making it impossible to get anywhere very fast. Knowing there’d be a wait at the elevator, I took my time exiting my European History class. Waiting until everyone else had left, I grabbed my bookbag and as I made my way toward the exit, the teacher called out to me, “Happy birthday, Zach.”
Stopping in my tracks, I responded, “Thanks, Mr. Epstein. I guess you teachers have access to all our birthdays, but you’re the first person to notice, and that includes my parents and my brother.”
“Fifteen is a big deal in some cultures. In Latin cultures, girls celebrate the Quinceañera, but it’s nothing special for most Americans. Jews celebrate becoming a man at thirteen, and most American teenagers celebrate coming of age at sixteen – Sweet Sixteen, they call it – but fifteen is special too. You’re no longer a boy, but not quite a man. Some consider it to be an awkward time, but that’s in hindsight. It’s a transition and that, in and of itself, is worth celebrating.”
Speaking of awkward, I just stood there, not sure of what to say, but then looking at the clock, I said, “I’ve gotta run if I want to get to my locker.” Not only that, but students were starting to arrive for the last class of the day. It looked weird for me to just stand there while kids were finding their seats, so I quickly made my way out into the hallway and headed down the nearest set of stairs and to the closest elevator. Brooklyn Tech was a huge school and to avoid having everyone arrive or leave at once, we had staggered schedules. Those of us like me who started the day at 8:00, with first period, left after their ninth period class. Those fortunate enough to get to sleep later, started at 8:47 with second period and left after tenth period.
With such a large building and nine floors plus the basement, all of them with classrooms, the use of elevators in combination with stairs was essential. There was no way 4,000 students could get between classes if we all had to wait for students to get on and off the elevators at each floor. And while climbing from the basement to the ninth floor might have been good exercise, that’s what gym class was for. There were five sections to the building – east, west, north, south and center, and four elevators available for student use. The elevators ran continuously between the first and seventh floors and only students with disabilities were given a key that gave them access to get on and off on other floors. Thankfully, in spite of all my many problems, an inability to take the stairs wasn’t one of them. My ninth-period class was on the second floor of the east wing, so I had to go down one set of stairs to get to the first-floor east elevator.
Fifteen might have been worth celebrating, but that just wasn’t in the cards. Both my parents worked as emergency room physicians at Wyckoff Heights Medical Center, which is a teaching affiliate hospital in the Columbia-Cornell system. Even before the pandemic, they worked twelve-hour shifts that always ended up being closer to thirteen hours. They were supposed to work four twelve-hour shifts in a row, followed by sixty hours off, such that they alternated working nights and days. For all intents, Jake and I never saw our parents except during the one day when they were both home. We’d always made it a point to do things together as a family during those times, but then came the pandemic and with so many sick patients, emergency physicians had to work six twelve-hour shifts in a row, with 36 hours off in between. It was brutal.
When I got to the elevator, there were four girls waiting, who seemed to be giggling more than talking, and there was another boy – I think his name was Tanner – who was standing across from me. Yeah, I was sure his name was Tanner, and he’d played the starring role in many of my fantasies. I probably spent more time than I should’ve looking at him. He wasn’t what you’d call handsome, but his red hair and his freckles, which I knew were also on his shoulders, made him cuter than any other boy I’d met. I knew he was a sophomore, ’cause he was in my chemistry and gym classes and if anything, he was even klutzier than I was, and shy, but there was something about his personality that was endearing to me. Like me, he didn’t seem to have many friends to speak of and he kind of kept to himself. Brooklyn Tech was the kind of school that attracted geeky kids. As one of New York’s specialty high schools – the largest one – you had to take an exam when you were in the eighth grade and only the top 20% or so of those who applied actually got into one of the eight specialty high schools. I’d been hoping to get into the HSMSE, the High School for Math, Science and Engineering, which was my first choice, but they only took a hundred kids per year, whereas Tech took a thousand. It would’ve been sweet to get a two-year head start on a college education, but even at Tech, with all the advanced placement I’d be getting, I’d likely start college as a sophomore in any case.
