Sometimes things happen that you think you’ll never be able to live down.
But is that really true?
I saw Mr. Johnson in the hallways a couple of times later that day. Each time, he was down the hall, but looking right at me, glaring. There was something about the man. As he stood there, no one was right next to him. It was as though he had a protective shield around him, a force field of some kind.
At least he just watched me. He made no effort to walk in my direction, and he didn’t wave at me to come to him. If he had, I’d have pretended not to see him. But, he didn’t.
At ‘home’ that evening, Mr. Jenks told me he had some news, and he’d tell me about it after dinner.
“Uh, can’t you tell me now? I’ve been worrying and, uh, well, I really don’t want to wait.”
He didn’t laugh, or tease me. He simply said, “Sure. Come into my den.”
I loved his den. It had shelves of books covering an entire wall, a large desk with a computer on it along with an old-fashioned blotter set and pens in a wooden stand and a floor lamp beside it, too, one with moveable spotlights that could be moved to focus on whatever paper was on the desk. There was recessed lighting along the walls and a large window behind the desk overlooking the landscaped back yard.
An oriental rug covered much of the hardwood floor, and the room was large enough that, besides the desk, it had a couch and two chairs set up in a conversational grouping. I sat on the couch, and after glancing at one of the chairs, he chose to sit down next to me on the couch.
“Keith, I’m afraid you’re not going to like hearing some of what I have to tell you, but you’re old enough to hear it, and you both deserve and need to know.”
I gulped. In the back of my mind, I’d known there was no good reason my mother would have neglected to call me, or tell me she was selling our house. So, I had anticipated hearing bad news. I wasn’t going to be disappointed.
He half turned toward me on the couch so he could see me while he was talking, and I did the same toward him. He reached to put his hand on my thigh, patted it, then said, “I spoke to one of our in-house lawyers. He drove down to San Diego. He knows people. Good lawyers know other lawyers, and he’s worked with some of the men in the office where your mother is working. He had an in with them, and because of that, was able to interview her.
“She didn’t want to talk about anything personal, and told her employers that, but they insisted. I guess they were more concerned with not having a problem with our lawyer than they were with keeping her happy. Anyway, they told her to talk to him, and she did.”
His hand was still on my thigh, and he squeezed it lightly now before withdrawing it. I figured that meant we were coming to the hard part.
“He told me the meeting with her was unpleasant. She was very intense, and that resulted in there being a lot of tension in the room. He talked to her about her current job, about the one she’d done here, about selling the house, and about you.
“The answers he got were, well. . . let me just tell you what he told me. He found out before talking to her that she’s going to be given notice. She’s expected to finish up the case she’s working on now in about two more weeks, and then they’re letting her go. The reason for that is they don’t think she’s mentally stable. They say they suspected something was wrong when she started there, and she’s gotten worse. That’s not the reason they’re giving her for the termination, but that’s really why she’s losing her job.
“She must know things aren’t working out there because they’ve learned she has put in some applications for work at firms back here. They don’t think she’s got any responses from them. I guess she acquired a reputation as being difficult to work with from all the legal firms in this part of the state.
“When my man talked to her she admitted that she’s looking for another job, and as of right now, until she’s found one somewhere and is back on her feet, she’s planning to go back to where her parents live stay with them.”
He stopped, and my stomach, which had been tight since I’d walked into the den with him, started hurting.
“Keith,” Mr. Jenks continued, his voice softening with compassion, “what she’s going to do is take you with her. She said there isn’t really room for you at her parents’, but she’s going and you’re going too. She plans to put you on the living room couch. She said maybe you can get a job and help pay the expenses. When she was asked if you didn’t need to go to school, she said maybe she’d home school you and then you could work instead and no one would know the difference. My investigator said when she spoke about all that, her thoughts seemed sort of disjointed, like she hadn’t really given any of it much consideration. He said she acted as though that part of it wasn’t very important.
