Sometimes things happen that you think you’ll never be able to live down.
But is that really true?
The afternoon passed with guys looking at me all day, but no one approaching me to talk. That was the same as always, except for the looking at me part. I never saw Gary, but I’d convinced myself that it wouldn’t matter much if I did.
Outside, kids were clamoring onto the buses, and I took my turn. When I was on, though, standing next to the driver and ready to dare going to the seat I always sat in, the driver held out her hand.
“Hold it, mister!”
She was scowling at me. “You’re the one, aren’t you? The sex maniac who upset this bus yesterday morning. Aren’t you?”
Feeling my stomach twitch and then tighten—another angry adult to deal with—I said “Uh, no. I’m no maniac, sexual or any other kind.”
“I think you were, uh, are. A pervert.” Her voice was getting louder as she spoke. “You’re the one. The one all the kids were laughing and shouting about. The one who was, well, I can’t say it. I’m a good Christian lady, and don’t know about disgusting things like what you were doing, but, THEY WILL NOT HAPPEN ON MY BUS! This is a good Christian bus!”
When she shouted that at me, her eyes got real big. I was looking at a crazy woman!
But the past couple of days had changed me a little: I answered her back. Maybe I am perverted, just a little.
“Uh, what things are those? Just so I know not to be doing them?”
She sputtered a little and her face turned red, but by then the kids behind me were getting impatient and had shoved me forward. I glanced back at the bus lady and she was still sputtering. I hoped she didn’t want to preach religion at me. I hate that.
I sat in my seat. The kids around me were staring at me. Our bus was never full and a non-entity like me had the pleasure of his own seat. Except today, someone sat next to me. He was a good- looking popular kid, a year older than I was, so I expected the worst. In the regular course of human events, a kid like him would rather ride a pig sidesaddle to school than sit next to a loser like me. Riding a pig would get him grins. With me, all he’d get would be puzzled frowns. Popular kids don’t much like frowns.
“Hey,” he said.
I thought about not answering, but couldn’t possibly pull that off. He was him, I was me.
“Hey,” I said, probably sounding just as tentative as I was feeling.
“You’re Keith.” His expression was eager.
“I watched you on the bus the other morning. That was way cool! Really hot, you know? And when you came, well, wow! Man, that was just, well. . . hey! I wanted to ask you something. I know we don’t know each other, but, see, I’m gay, and no one knows, and it’s pretty lonely. But you doing that, I have to guess you’re gay, too. Right? And if you are, and I am, and you’re as lonely as I am. . . .”
He broke off there, but was still looking at me with his eyes so full of enthusiasm, his grin so wide, his body language so eager, I felt like matching his eagerness. I started to nod, but then my innate shyness kicked in. It was never this easy for me with other guys.
I needed to say something, though. Something noncommittal. “It was really embarrassing,” I said, knowing it wasn’t answering him at all. But it felt safe.
“Yeah, I’m sure it was, but now everyone knows who you are, you’re the kid who came on the bus, and that’s good, isn’t it? And it’s good for me, ‘cause I get to meet another gay kid. You are gay, aren’t you?”
His eyes were even more sparkling when he asked that, and suddenly I wasn’t feeling just shy any longer. Now I was feeling both cautious and decidedly suspicious.
“You said you are,” I stammered, pretending the conversation was very difficult for me. It wasn’t that much pretending, either. “And you said you’re not out?”
“Oh, no, but since you’re gay too, I don’t mind you knowing.”
“Uh, just because I had a wet dream on the bus doesn’t have anything to do with whether I’m gay or not. As a matter of fact, I’m not. But don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone you are.”
His grin disappeared just like that. I thought he looked disappointed, but I wasn’t sure why. Because I wasn’t gay? Or because he’d been scamming me, playing me for an idiot, and I hadn’t fallen for it? He stared at me intently for a moment, and then his eyes lit up and the grin was back. “It doesn’t make any difference, does it?” he asked cryptically, and my mind began racing.
He started to slide out of the seat, the grin growing, and I suddenly got it. I reached out and grabbed his arm, as tightly as I could because I was sure he’d try to shrug it off.
“Hey!” he said, and did try to jerk his arm away. I held on.
“Let go of me!”
I tried to make my voice hard, but I was talking to an older, popular kid who was bigger than I was, so it was difficult to pull off. But I did try. “Stay here. I have something to say that you should hear.”
Maybe there was a tone in my voice, because he stopped sliding on the seat and turned to look at me.