It was almost two years ago, when I took the exam, and it was a few months after that that we got the results back and learned where we’d gotten in. I got my third choice, missing the cutoffs for both HSMSE and The Bronx High School of Science. As it turned out, just after that, the pandemic hit and everything shut down. I had to finish middle school online from home while simultaneously watching over my kid brother. As emergency room physicians, our parents couldn’t exactly work from home. As a small, community hospital in Brooklyn, right on the border with Queens, Wyckoff Heights was quickly overwhelmed by patients dying from Covid-19. My parents didn’t talk much about it, but I could see the strain on their faces. Of necessity, Jake and I took over all of the cooking and cleaning tasks. Jake was only ten and at thirteen, the full weight of taking care of things at home fell squarely on my shoulders. I had no trouble keeping up with the coursework, but Jake would’ve spent all day on his PlayStation if I hadn’t kept on his ass to get his schoolwork done.
My freshman year at Tech was no better, with classes starting out online and then switching to a so-called hybrid model. What a farce! At first, I tried going to class the two days a week it was expected of me, but there were only two or three kids in each class who even bothered to show up. It didn’t seem to matter to my teachers. If anything, they seemed to prefer not having any kids in class to teach, so after talking with them, I went back to attending classes only online. It wasn’t like I had far to go to get to Tech, especially when compared to kids who came from the other boroughs, but it was just plain spooky, walking on empty streets, riding empty subway cars and walking through empty hallways in an empty school building, so I gave up and stayed home with Jake. At least we didn’t live in a tiny apartment the way some kids did. I knew of a kid who lived with his parents in a small one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. I know what it’s like to live in a figurative closet, but that boy lived in a literal closet, right next to his parents’ bedroom. I didn’t even what to think about what it was like to sleep there when his parents were having sex – not that I would ever bring something up like that with a friend, let alone an acquaintance.
Anyway, as we waited for the elevator to arrive, I briefly risked looking at Tanner and found he’d been looking at me, but he quickly looked down and blushed. I sometimes wondered if he might be gay and secretly, I hoped he was. I was way too shy to talk to him though, and I was way too chicken to come out. It was clear he’d never take a chance on asking me for a date. Finally, the elevator doors opened and a large group of kids rushed out, intent on getting out of the building as quickly as possible, and then we rushed inside. When the doors opened on the seventh floor, Tanner went left and I went right, heading up another set of stairs to go to my locker on the eighth floor.
Tech was different from other schools in that there were no lockers in the halls. There were lockers in each classroom, and it was up to the teachers to give them out as they saw fit. Obviously, that was to keep kids from using their lockers to store contraband, be it drugs, weapons or porn. Most of us took the advice of our first period teacher at the start of the year and requested a locker in her room. That way, we’d have a place to hang our coats when the weather turned cooler. Some kids, like Tanner, just chose not to have a locker at all, schlepping their books and outerwear with them all day. My first period class, however, was near the cafeteria, which was on the seventh floor, and that made it practical to drop my coat off and grab my books in the morning, just before grabbing a quick breakfast, and then to swap my morning and afternoon books out after lunch. Breakfast and lunch were provided for free to all students, regardless of means, so of course I took advantage. Not that the food was great, but a hot breakfast sure beat the crap out of the cold cereal and toast I’d have fixed myself at home.
I quickly entered the classroom for my first period class and grabbed the books I’d need for the evening, as well as the jacket I’d worn to school that morning. Mid-November tended to be cool in New York, with nighttime temperatures that occasionally dipped near or even below freezing. Today, it was barely supposed to get up to a high of fifty, so I’d worn a warm jacket that was perfect for the fall weather. Any colder and it’d be time to break out my winter coat.
I exited the classroom just as the bell rang to signify the start of the tenth period. I headed back down the stairs and as I walked by the cafeteria, I noticed that Tanner was inside, sitting at a table by himself with all of his books spread out around him. Curious, I wondered what his home situation was like, that he’d prefer to do his homework in the school cafeteria rather than at home. I briefly thought of going inside and asking him, but I was way too shy to go through with it. Then he looked up and saw me standing there, and he blushed and quickly looked down. Realizing I’d been caught staring at him, I quickly moved on.
