Sometimes things happen that you think you’ll never be able to live down.
But is that really true?
The water was warm. Gary said they had a heater they used to keep the pool in the mid-seventies.
He was a great swimmer, and the water running off his body, the sun highlighting his blond hair, his muscles moving under his skin as he walked along the deck or jumped on the diving board, made for a spectacle that had the expected effect on me. I stayed in the water.
Gary swam alongside me as we did a couple of laps. It was his idea. I’d have rather just sat on the steps than have him see how poor a swimmer I was. After the laps, back in the shallow end, he had me put my face in the water and hold it there for five seconds. Then he told me I should do that when swimming, as holding my head up created too much drag and made swimming twice as hard. Then he showed me how I was splashing at the water instead of cupping it and pulling it while I swam. He said I should stroke, not splash. And helped me do it.
The laps we swam after that were much easier for me. I laughed at the end, feeling really good about just about everything. He laughed too, maybe just because I did, and he patted me on the back.
I knew I had to tell him. It wasn’t fair if I didn’t, and that should have been incentive enough. I did my best to be fair, and nice to people, too. I didn’t think being nice was wimpy at all. It was one thing I could control, and it allowed me to be proud of myself. I needed more things to be proud about.
But there were more reasons than just that, and all of them were important. I knew I had to do it; I had to tell him. I didn’t know how he’d react, but in any case I had to tell him.
I thought maybe I should tell him while he was in the swimming pool. It’s difficult to hit anyone very hard in a pool if you’re in deep water with your feet off the floor. You can’t get much leverage that way.
So I waited for him to make his next dive. He swam to the edge of the pool, put his hands on the cement side, and with one great lunge, was out of the pool and on his feet. He swung his head sharply, first right, then left, and a spray of water flew from his hair and made brief, sparkling rainbows in the sun. As he moved across the decking, the sun highlighted his musculature, shadows and sunlight playing games on his body. He saw me watching and grinned at me, and I had a quick thought that he knew how stunning he looked. But, maybe not. Maybe he was just happy to be alive, as usual.
He strode to the board. I hollered at him, “Can you do a backflip?”
He grinned, walked to the end of the diving board, turned around, stood there with only his toes and the balls of his feet on the board, did a couple of squat-and-ups to get the board flexing, then shot up backwards off the board, opened his body completely, threw his hands and head backwards, and did a perfect back dive into the water behind him, cutting into the pool with hardly a splash.
When he came up, I said, trying to act dismissive, “That wasn’t a flip. That was a back dive. Anyone can do that.”
“You do one then. Go ahead.”
“What, right now?”
OK, so the timing was perfect. I’d maneuvered him. I felt proud of that, and scared as hell. I steeled myself, and went ahead with what I’d started.
“I’ve never done one. I’ll probably kill myself.”
“So not anyone can do one, then.”
“I didn’t say I couldn’t, or that I wouldn’t. I said I’d probably kill myself. I’m going to do it. But, I’ll probably die.”
I said this very matter-of-factly, without a trace of humor, and he gave me a funny look. He opened his mouth, but I beat him to the punch. “I have something I’d better tell you first, though, in these last few, final moments that I have left.”
His funny look got more serious. I plowed forward. “You have the right to know, since we were soon-to-be best friends. Swim over here and I’ll tell you.”
He frowned. He’d been holding on to the edge of the pool in the deep end, across the pool from me. He didn’t argue, he just started to swim across. When he was halfway, I said to him, “Stop. I’ll tell you while you’re where you are now.”
“Huh?” He stopped, treading water. I knew I had to say it fast or I wouldn’t say it at all.
I took a deep breath. “Gary, I’m gay. If we’re going to be friends, and I want that as badly as you do, I have to be honest, so I’m telling you. I’m gay, and I like looking at you, being with you. I think about you a lot.”
Gary was looking at me with an expression I don’t know how to describe. I didn’t stay and watch him. Instead, I got out of the pool by pushing myself up, managing to put one knee on the cement decking, then the other, then standing up. I shook my head, but only a little water came off my close-cropped hair. I strode across the pool deck, but didn’t get the sense that the sun was playing with the muscle definition on my body. There wasn’t anything to play with.