“He asked her why she hadn’t called you to tell you about any of this, so you’d be prepared for it, and she said it was her business and no one else’s, that you were her responsibility and no one else’s, and that you’d do what she told you to. He asked her if she had a cell phone, and for the number so you could call her. She said she didn’t want to talk to you, she’d come get you when she was leaving for Dubuque, and that he wasn’t to tell you in advance because you always argued and whined about everything and she didn’t want to deal that before she had to.
“He asked if she’d meet with you if you came down for a visit, that someone could drive you down, and she said no, she was too busy. She said she wasn’t sure when she’d be coming for you, but said she had the idea, just from the attitude her bosses seemed to have toward her lately, that she might not be at that job for very much longer, and she wasn’t going to stay for the full two weeks if she was given notice. She said she’d leave when she felt like it, if they fired her.”
I looked at him, and I felt tears in my eyes. I shook my head and refused to let them fall. I stood up, then sat back down. My stomach was killing me. He put his arm around my shoulders, then pulled me to him, and I realized I couldn’t hold the tears back any more. They came and came and soaked his shirt and he simply held me. My world was falling apart, and all I seemed able to do was cry.
When I finally stopped, he said in a soft and tender voice, “Keith, listen to me. You’re living here now. When someone is living under my roof, nothing bad happens to him. Don’t lose faith. You’re still here, and if you don’t want to go, I’m not letting her take you away that easily. Trust me.”
I wiped my eyes, fighting for control. “But you can’t do anything, can you? I’m 14. Don’t I belong to her, legally?”
“Don’t give up, Keith. Oh, and I have something else to tell you. I don’t want you to make too much of it, but you should know. This afternoon, I put $75,000 in a trust fund for you. I want you to know you’re going to be able to go to college, no matter what, so you won’t be worrying about that. Think about that, rather than where you’ll be living for the next couple of years. The money is there, and it’s certain. Your living arrangements until then are still something we need to work on.”
I was stunned. My mother was taking me to Dubuque? And then, the other thing he’d said. When I could I stuttered, “A trust fund? $75,000?!”
He tried to chuckle, but the emotions of the last couple minutes made that pretty hard, and he ended up with a sad smile instead. “As I said, don’t think about it too much. You’ll need that money at some point, so it’s there. End of story. Oh, just so you know, it’s in a trust, and my wife and I are co-executors. You do have access to the money, but we have to countersign any withdrawals. If you’ve had your eyes on a Mercedes convertible roadster, now that you could buy it, forget it. It’s not going to be sitting in the driveway tomorrow.”
“I don’t have a driver’s license.” I said it with an entirely straight face, and then, perhaps to relieve the tension, I laughed. He did too, and the mood in the room lightened. “Well, maybe an ATV then, or a moped,” he said. “Boys like stuff like that. But, seriously, I hoped knowing you had some money available if you ever simply had to have some would give you some comfort, maybe a little feeling of stability.”
I nodded, and began to thank him, but he brushed that away. I didn’t really know how to thank him properly anyway. I don’t think the amount of money meant much to me. Before living with Jenks, I was used to having less than $5 in my pocket. Money didn’t mean much because I’d never had any.
I did have a question for him, one much more important than money. “So you’re telling me she can show up here any day now, and I have to go with her?”
He frowned. “I can’t answer that, Keith. I’m simply not sure. I’m having my lawyers look at it. I guess I should tell you something else. I wasn’t sure if I should or not, but, well, you’re a smart young man, and you think about things, so you’ll think about this, and it’s better if I just tell you.
“My lawyer asked your mother something else, something I’d told him to ask her. He asked her if she’d be willing to let us adopt you. She said no, and said it rather forcefully. So, you’re right, she does have the legal responsibility for you, and she can come get you.”
“You wanted to adopt me?” My heart was suddenly racing.
“I wanted to look at all the possibilities. That was certainly one of them. It was something we needed to find out.”
“But, you wanted to adopt me?” I was having a hard time thinking.
He stopped what he’d been about to say and just looked at me, and I saw the warmest look I’d ever seen from an adult. My mother never once looked at me that way that I could remember.