With the hallway nearly empty now except for a few stragglers like me, it didn’t take long to get an elevator, which I had to myself as I took it to the first floor. I exited the building into what was a sunny, blustery fall evening. The Fulton Street subway station was just around the corner from the school, about a block away from the Barclay Center, home of the Brooklyn Nets, and the adjacent Atlantic Terminal transit center, which had been the site of numerous Black Lives Matter protests in the summer last year. ’Course I wasn’t allowed to go to those, which was just as well, ’cause some of them had turned violent.
Heading down into the subway station, I swiped myself in with my student farecard. Other people could tap a phone or a credit card to enter, but that was only for full-fare passengers and as a student who lived more than a mile-and-a-half away, I was entitled to three free subway or bus rides per day, so I slid my card through the card reader and entered the turnstile, heading down another set of stairs to the G-Train, Queens-bound platform, in the direction of Court Square.
There’d been a lot of violent incidents on the subway since the start of the pandemic, but for the most part, the subway was safe and besides which, there really wasn’t another way for me to get to and from school. My parents had strict rules though. First of all, I was never to enter the subway after dark unless there were other people with me. I sometimes had to wait a bit, but Fulton was a busy subway station and I seldom had to wait very long. I was never to stand near the tracks, so a deranged homeless person couldn’t shove me into the path of an oncoming train. Whenever possible, I was to stand with my back to one of the stairways, ’cause that made it impossible for someone to sneak up behind me. I was never, ever to sit on one of the wooden seats while waiting for the train, ’cause unlike the seats on the subway, they were almost never cleaned or disinfected, and you never knew who or what had been sitting there before.
It went without saying that you always kept your wits about you, remaining aware and vigilant of all the people around. That wasn’t something I even needed to think about – it was just something New Yorkers did. Not that living in New York wasn’t safe, but with so many people from all walks of life, crammed so close together, close encounters with weirdos were a common occurrence. Even with the pandemic and the spike in violent crime, it was still safer to live in New York City than in most places.
A train pulled into the station, and it was packed. I boarded the train and did my best to find a spot near a pole I could hold onto and where I could stand without having to remove my backpack. Some other kids I recognized from Tech got on with me and one of them, a boy who looked to be seventeen or eighteen, managed to find a seat. There was an elderly man with a cane who got on at the same time and was forced to stand. I glared at the boy and he saw me glare at him, but he stayed in his seat, never once looking up at the old man in front of him. I never could understand how kids could be so selfish. Someday, God willing, we’d all be elderly. How would we feel then if a bratty kid refused to give up their seat for us?
I took the train to Greenpoint, the last stop in Brooklyn, and climbed out of the world of darkness into the fading sunlight. At least the weather was decent, if not a little bit chilly, as it was a four-block walk from the subway to our house. Not that I was complaining. Our house was in a great location, just two blocks from the East River and surrounded by nice shops and restaurants. It wasn’t always so nice. I guess when Mom and Dad bought the place, just after finishing their residencies, the neighborhood was run down. They’ve shown me their pictures and the place was really dilapidated, but they bought it because they could afford it, and everyone said that Greenpoint was the next big thing. Now, it’s easy to say they were right, but the area used to be an industrial wasteland, with boarded-up buildings and who knew what chemicals were in the soil.
A lot of people think that all physicians are rich, but in New York, that’s a relative term. Sure, my parents have a decent combined income, but when most people were already out making money and raising families, Mom and Dad were still in school. By the time a physician finishes medical school and then their residency and fellowship training, they’re already over thirty and up to their eyeballs in debt. Not that I expected anyone to feel sorry for us, but most doctors are still paying off their student loans when their kids head off to college. Dad once walked me through our expenses for the month, and that was a real eye-opener. The amount he and Mom earned varied from month to month, with only a small part of it being from their base salary, and the rest from their share of the emergency department’s billable hours. However, by the time they paid federal, state and city taxes; health, dental, disability and malpractice insurance; and their portion of the faculty retirement plan, their net pay was only about half as much as their gross income.
Out of what was left, nearly a third went straight into the mortgage, which had been refinanced, twice. Another third went to pay off their student loans and to pay our property taxes, insurance on the house and cars, and personal liability insurance. I was shocked to learn we paid as much for parking as it cost to lease our cars, and again as much for utilities and for food, clothing and miscellaneous expenses. After all of that, there was only about $4,000 left, out of which came Jake’s and my allowances and everything else, including vacations, summer camp, braces and whatever else we needed. Somewhere in all of that was money set aside for college for me and Jake, too. I knew a lot families got by on nothing but that, but I’d read recently that a family with an income of up to $180k per year could qualify for subsidized housing. That was considered poor in New York! Like I said, even with two physician salaries, we were middle class. Not that I was complaining. Not many New Yorkers could afford to live in a semi-detached single-family house so close to Manhattan.