I walked to the board, and got to the end and stood as he’d stood. I started to flex the board, but it scared me so I stopped that. I looked ahead of me at the house. My heart was racing. I’d watched him do it and it looked pretty easy, really. All it took was the nerve to leap backwards and go upside down without looking.
I was hoping he’d say something. If he said, “Get the hell out of here,” I could just leave, and never have to do this. If he said, “Wait, you might hurt yourself. Let me show you how,” then I’d know what I’d said didn’t make any difference to him.
But he didn’t say anything.
I’d just leapt into the unknown while in the pool. Now I had to do it from the diving board.
Of the two, this seemed easier. I’d done that, I could do this.
I opened up my arms, leaned my head and shoulders back, bent my knees, and threw myself backwards.
In the panoply of things, it probably wasn’t the worst dive ever, but it had to be in the top ten. Or five.
I slapped the water hard, landing flat on my back. I could hear the crack that made as the sting started and I was swallowed by the water.
I started thrashing. I liked Gary. I liked him a lot. But even if he didn’t like me or want me as a friend any longer, I wasn’t about to drown for him. I wanted to get to the surface.
But landing on my back like that had knocked all the air from my lungs and maybe shocked my system a little because my thrashing was ineffectual, wasn’t getting me any closer to the surface and I did need to breathe. Pretty soon. Now, in fact. NOW!
My thrashing became more panicked. Then two hands grabbed me in the pits and yanked me up. I took a huge gulp of air and yelled, “Owwwwwwww!”
I twisted my body to look at Gary, and he was laughing. His eyes were sympathetic, but he was laughing.
“That’s the worst dive I’ve ever seen!”
“Yeah, well, I was hoping you’d stop me.”
“I was still thinking about what you’d said.”
“Oh.” I wasn’t sure what to say about that, so didn’t say anything at all. I knew he’d speak if I waited, he’d have to, so wait I did, all the while trying to ignore the intense stinging from my back. He’d have to tell me what he thought about what I’d said. That was giving me worry than the pain I was feeing.
Instead, though, he said, “You know, you’re supposed to not only throw yourself backwards, you have to elevate your hips, raise your legs, and force your shoulders and head down throughout the dive, reaching backwards with your hands. Most people practice off the edge of the pool where they’re much closer to the water and the impact, if they do what you did, won’t be nearly as bad. Most people ease into something that might hurt them if they do it wrong.”
I watched him, and wondered if he were avoiding the important subject on purpose. Could he really not know how hard it had been for me to say that, and how worried I was about how he’d react?
“It’s sort of like driving a car,” he continued. “You don’t start off at 70 miles an hour on a busy freeway. You start in a large empty parking lot. It’s much safer that way. You’re less likely to get hurt or do any serious damage.”
He looked at me, expecting a response, his eyes showing me something, but I wasn’t sure what. When I didn’t respond, just looked at him questioningly, he babbled on. “You’d never done that before. You shouldn’t have just plunged in like that, not knowing what to expect.”
And then I finally, finally, realized what he was doing! He was talking about both my dive and what I’d said! I hadn’t realized he was that smart. I thought about it. Everything he’d said had been ambiguous.
And I smiled. I felt my fears evaporate. He was smart, he was playing with me, and I loved it!
First and foremost, he couldn’t be too upset with what I’d told him if he was able to respond this way. I could feel the relief that realization gave me spread through my body. Secondly, by doing what he was, he was turning this conversation into an intellectual rather than an emotional moment, and I could handle intellectual much better than emotional. He was playing in my court, doing it that way. I’ve said how I’m not strong or brave or good looking. I didn’t say I wasn’t smart, because, actually, I am. Nothing to be proud of because it isn’t due to anything I’ve done. Both my parents are smart. So I am, too. Now I could see he was, too. And he was using his smarts. I liked that.
I finally took my head out of my ass and responded. “So you think I should have practiced it, somehow?”
He smiled at me, his eyes sparkled, and I could see he knew that I knew what he was doing. His smile was infectious, and though smiling wasn’t something I did much of, I couldn’t help but return that one.
“Yeah, led up to it in small increments. Prepared yourself for it. You didn’t give it any forethought, just went for it.”
“Not true. You have no idea how long I’ve been thinking about it. How scared I’ve been of doing it.”