“I know what you’re going to do,” I said. “You’re going to tell your friends that you asked me and I said I was gay. You might even want to tell them I came on to you. That’ll make you a player. You’re setting me up. You’re not even gay, are you?”
I could see in his eyes that that was exactly what this was all about. He’d sat down here with the intention of getting the lowdown on what was up with me. Maybe he’d even planned to take it farther than just piling more embarrassment on me with his friends. Maybe he was hoping to get me to do things, gay things, with him, or to him, and then he’d really have something to tell people.
What had made me figure it out was his saying, ‘It doesn’t make any difference, does it?’ He’d meant that whether I said I was gay or not, he could still tell his friends I had admitted I was. And people would believe him, not me, if it came to that.
I went on. “Let’s talk about what’ll happen if you do that. I’ll tell Mr. Johnson what’s what. You heard what he said today. You heard what happened to that kid who tried to embarrass me in assembly. So just be ready.”
He opened his mouth to say something, but double clutched. Finally, he said, “You said you don’t tell on people.”
“I do if I’ve warned them in advance, and you’ve been warned. And remember two can play your game. Even if you don’t tell your friends I’m gay, I can tell Mr. Johnson you did, and. . . .” I smiled at him. He tried to glare back, but he knew I had him by the short and curlies. He slid to the edge of the seat and walked away.
I was at my locker when suddenly I was tapped on the shoulder. I swung around, fearing the worst, and instead found Gary looking at me. He wasn’t smiling.
“Hey!” I said, sort of hopefully, sort of tentatively, sort of defensively, sort of me being me.
“Why haven’t you called?” he asked. He sounded both curious and pissed. Maybe more of the first.
“Well, uh. . . .” Damn! I didn’t quite know what to say. Then I thought of the perfect answer!
“I did call you that once. I thought it was your turn to call next. I didn’t want to be pushy or anything.”
He scowled. “Since when is calling your friend being pushy? And I did try to call. You never gave me your number so I tried both the phone book and Directory Assistance, but there was no listing for Perryman. And no one at school knew your number, either.”
“Oh. . . um. . . yeah, when my parents got divorced, my mother took back her maiden name, and that’s what the phone’s listed under. Stuart. With a ‘u’, not a ‘w’.”
“OK, but there are probably a lot of those. Why don’t you just tell me your number?”
So I did, feeling excited that he still wanted to be friends. I hadn’t known that. I did know that sometimes I let my self-doubts get the better of my judgment, but hadn’t considered that this time.
He then said, “But you never answered my question. Why didn’t you call again?”
“Well, I—” What could I say? That I thought he had other, better friends now and so wouldn’t want to be friends with me? That insulted both of us, if you wanted to look at it that way. And if I told him any of my self-doubts about being worthy of his friendship, I’d sound totally pathetic. But lying would be wrong if I wanted to really be his friend. That would be a horrible way to start a friendship!
So I didn’t answer. I simply hung my head.
He caught on real fast, which surprised me because most guys are put off by the way I sort of retreat into myself. But Gary just stepped closer and put his arm around my shoulders, and said in a soft voice, “Oh. I get it. I didn’t know you were that shy. Hey!” He gave me a quick squeeze, then stepped back and continued, “Why don’t you come over to my house after school today. You can see where I live—my room. And we can talk. I think we should talk.”
His enthusiasm got to me, and even those serious sounding last few words weren’t all that intimidating. That’s because he didn’t say them at all ominously. He was cheerful! He was so cheerful all the time!
It was difficult to feel sorry for myself when I was with him. “OK,” I said, and realized I was grinning. “I’ll meet you right here after school.”
We rode on his bus. A lot of kids said ‘hi’ to him as we walked down the center aisle, both boys and girls, and they all smiled when they said it. He was already popular, even though he was new. Some kids are just like that. They’re the good-looking ones, generally, but I’ve noticed that isn’t the main thing. An outgoing personality seems the most important thing in being popular. Having money is good, too.
We were on the bus that went to the affluent part of town. Gary’s house fit right in with that. It was very large, set on a landscaped lawn and had a pool in the back. I was impressed, as my house was simply a house, a small one like all the others in my neighborhood. None of these houses were tract houses; each one was individual and imposing.
Gary yelled ‘hi’ to his mom, and she came out of wherever she’d been in the house and I got introduced to her, and then we were off upstairs. To Gary’s room. Which was about the size of our living room. And I had the impression his mom must straighten it up because it sure didn’t look like mine. No clothes on the floor, no unmade bed, nothing scattered around.