Walking down Java Street and crossing over Franklin Street, I came to our humble abode, a wood frame building that was almost a hundred years old. It appeared to be very narrow, with three floors plus a basement, but that was because it was sandwiched between two apartment buildings. The lot itself was just over a thousand square feet, but there was a small bit of land next to the house with just enough space to walk to the back of the property, where we had a tiny garden. My parents had slowly gutted and renovated the house over the years and it was thoroughly modern inside. I think they paid something like $300k for it, maybe twenty years ago and spent even more than that on the renovations, but now it was worth something like four million. I knew that ’cause realtors kept trying to get us to sell it, which was crazy.
We had four bedrooms, five bathrooms and 2800 square feet. There was a roof deck off the master bedroom on the top floor, a patio deck off the main level, and a guest suite with its own living room down in the basement. I guess they called it a mother-in-law’s suite, and it was where our nanny used to live, back when we had one. Sighing, I climbed the front steps and used my phone to unlock the front door. Immediately, I was assaulted by the most god-awful hip-hop music. Jeez, how could my brother stand to listen to that crap?
Hanging my jacket in the coat closet, I headed to the kitchen, wondering why Jake hadn’t started getting dinner ready. I headed up the stairs to the second floor, where Jake and I each had our own bedroom and bathroom. Mine was the larger, front bedroom, which overlooked the street. Jake’s bedroom was smaller, but a lot quieter, except when he played his god-awful rap music. Dropping my bookbag and heading back to his bedroom to see what he was up to and to get him to turn the music down, I tried calling out to him, but got no response. I tried knocking on his door, quietly at first, and then more loudly to no avail. I was about to bang on the door, but then decided to just open it instead and found him sitting naked at his desk, watching a porn video on his computer while he jerked off. Jeez, the kid was only twelve.
Before I could even make a graceful exit, he arched his back and shuddered, and then turned in my direction and shouted, “What the fuck are you doing watching me, you perve!”
“I tried knocking, twice,” I shouted. “Believe me, I so didn’t want to see this. Your music is too goddamn loud. You’re gonna go deaf before you’re thirty.” There was cum glistening all over him, from his chin all the way down his chest and abdomen and with it being my kid brother, it was kind of horrifying to see it.
Reaching over and turning off his Bluetooth speakers, he scooted over and grabbed some tissues from his nightstand and started to clean himself up. The porn was still going on his laptop, and it was a pretty graphic one involving a guy with a huge dick and a well-endowed woman.
“How the hell did you get access to such a graphic site?” I asked.
“Ve have our vays,” Jake answered. “Actually, as I recall, the pics I caught you jerking off to were pretty graphic, and those boys looked to be underage.”
Blushing, I replied, “You can find anything on Tumblr, and I had no idea if they were over eighteen or not. All that mattered was that I was horny, and they were hot.” Jake had barged in on me when I was his age, just as I was about to cum. For a ten-year-old, he didn’t know a lot about sex and I had to explain to him about jerking off. He did understand the significance of being turned on by seeing boys having sex with each other, though, and it was he who told me I was probably gay. He was cool about it and even now, he’s the only one who knows.
“I never thanked you for teaching me how to jerk off,” Jake said. Then with a wicked smile, he added, “Been doin’ it ever since. Didn’t squirt until a few months ago, though.”
Then changing the subject, I asked, “You planning to start dinner soon? I’m starving!” Since school started back with in-person instruction, we’d been using meal kits and taking turns making dinner for each other. The kits were expensive, I suppose, but it saved Jake and me the trouble of shopping for groceries on our own and figuring out what to make.
“Mom sent me a text to say we’re all going out for dinner, and that they’d be home by seven.”
“Really? I didn’t expect them to be home until close to midnight.”
“I guess they made arrangements to take the evening off for your birthday. Happy birthday, by the way.”