He stopped smiling then, and the sparkle in his eyes turned to compassion. “Well, now you’ve done it. The next time should be easier. You know what it feels like now, and maybe you can change the way you do it to make it go smoother. You know, learn from what you’ve already done.”
I thought for a second, then said, “Do you mean learn from my past mistakes.” My smile was gone now, too. I was forcing him to face the issue squarely now and tell me how he felt, and I could see he realized that, too.
Then his eyes twinkled again. “I don’t think you want to fall flat on your back again, do you?”
Shit! OK, two could play this game. “Yeah, I fell on my back physically. Tell me, did I do it metaphorically, too?”
He grinned at me. “You’re better at this than I am.”
“Hey, I need to be better than you at something! But I’m not sure it’s this. And goddamit, Gary, stop avoiding the question!”
We were still in the pool, but over on the side, holding onto the edge. Instead of responding, he did one of his incredible, gymnastic, trampoline-like up-and-out-of-the-pool lurches, then reached his hand down to me. I took it, and he pulled me up onto the deck next to him. He walked to where he’d laid the towels, on one of the chaise lounges that were scattered on the covered patio, and dried himself off. I joined him, toweling myself dry as well, but only delicately dabbing at my back the best I could. When we were both done, he sat down. I did too.
I looked out at the pool. My heart was slowing down now. Circumstances were such that, after finally biting the bullet and telling him I was gay and attracted to him, then almost drowning and being saved, then playing word games where the winner and loser—something that was rather important to me—was very uncertain for a while, I was now just as suddenly resting comfortably on Gary’s patio, calmly discussing things, and it wasn’t surprising at all that I needed a moment to decompress, or for my emotions to stabilize.
I was waiting for him to talk, and he was silent. Maybe he was waiting for me. He could probably see my chest rising and falling rapidly. I was all skin and bones and what was going on inside of me wasn’t exactly hidden. He seemed content to simply wait till I was ready. He always had been kind.
Finally, my breathing began to return to normal. I turned my head so I could see him, sitting nearby on my left. He was watching me.
“So, are you going to tell me what you think about what I said?” I eventually asked.
He reflected a moment before answering, but when he did, he looked right at me, not out across the pool as I’d been doing. “I’ve never had a gay friend before. At least not one brave enough to tell me. I think you also told me that you like me, though the way you said it, I’m not exactly sure. Would you like to try that part again?” He grinned at me. That grin helped my composure no end.
“Not until you tell me what you think about the first part.”
“The being gay part?”
“Yeah.” I was trying to stay as relaxed as he was. This wasn’t bothering him, he was taking it all in stride, so there was no reason for me not to do the same, even if this whole conversation seemed exceptionally weird to me. Like I was wading in shallow water but wasn’t sure there weren’t deep holes just waiting for me to fall into. The fact he didn’t act bothered at all by what I’d told him, and I’d been scared to death to do so, was requiring an adjustment period for me.
“What, you think your being gay bothers me?”
“Goddammit! Just answer the question! You have to know how scared I am about this. It’s important!”
“OK, OK, don’t have a cow. It doesn’t bother me at all.” He yawned. Yawned! If he’d been closer, I might have punched him! Except I didn’t do things like that.
“So what about the other part, the ‘I like looking at you’ part?”
He propped himself up on his elbow, now that he was done yawning. “That one is a little odd and I’m not sure what that’ll mean as we get to be better friends. But as long as we’re honest, and you don’t hide what you’re feeling, as long as we can talk about anything, I don’t think it’ll matter, and might even make things more interesting. Like right now, why don’t you tell me just what you mean by that? Is it like you’re in love with me? It can’t be. You don’t know me that well.”
“Thank you,” I said, holding back the sarcasm as much as I could, “for finally answering my question.” I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I really hoped my being gay wouldn’t freak you out, that you’d be OK with it, but knowing for sure, well, that’s pretty good. That’s actually really great, in fact.” I was smiling now, really smiling hard. It was sinking in.
I stopped, and he said, “But talk to me about the other part. What’s that all about?”
I laughed. “Why wouldn’t I be attracted to you? You’re incredible. Handsome, smart, friendly, supportive, and you want to be my friend.” I took a quick peek at him to make sure his head wasn’t inflating with all this; it wasn’t, so I rushed on. “I’d have to be nuts not to be attracted to you.”