“You’re a wonderful boy, Keith.” His voice was like velvet, and as he spoke his eyes became a bit watery. “You came here from a life that was much different, but while you were shy and hesitant, you were honest and polite and friendly, and wide open to your new experiences. You fit right in with us, and you’ve been fun to have. But I’ve seen you just sitting, too, and thinking, and seen your face when you’ve done that. I know that you’ve had a tough life up until now. You deserve a break. I watched you, and talked to you, and I’ve seen your spirit and intelligence and how you get along with all of us. Keith, I liked you when I first met you, and as I’ve gotten to know you, I’ve grown to love you. So has everyone in this family. We want you here. We’d love to have another son, if that son could be you.”
He paused, maybe to let that sink in, then shook his head and said, “But she said no, and the law will side with her on this unless we could prove incompetence, and that’s awfully difficult. In this case, probably impossible.”
I dropped my head. It sucked being 14.
He put his hand on my shoulder, and repeated what he’d said before, that nothing bad ever happened to people under his roof, and I had to remember that. But, it didn’t seem to me he had as much spirit in his voice when he said that this time. It sounded more like wishful thinking.
Still, they wanted to adopt me. They loved me. Me! That love I’d felt since I’d been in this house, from Mrs. Jenks, from Gary, and lately from Mr. Jenks too, and the love I’d developed for them, it was all real. I’d sometimes felt I was making it up because I wanted love so badly, and it was easy to imagine that’s what I felt in that house. But it hadn’t been wishful thinking. They loved me! They did. I was stunned, and suddenly gloriously happy.
Maybe I’d be going to Dubuque, maybe my life would be going downhill a little after what I had now, but no one, ever, would take this away from me. I now knew that I had adults that loved me. With all my faults, all that was wrong with me, they still loved me.
If these people, these wonderful people, could love me, then maybe I wasn’t a worthless nonentity who deserved all the shit that came my way. If the Jenks loved me, then I wasn’t worthless!
I should have felt terrible, walking out of that den knowing my life here could end at any time my mother wished it, but I didn’t. We sat down to dinner, and the conversation flowed around me. I was somewhere else. My head was full of thoughts, and I barely heard what was being said. I must have eaten, my plate was empty when I left the table, but I didn’t remember eating at all. I was entirely inside my head, thinking about what Mr. Jenks had said. And I realized, wherever I ended up living, whether I had my own room or a couch in a living room, whether I had a school to go to or I was stuck flipping burgers, suddenly none of it mattered nearly as much. He’d said they loved me. He loved me. They all loved me.
For a boy who’d felt unloved his entire life, that made an incredible difference. It changed everything. Yes, my circumstances were changing, had changed in fact, but my head was up, my spirits were up, and my stomach didn’t hurt at all.
At lunch the next day, I told Darryl I’d be leaving school and the city soon, and it could happen at any time, without warning. He looked stunned. I explained the circumstances to him. He sat there looking at me. I could see he didn’t know what to say. I saw how he felt—he was as unhappy as I was.
When I explained, he simply shook his head, then looked away across the cafeteria. I watched him. I knew what I was feeling, that this was a boy I liked, that I was liking him more and more as I got to know him better, and I had thought, hoped, he might be my first boyfriend. Looking at his face, I kind of thought maybe he was having very similar feelings.
He looked back at me and reached out and touched my hand. Just touched it. We were in the cafeteria. He couldn’t do more than that. He could look into my eyes, however, and he did so with his own eyes full of emotion.
“Keith,” he said, and his voice was strained, “I’ve never said this to anyone else. I like you. A lot. My head is full of you, all the time. I don’t want you to go.”
“This is way screwed up,” he said. He sort of growled it.
“And it could be any time, you could simply be gone?”
I nodded, not trusting my voice because the emotions he was showing were getting to me.
He was quiet for a moment or two, then said, “Fuck it,” and sat up straighter, and his eyes never left mine. “Keith, I’m gay. I think I am at least. I’ve never even kissed a boy, but I think about it a lot. I think about kissing you. And I might as well say it. I think about a lot of things too, when I think about you.”
I blushed. I did. Right there in the cafeteria. And then I said, softly, “Me too.”