“Thanks Jake. You’re okay for a little brother. Now why don’t you go fix us some snacks to tide us over until the parental units get home.”
Rather than answer me, he gave me the finger and then disappeared down the stairs, still in only his birthday suit. In the meantime, I headed back to my bedroom, stripped out of my school clothes and jerked to thoughts of Tanner as he undressed for gym. After cleaning myself up, I put on my boxers and moments later, Jake entered with a couple of plates and handed me one of them. On it was a toasted cheese sandwich on rye bread. It was delicious and I wasted no time in devouring it.
Opening my own laptop, I set up my Bluetooth speakers and put on Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, and then got down to doing my homework. The music was still playing when there was a knock on my door. Turning and expecting to see Jake, I was surprised to see Mom looking in on me. I was startled to realize it was already seven o’clock.
“Happy birthday, Zach. We have an eight o’clock reservation at a restaurant in Manhattan… nothing fancy, so a polo and sweater with khakis will do, but we have to leave soon in case we run into traffic.”
I quickly washed up, brushed my teeth and brushed my hair. It still looked messy, but less messy than before. The peach fuzz on my upper lip was getting to be more than a bit noticeable and I’d probably need to start shaving soon – or maybe I’d grow a mustache, but I’d still need to shave. As exciting as the thought of growin’ up might have been, actually taking a blade to the tender skin on my neck wasn’t something I was looking forward to. Splashing on a little cologne, I grabbed the ivory shirt my folks said complemented my hazel eyes, donned a fresh pair of khakis and the dark brown cable-knit silk sweater that kinda matched my hair color, and slipped on a pair of deck shoes.
It was a short walk to the parking garage where my parents kept their cars. Although Wyckoff was easy to get to via the subway, on the G and L Trains, it wasn’t really safe to take the subway in the early morning hours. In fact, the metropolitan transit authority had only recently restarted 24-hour service on the subway – they’d been closing it down after midnight during the pandemic, to allow for sanitizing all the subway cars. We waited while Dad retrieved the Lexus, and then drove through the Midtown Tunnel. That, in and of itself, was unusual. Not that we were cheap, but the Williamsburg Bridge was free, and it only took another fifteen minutes. I guess we weren’t taking chances on being late. Sure enough, the weeknight traffic was pretty heavy, and it was nearly 8:00 by the time we parked the car in a garage on West 10th Street. We barely made it to the restaurant in time for our reservation.
Sushi was my favorite food, so it was no surprise when we entered Umami, a sushi restaurant on Greenwich Avenue. What surprised me was that we hadn’t just gone to one of the many sushi restaurants in Brooklyn, much closer to home. Umami was quite a bit nicer than most of those, however, and it was in The Village. In fact, I hadn’t realized it, but the garage where we parked the car was literally right behind the Stonewall Inn, where the Gay Pride movement got its start. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was a coincidence that my parents were taking their deeply closeted gay son to The Village for his fifteenth birthday. Indeed, there were several same-sex couples dining at the restaurant that night, but plenty of straight couples too. Of course, I didn’t dare to bring it up.
Thanks to the new mandates, we had to all show proof of vaccination using the Excelsior passes on our phones before they would let us into the restaurant. Even Jake was fully vaccinated now. As soon as we were seated, we were promptly served miso soup and Japanese tea. I guess my parents had placed their order in advance, as we weren’t given menus and course after course of sushi and sashimi arrived at the table on a regular schedule. Our dinners included some unusual sushi rolls I’d never seen before. All of the food was outstanding, including the green tea and red bean ice cream with which we finished the meal. Of course, my parents had to embarrass me by having the ice cream delivered with a lit candle, with all the severs, singing Happy Birthday. Jeez!
After exiting the restaurant, we walked down Christopher Street instead of Tenth, stopping right in front of the Stonewall Inn. “Why don’t we go sit down,” Dad suggested, and then he guided us to a bench in Christopher Park, right in front of the statues of the Gay Liberation National Monument. I couldn’t help it – I broke down and started to cry. I was surprised when it was Jake who put his hand on my shoulder and pulled me close to him.
Looking at my parents, who were smiling at me, I finally pulled myself together and asked, “How?”