He had all the things most any kid our age who wasn’t poor had. Even I had a computer and some games. He had more, like his own TV set, and a lot of other stuff.
I looked around while he went to the bathroom. Then he came back and sat down on his bed, cross-legged, right in the middle. He patted the bed in front of him, and so I climbed up on it and sat like he was, facing him.
“We’re friends, right?” he asked.
“Then I want you to tell me why you didn’t call me. You couldn’t tell me at school, there were too many people around and you were nervous.”
He was looking at me, and I wanted to tell him the truth. Instead, I looked away and said, “I’ve always been shy.”
He was silent a moment, and then he said things that made me ashamed. He was able to be much more honest than I was.
“Keith,” he said after that silence, seeming to have gathered the resolve to say what he wanted to say, which was a resolve and honesty and courage that I didn’t have, “it’s easy for me to make friends. I’ve had a lot of experience at it because we moved a lot as my father moved up in his company. But I’ve never had a really close friend, a best friend. Maybe because I never stay one place long enough to become really close to anyone. A lot of best friends seem to have been together since they were little kids. Or maybe it’s something else. I think when guys get to know me, they see something that makes them back off. I don’t know what it is. I think there’s something wrong with me.”
I could see in his eyes. What he was saying was difficult for him. He was a guy who was constantly smiling, always happy. At least that was my opinion of him. It was what made him so attractive. He wasn’t smiling now. I hadn’t seen this side of him before.
He kept talking. “I did a lot of thinking when I knew we were moving again, this last time,” he continued. “I knew I’d be making new friends again, but I wanted it to be different this time. I wanted to find someone who could be a really good friend this time. A best friend.”
He stopped, and looked at the bed, and without looking up, said, “I thought I’d found that person. You. And then you didn’t call, and it was just like every time before. You saw something in me and decided you didn’t want to be that kind of friend. I want you to tell me, though. I need to know. Please? What’s wrong with me?”
His eyes remained on the bed. I had to think what to say. This was difficult.
“Gary, there’s nothing wrong with you. There is with me, and I don’t want to talk about it. You’re fine. I didn’t call because, well, it wasn’t you, OK? After we met, after we spoke on the phone, I was really excited about us being friends. I still want that.”
“You do?” He looked up at me, his face full of hope.
“More than anything,” I said. “We have to work on it, though. You don’t become best friends just because you want to be. You have to spend time together, find out what you have in common. And we might not have much in common. You probably like sports. I don’t. You’re going to be a popular kid; you already are. That’s not me.”
I hadn’t discouraged him. He sounded enthusiastic again. “Yeah, but one thing we do have in common is what we both want. That has to count for something. Hey, getting to know each other better will be part of the fun. Look—I think, to be friends, real friends, we have to be honest, and we have to be able to really communicate without holding anything back. We can do that, can’t we?”
“That’s hard for me,” I said. “I think we have to learn to trust each other first.” I couldn’t meet his eyes when I said that.
“Do you want to try, though?” he asked, and when I looked back at him, I could see he was apprehensive.
I nodded at him. “I do. I’d really like to have a friend I could say anything at all to, and he’d still like me.”
He smiled, a really bright smile. I didn’t think he’d really listened to what I’d just said. “OK. Let’s begin right away. Tomorrow’s Friday. Can you sleep over here? We’ll get to know each other better. You could come over after school and eat here, too.”
I smiled, too, and nodded. Even if inside my stomach was all worms. I didn’t know if I trusted him that much; I still was my overly-cautious, overly-protective self. And of even greater concern, I knew I still had personal issues that I’d have to hide from him.
Mr. Johnson saw me in the hall the next day, stopped and frowned at me. “Glad to see you have some clothes on this time,” he said, and said it loud enough that I heard other kids snicker. He must have thought I was someone who liked being embarrassed. I was someone who liked being invisible. Being embarrassed was the worst thing, for me.
I just looked away from him and walked on by.
“Hey, I was speaking to you!”
I kept on walking, hoping against hope he’d drop it.
He didn’t. “Stop right where you are!” He bellowed it.
I stopped, as did most of the kids around us. He marched up behind me and slapped the back of my head. “You show me some respect, young man!”
I just stood there, trying not to let tears form in my eyes. The slap had been hard, and it had hurt. Both my feelings and head had been hurt, and the tears threatened to spill because of both.
He walked around in front of me. I kept my eyes on the floor. He stood watching me, then said, “Any more trouble from you, mother or no mother, I’ll have your ass.”