He was looking at me, grinning as he so often did. “I see your point,” he said, and then laughed at my surprised expression. I ended up laughing, too. Then he said, “I’ve never known a boy who liked me before. I mean like that. I’ll have to get used to it, I guess.”
“You don’t feel threatened? I keep reading where if a gay kid tells a straight kid he likes him, the straight kid gets all upset or worried or angry, something like that, which has never made a lot of sense to me. I’d think the kid’d be flattered, but that’s never the way it ends up in the stories. I thought you’d be. . . well. . . I don’t know, but I’ve been afraid to tell you.” I dropped my eyes.
There was a pause before Gary spoke again. “Well,” he said, sounding thoughtful, “I suppose it is flattering, in one sense, but it’s mostly weird. I have to get used to my best friend liking me that way. I’ve never had to think about that before. Does that mean you want to have sex with me? Or fool around? Whatever?”
I grinned at him, feeling relief that this was going so well. “I haven’t really thought about that much, if you want to know the truth. I’m still getting used to it myself. But when I do think about it, yeah, I’ll probably want to. But knowing you’re straight will make it easier not to let myself get too excited. Knowing you don’t want to have sex.”
“I didn’t say that.”
It was his turn to grin. “Hey, I’m 14, too. You’re right, I’m straight, but just as horny as anyone else. You might think I’m all those nice things you said I was, but other people don’t seem to have noticed it. Girls sure aren’t climbing all over me. Maybe I shouldn’t say this, my being the macho stud you make me out to be and all, but, well, I haven’t had any more experience than you probably have.”
I laughed, then said, “You mean none?”
I couldn’t keep my enthusiasm out of my voice, or my heart from starting to beat faster again. “So are you saying you do want to mess around? Even though you’re straight?”
Gary shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe. Tell me again why you like me. I don’t really understand that.” The joking tone that was usually in his voice was gone now. For once, he was being serious.
“Well. . . .” This was difficult. How do you put what you feel into words when you’re not exactly sure what you feel? “You know, whatever I say, it’s just going to make you feel cocky. It’s like if you were a singer, and you’d just sung a song to an audience, and then you stepped forward a little and said, ‘OK, tell me how much you liked that, and why?’ No one would ask that. Unless, of course, they felt the need for an ego boost. Is that what you want? Really?”
I expected him to frown. Instead, he laughed. “Man, you’ve got this defensive stuff down to a tee, don’t you? You’re good at it. But you’re forgetting something. Something important. We’re trying to get to know each other and we’d both like to be best friends. And one of the ground rules we made was we’d be honest and communicate. I think you’re breaking both those rules. But you’re as new to this as you are to back dives. So, we’ll call what you just did practice for the real thing, and you can try again.”
I looked down again. “I’m not sure I can tell you.”
“That’s better! You were being honest there, Keith. Maybe you can’t tell me. But you can try. Just start by saying what you feel. I think it’ll be easier than you think. Hey, what do you expect, that I’ll get angry hearing you tell me how great I am?” He laughed, and I again realized how difficult it was to be anything but happy when I was with him. His personality was sunlight and happiness. Mine was more like a fog bank.
“You are great, you know. I’m gay. Why wouldn’t I be attracted to you? You’re good looking, you’re smart, but mostly, you’re nice to me. You noticed me first thing when you came into the office where I was sitting the other day. No one ever notices me.”
He snorted. “Uh, dude, you were naked! Of course I noticed you.”
I blushed and giggled. He was making this easy. Maybe I could talk to him about this after all.
“OK, you noticed me,” I began. “But after that you had the chance to just ignore me. You didn’t do that. You’ve gone out of your way to help me. So, let’s see. I’m gay and you’re handsome, helpful and nice and seem interested in me. Why wouldn’t I be attracted to you?”
“OK, OK, that didn’t work,” Gary said with an embarrassed grin. “I didn’t want you to tell me why I’m wonderful. I guess I didn’t ask it right. I don’t really need to know why you like me, it’s more like, how do you like me, and will it affect our relationship?” He frowned. “Damn, that’s a nasty word. I don’t want us to have a relationship, I want us to be friends. Oh, yeah! Duh! I meant to say, how is your liking me going to affect our friendship.”