“It’s not anything you do or that you act gay, Zach,” Mom began, “but your dad and I have suspected it for a while. Not that we’ve been able to spend much time with you since the pandemic started, but we’ve noticed that you do tend to spend a lot more time looking at boys than girls, and your head never turns for the girls, but it does for the boys.”
“I do that?”
“Yeah, you do,” Jake answered.
“Wow, I had no idea. I hope no one at school has noticed.”
“Why would you say that, Zach?” Jake asked. “Even in my middle school, plenty of guys are out. You should hope kids have noticed, ’cause you’ll never get a boyfriend if you stay in the closet. Anyway, please don’t be angry with me, but when Mom asked me if you had a girlfriend or maybe a boyfriend, I couldn’t lie. She wouldn’t have asked if she didn’t already know.”
Looking at Jake and seeing the sincerity on his young face, I replied, “Of course I wouldn’t hold it against you, Jake. You couldn’t lie any more than I could, if Mom or Dad asked me about what I saw on your computer this afternoon.”
“Do we need to place restrictions on your access to the internet?” Dad asked.
Jake and I answered in unison, “NO!”
“Perhaps it’s unwise, but we trust you boys. You’ve been very responsible since the pandemic began and the last thing we’d want to do is to restrict your internet access.” Then with a laugh, Dad added, “It probably wouldn’t take you long to bypass whatever security software we installed anyway.”
“Damn right it wouldn’t,” Jake responded.
“Besides which, kids have always looked at porn. In my day, it was in Playboy, Esquire and Cosmopolitan, or in whatever we could get our hands on.”
Jake’s snort made me realize what Dad had said. Talk about a double entendre!
“Good Lord, boys, get your heads out of the gutter. Anyway, you can imagine how difficult it was for a gay kid back in the mid-eighties, particularly where I grew up, in Indiana. I didn’t even know my best friend was gay until he got sick.”
“By the time we were in our teens, we all knew about AIDS, but it was only a disease that affected ‘homosexuals’,” he said as he made quote marks with his fingers in the air, “and it was just in New York and San Francisco. We never dreamt it would reach Indianapolis. There were no gay kids in the Midwest, or so we all thought. But then I noticed a purple spot on Cliff’s neck. We were only sixteen and juniors in high school. Cliff and I both got our driver’s licenses and Cliff got a car for his birthday, so we often double-dated. I never realized Cliff was leading a double life, but his parents would have and ultimately did reject him when they found out. I was the only one who was with him when he died,” Dad concluded as I noticed the tears that rolled down his cheeks in the dim light from spotlights on the monument. “Anyway, we’d better head home. You have school in the morning, and Mom and I have to take care of the unvaccinated.”
It had been a great evening, but tempered by what happened to Dad’s best friend, and so the drive back home was kind of somber. This time we took the Williamsburg Bridge back, giving us great views of the city lights. It was close to midnight when we walked into our house, so I expected that we’d go right to bed, but Dad said, “We got you a little something for your birthday, but if we give it to you now, you’ll be up all night, so we’ll wait until Saturday to give it to you. In the meantime, I have something more personal for you. I was going to give it to you when we were at the Stonewall Monument, but I decided to wait until we had enough light to do it justice.
Dad pulled a flat giftwrapped box out of his jacket pocket. Curiously, the wrapping paper looked faded, as if it was very old. “I got this for Cliff for his seventeenth birthday. I had it custom made for him, but he died before it arrived. You can’t imagine how difficult it was to find a jeweler who could make this for me, back before we had the internet. Now, I want you to have it.”
Slowly and carefully, I removed the wrapping paper, taking care not to tear it, ’cause I knew it was very old and precious. Inside was a flat box and when I opened it, I found a gold pendant on a chain. It was in the shape of a Mogen David, the Star of David with its interlocking triangles, and in the center was the Hebrew word, ‘Chai’, which means life. What really made the pendant stand out, however, was the rainbow-colored background behind the Hebrew letters. It was made with an iridescent glass that seemed to glow with its own energy. It was stunningly beautiful.
“I knew that I wanted to give something symbolic to Cliff,” Dad continued. “It needed to speak to his sexuality, yet affirm life, even in the presence of the disease that was taking it from him. There were no gay pride stores in Indianapolis back then, at least none that I knew of, so I tried going to several jewelry stores around town, asking if they had anything appropriate to give a boy who was gay and dying of AIDS. None of them gave me the time of day, until I came to an independent jewelry store in an upscale mall called Keystone at the Crossing. In retrospect, I think the proprietor was a lesbian, but I dared not think of it at the time.