His eyes widened, and he smiled one of his 1,000-watt smiles and he raised his hand and reached out again, but set it back on the table. I realized I was smiling just as broadly as he was.
“Could we go swimming again? This afternoon? At your house?”
I nodded, and couldn’t stop grinning.
I was feeling really good. I told myself to stop thinking about my mother, to just enjoy what I had as long as I had it because there was nothing I could do about any of this. So after lunch that’s what I did. I just thought about Darryl, and him coming over after school, and I was grinning so hard I wasn’t paying attention all that well in the hallway, I was simply walking and thinking, and someone bumped into me, hard. I dropped my books. And, probably because of my mood, feeling so good about myself for a change, what I did was way out of character for me. What I did was stand up and shout at the kid who’d bumped me, “What the hell’s your problem?”
The kid stopped and turned around. It was Antonio Carrasco. Shit! He just happened to be the hardest of all the hard cases in school. He wasn’t someone a person like me yelled at. He wasn’t a person anyone yelled at that way.
He looked back at me, standing in the hallway, my books scattered on the floor beside me, and walked back toward me. I just stood there, watching. Everyone around us did, too, and the silence was immediate. He could easily exterminate me. With extreme prejudice, too. But what my mind was telling me was, Darryl likes me, the Jenks’ all love me, and I was trying to stand up for myself. So, I didn’t move. I was scared, but I didn’t move.
Antonio walked up to me and said “Sorry. I wasn’t looking where I was going.” Then he leaned down, picked up my books, handed them to me, and walked away.
I was stunned. Everyone else looked that way, too, but the general hallway noise came back as soon as he turned away from me. I took a deep breath, feeling relieved, and had taken one step when a hand clamped itself onto my shoulder. A bitter voice spoke softly, close to my ear.
“I just got through talking to him in my office. I told him one more incident, anything at all, and he’d be expelled. That’s why you didn’t get punched in the nose. Or kicked in the balls. Or hopefully, both.” He paused a moment, maybe to let me think about that, then said, “Had I known this was going to happen, I’d never have spoken to him. He saw me in my doorway, watching, when he turned around. He saw me. Otherwise. . . .” Mr. Johnson squeezed my shoulder hard enough to hurt, then turned around and walked toward to his office. He stopped after a few steps and walked back to me. He leaned down and said, quietly enough so only I could hear, “You know, you did give me an idea. Maybe I can think of something that Antonio could do that would clear his slate, in my book. Something he can do off the school grounds. Maybe I’ll talk to him about that. I’ll think about that. Maybe you should, too.”
Darryl came over after school and we changed into our suits together this time. I looked at him, and he at me, and it wasn’t till a while later we went swimming, now that we both knew. He was as eager as I was, but it was brand new to him. We spent a lot of time just kissing. But that wasn’t all we did. We got to second base; he slid in and was safe. OK, OK, I’m not sure what that means either, but I liked saying it.
We had fun, and that’s all I’m going to say. We were both smiling when we jumped into that pool, and I’ll leave it up to someone else to decide exactly why.
That night, I went to Gary’s room. I sat on his bed. He pulled the covers back so I could get in with him, and the sight of his naked body was just as attractive as ever, but I shook my head.
“I came to tell you we can’t mess around any more.”
“Well, I found out Darryl’s gay. We did some stuff this afternoon, before we went swimming. I really like him. And he likes me. So I don’t think, if I’m doing things with him, I should be doing things with you.”
“Are you boyfriends?”
“Well, no. But I think we will be. If we have enough time.”
Gary knew about my mother, about my circumstances. So, he knew what I meant by that. He looked sad for a moment, but being sad wasn’t really who Gary was. So, he said, “Well, until he asks you, or you ask him—” and he pulled the covers back again, and gave his eyebrows an inviting wiggle. His midsection wiggled, too.
I wanted to slide in. I really did. But I shook my head instead, and said, “It would make me feel like I was cheating on him, even if technically I wasn’t.”
“Damn!” he said. “I guess I’ll have to start putting more pressure on Amy. Once you’re used to getting it from someone else, it’s hard to go back to unisex.”
I was still laughing when I left the room.
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