“I’m not sure,” I answered. “I think there might be pressure on both of us that wouldn’t be there if we were both straight. But you said you might want to do things.” I was getting excited again, just thinking about that. “Really? You might want to do that? With me?”
It dampened my enthusiasm a little when I saw he had to think about that. He didn’t answer right away. When he did, he ended up asking me a question. “Everything I’ve read about boys starting and already in puberty tells me there’s a lot of confusion. That it’s normal to like either your own or both sexes, and that your feelings are likely to change as time passes and you get more mature. If that’s true, then when you tell me you’re gay, how do you know? And, how do you know you’ll feel the same way next week?”
I thought about that for a moment, then said, “Are you telling me you’re not sure what you are?”
“No, I’m pretty sure I’m straight. I like girls, like thinking about them. Fantasizing, you know?” He grinned, and I grinned back. “I’m asking how you know that about yourself?”
“Hey,” I said, “it seems like I’m having to do all the hard work here! You’re just sitting back, asking me questions and enjoying it. Communication goes both ways, remember. I think it’s your turn to actually answer a difficult question.”
He paused, then grinned. “I guess that’s fair. Give it your best shot.”
“All right!” I sat up a little straighter. “If you’re so sure you’re straight, why would you even think about messing around with me, especially knowing I’m gay?”
He smiled, then said, “Well, I don’t feel confused. I’m pretty sure I’m straight. There’s only one problem.”
“You. Ever since I saw you sitting in that office not quite covering all the stuff you were trying to cover, I’ve had feelings about you.” He stopped, then looked away from me. I waited, watching him, something I’d never get tired of doing. When he began again, he said, “This is harder than I thought it would be.” He was quiet for a moment, then grimaced as he turned to me and said, “I had crushes on boys when I was twelve and thirteen, but grew out of that. Them. Whatever. I think that’s how it works with lots of guys, even if they won’t admit it. Now, I can see a cute boy and realize he’s cute, but I don’t get aroused or excited or anything. I do know he’s cute, though. I enjoy looking at him, but that’s it. But with you, it’s different. The thing is. . . .” He stopped, and I waited again. He shook his head and said, “I don’t know what it is, exactly. There’s just something about you. . . .”
“There’s nothing about me. What, you like skinny and weak and shy?”
Gary blushed. He blushed! Then he dropped his head and said, “Well, I can’t explain it. You might not fit the normal standards of cuteness, but you have a very individual look, one that’s very appealing to me. I don’t think I like skinny boys in general, but I like the way you look. I’m not sure what it is, exactly, but there’s something about you that is very, well, attractive. That’s the best I can come up with. To tell the truth, I don’t think it’s really sexual.”
I looked at him bemusedly then, and he almost blushed again and said, “Well, not entirely sexual. But I’m 14. Everything is a little sexual.”
He stopped then, and after a while glanced over at me, probably trying to gauge how I was reacting. I was trying not to.
He continued. “But I look at you, and I want to be with you, and while it isn’t really a sexual urge, it is, too. I said I’d be honest, and that’s honest. I feel a desire, but I think it’s more about being friends, being close. Maybe not, though. Maybe it’s sexual, too. I just don’t know. I do know I don’t feel whatever this is with other boys. I know girls do it for me. Which means, I don’t know how to answer your question.”
He looked away from me, not wanting to meet my eyes. I stared at him for a moment, then said, “Man, when you do honest, you really do it, don’t you?”He grinned and settled back in his seat. “Your turn,” he said.
I shook my head, and said, “Man, I don’t think I can articulate what I feel anywhere near like that. But, OK, I’ll try.”
I took a deep breath. “I think I’m gay because boys interest me and girls don’t. I’ve felt that way for a long time. I don’t think I’ll outgrow it. If I were going to, I think I’d have started to feel differently by now.
“But, more specifically, how do I feel about you? That’s more complicated. And less. I have the sane feelings about you I do about any boy who excites me. But it’s more than that with you. So maybe I’m feeling a little bit of what you are. That I want to be friends more than anything else, but if you wanted to mess around any, I’d sure be up for it.”
I grinned at him. He grinned back. And just like that, my heart sped up. I liked him, as a friend, and more, and I now knew we were going to do things. Yep, the old heart was pounding. And I was happy.
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