“She did in fact have some pendants and rings that incorporated the Greek Lambda or with the rainbow colors, and then she showed me a gold cross, inlayed with iridescent glass in rainbow colors and I knew I wanted something like that, but Cliff was Jewish. In fact, we met in Hebrew school, so I asked her if she had something similar in a Mogen David. She said she did not, but that she could have something made for me, but it would take a month. Cliff’s birthday was more than a month away, so I thought there’d be enough time. She showed me a gold star with ‘Chai’ in the center, similar to this one, and explained that she could have the artist make one with the same rainbow-colored iridescent glass as in the cross. It was quite a bit more than I wanted to spend, but the price wasn’t important and so I put down a deposit and waited.
“Unfortunately, it took a bit longer than expected and then Cliff took a turn for the worse. He died just a week shy of his seventeenth birthday, with me at his side. Only then did his parents plan the funeral, but nothing was said about how or why he died. His funeral was well-attended, even though everyone knew he died of AIDS. The rabbi said nothing about it in his eulogy. He might as well have been talking about another kid. I’ll never forget the words I spoke at the service, about how of all the people who said they loved him, I was the only one who went to see him when he was in the hospital, and how I was the only one with him when he died. You can imagine the silence that followed, but he was truly like a brother to me and I was going to be damned if I was going to let his own family and friends whitewash his having died of AIDS. So what if he was gay! He was the kindest, sweetest boy anyone could ever know.
“Wouldn’t you know, when I got home from the funeral, there was a message on the answering machine that his pendant was ready.” Squeezing my shoulder, Dad said, “I want you to wear it, Zach. Wear it in health. Wear it with pride.”
The next day, I did indeed wear it to school, but it was hidden under my shirt. Perhaps in the spring, when the weather warmed up, I’d have the courage to wear a shirt with an open neck, so that it could be seen, but it was too cold for that now. At least that gave me an excuse to take more time before others would see it. What I’d forgotten was that we had to dress out for gym. As it happened, Tanner’s gym locker was only a few down from mine and when he caught sight of the pendant, he stopped getting dressed in mid-stance. He approached me, still holding his jock strap in his hand. Blushing furiously, he transferred it to his other hand and reached out, lifting the pendant from my chest.
“My dad gave it to me last night,” I explained, “for my fifteenth birthday. It belonged to his best friend in high school, who died of AIDS.”
“You’re not…” Tanner started to ask, his ego seemingly deflated, leaving him unable to ask the question that was on his mind.
“Jewish? I thought you already knew that,” I joked, but then thought better of it and added, “and yes, I’m gay, which is why Dad gave it to me. He wanted me to know that he knew, and that it was time for me to come out.”
A beautiful smile took over Tanner’s face as he asked, “Could you maybe meet me in the caf after school?”
“Of course, but we need to get dressed before Mr. Glazier makes us run laps.”
“It’d be worth it, but not to worry. Mr. Glazier’s my dad. That’s why I study in the caf after school. I hafta wait for him to finish, so we can go home together.”
We quickly finished dressing and ran into the gym, just as Tanner’s dad stood in front of the class. After another exciting period of awkward calisthenics and dribbling a basketball that seemed to be sprayed with some repellent that kept it from going into the basket whenever I was the one throwing it, we headed back into the locker room, undressed and took our mandatory showers.
For the first time ever, I made it a point to grab the showerhead next to someone – Tanner. I was afraid I might plump up, but I was too terrified to even think of anything sexual. Before I had a chance to say anything, Tanner blushed and then commented, “We seem to be equally talented when it comes to gym class, and basketball.”
“What’s embarrassing is that my Dad’s from Indiana, the capital of basketball.”
“How do you think it feels for me, the son of a gym teacher?” Tanner asked. “Dad sometimes kids me about it, but he’s been great about my lack of athletic talent.”
“Does he know about…” Damn, how’d I manipulate myself into maybe outing the poor boy?