I didn’t respond. He was going to say something else, I could feel it, and then, amazingly, I heard, “Hi, Keith. Hi, Mr. Johnson. What’s happening?”
Gary! I felt better immediately. Just his being there made me feel not so alone.
“Move on. This is no concern of yours. Just move on.” Mr. Johnson wasn’t happy being interrupted, but knew how to handle kids. Gary would be a momentary distraction, but only that.
“Uh, no, I need to talk to Keith. I’ll just stand here and wait.”
I was watching the two of them. If I hadn’t been scared, my heart thumping all over the place, I would have enjoyed it. Gary was standing there looking at Mr. Johnson with a challenge in his eyes, and Mr. Johnson was fuming. He didn’t like kids challenging him. He was clenching his fists and his face was turning red and Gary was staring at him. Mr. Johnson was ready to say something else as Gary wasn’t ‘moving it’ as requested, when Gary spoke to me. “I’ll give your mother a call, Keith.” Then he said to Mr. Johnson, “Later, dude.”
Gary turned and started down the hall. Mr. Johnson watched, focused on his retreating back, and I took the opportunity to vamoose.
Dinner at Gary’s house was fun. His parents were really nice. I saw where Gary’s constant smiles came from. When I ate at home, before my mom and I had had our talk, dinner had always been pretty silent, unless she had something to get on me about. If she’d left me alone, it still had been pretty tense because I was waiting for her attack. That was before, but even now, it was taking some time for us to develop the relationship that I knew I wanted and thought she did. We’d had that initial talk, and then the rest of that day we’d been really close, on the same wavelength, but things hadn’t stayed that way. My mom was too used to being what she was, which was a much different person than I was. She didn’t really understand someone who lacked her assertiveness, her drive. I was an enigma to her, and a disappointment, I was sure. So her change of attitude hadn’t lasted that long. Life was returning to how it had been ever since my father had left. I thought she was still trying, that she still was aware she wasn’t being the loving mother I’d told her I needed, but it just wasn’t easy for her. We had an awful lot of past to put behind us, and tense dinners were just one of the things to move beyond. Hey, maybe that’s why I was so thin. I never ate much at dinner because I was always ready for things to explode.
At Gary’s, dinner wasn’t like that at all. The food was good and Gary’s parents didn’t get on him about anything. We relaxed and ate and talked and laughed. They did ask how school went, but listened without criticism. Wow!
Afterwards, we went upstairs, played some video games, and talked. He was so easy to talk to. Even I could do it, and I never talked to anyone. He made it easy. I wondered if I’d ever get that knack. He didn’t get angry when I answered questions in as few words as possible, and in fact, just stopped asking questions and started talking about things, and I found that much easier to deal with. I could jump in as I thought of things to say, and didn’t feel so much on the spot. It was a while before I realized he was doing it on purpose to make me more comfortable.
He turned the TV on to a movie and we watched that, then he asked if I was ready for bed, and I nodded, feeling nervous. He said he was going to take a shower, and I could too if I wanted. I told him I’d take one after he did, and that’s what we did. Then we were both in bed, and he left the TV on the movie channel we’d been watching and turned the sound down so we could hear it but it wasn’t intrusive.
He turned out the lights. I’d never slept in a bed with another boy. Gary’d talked about being honest, and communicating, and I knew if we were going to be the kind of friends he wanted us to be, and that I wanted us to be too, I should tell him I was gay. And that I was beginning to like him. But I couldn’t bring myself to do either.
We talked a little, and I listened to the TV a little, and I was relaxing because I’d decided not to tell him I was gay, not then, maybe some other time, just not tonight, and that decision certainly made me feel better, but then I got distracted by my parents arguing again, and they started yelling at each other, and my father started saying things and I pulled the pillow over my head but I could still hear him shouting, and my mother yelled back, not giving an inch, and it went on and on, nasty, hateful words, and I was crying and then the front door slammed and I was crying harder and the next thing I knew Gary’s mother and father were standing by the bed, and Gary was too and he had his hand on my shoulder, shaking it, fear in his eyes, and they were all looking at me.
I was shaking and crying, tears were streaming down my face, but I was awake by then. My heart was racing, and then Gary’s mom sat down next to me and I was suddenly in her arms. I was shaking badly and couldn’t seem to stop. She spoke softly and comfortingly to me, and I could feel myself starting to relax, to settle down, and she kept hugging me, and patting my hair, and although I couldn’t stop crying, it felt wonderful, being held like that.
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