“Does he know about me being Jewish?” Tanner asked. “Of course he does. He’s Jewish too… and he knows I’m gay. He keeps pushing me to come out and get a boyfriend, but you know what it’s like. We’re both pretty shy, I think. At least we have been, until now.”
“Hey, no fraternizing in the showers,” a boy – I think his name was Jeff – called out from across the way. “It’s about time you guys came out though. It’s not like we all haven’t noticed the way you’ve been staring at each other when you thought the other wasn’t looking. You were so focused on making sure the other boy didn’t see you staring, that you forgot that the rest of us could see.” He then started clapping and pretty soon everyone was clapping, and I felt like I was on fire. Glancing to the side, I saw that Tanner was also as red as he could be.
I don’t know what got into me, but I looked at Tanner and he looked back at me, and then I closed the gap, put my hands on his shoulders and pulled him toward me. I could feel him shaking, almost as much as I was, but he didn’t pull away as we closed our eyes and kissed. In retrospect, it wasn’t much to write home about. It was in front of all the other boys in our gym class, who were hooting and hollering, and it was in the shower. It was a closed mouth kiss, and we were both so nervous, which was probably a good thing, as otherwise I’d have gotten a boner for sure. However, it was my first kiss ever and it was with Tanner, and it felt electric. The look of sheer lust on his face as we pulled apart was something I’d never forget, but we both had other classes to attend and so we quickly dried ourselves off and got dressed.
I did indeed meet with Tanner in the cafeteria after school, and every day after that. With four sisters in his house, it was no wonder he preferred to study in the cafeteria while waiting on his dad to take him home. Tanner came over that weekend and was with me when my parents gave me my birthday present – a brand new iPhone 13 Pro. Goddamn.
Tanner and I started out studying together in the school cafeteria, but when he found out that Jake and I were making dinner from meal kits, he insisted on cooking our meals for us. Man, could Tanner cook, too. He made me go with him every day to shop for fresh ingredients, and damn, he put those meal kits to shame. Of course, he stayed after dinner and studied with me, while we listened to classical music and jazz. With it getting dark out earlier and earlier, it wasn’t safe for him go home at night, so he made the sacrifice of spending the night at our place. He ended up sleeping most nights in my room – in the top bunk of my bunk beds, but at least I got to see him naked last thing every night and first thing in the morning. Which wasn’t to say we didn’t have our fun too. We made out with each other a lot, and sometimes that led to more. What was really embarrassing was when Mom bought us a giant box of condoms and several tubes of lube. Not that we didn’t use them, but did she have to do that?
Tanner really liked my pendant and I wanted to give it to him, but it had special meaning to Dad and there was no way I could give it up, so instead I went online and found a jeweler on Etsy who was willing to make a duplicate. I had it engraved on the back with these words: ‘As with Cliff, I can’t promise we’ll always be together, but know this: In 2022, I love you, and I’ll always love you – Zach.’ I gave it to him on Valentine’s Day, a few days before his sixteenth birthday.
“I love you too, Zach, now and always,” Tanner responded, and then we embraced tightly and kissed each other deeply, sharing the unusual gift that Dad had bought for Cliff and had given to me, and a similar gift that I was now giving to Tanner. Although many a boy has given their boyfriend or girlfriend a pendant as a sign of their love, this one was special. It was infused with the special love my dad felt for his best friend, who was dying of AIDS. Yet it was an affirmation of life, acceptance, and shared love.
Now it would come to symbolize the relationship between Tanner and me – two boys who are very much in love.
The author gratefully acknowledges the invaluable assistance of David of Hope in editing my stories, as well as Awesome Dude, Codey’s World and Gay Authors for hosting them. This story was first published as part of the Gay Authors 2021 Fall Anthology – An Unconventional Gift
Disclaimer: This story is a fictional account involving gay teenage boys. There are references to gay sex and masturbation and anyone who is uncomfortable with this should obviously not be reading it. The reader takes all responsibility for the legality of reading this type of story where they live. All characters are fictional and any resemblance to real people is purely coincidental. Although reference is made to Brooklyn Technical High School, one of New York City’s elite specialty public high schools, any resemblance to actual facilities, classes, teachers or students is unintentional. As always, opinions expressed by characters in the story represent the opinions of the characters and are not representative of those of the author nor the sites to which the story has been posted. The author retains full copyright.