Two boys from different backgrounds, a hot day, and a tough match.
Austin yelled downstairs, “Hey, Ma! Where’re my dark blue sweats?”
“Damn!” he muttered. He was playing in a tournament at the club today, and he wanted to make an impressive entry. His new navy hoodie and sweat pants, both with gold trim and worn over his tournament whites, would make him look so cool when he took them off on the court. Maybe he could even impress his opponent.
OK, who was he kidding? Impress? Yeah, that would be fine, but not his real objective. No, what he wanted to do was to intimidate the guy. He knew who the kid was he would be matched with: Billy Tyler. The kid was normally a ball boy, not a tennis player for cripes sake. The only reason he could even participate in this tournament was because it was an open event for everyone at the club, including staff! A sort of end-of-summer fun-and-thank-you thing. Crazy idea, but everyone at the club seemed to be enjoying it.
Not that he had any idea why he wanted to intimidate Billy. There was no need. Billy probably had never had a lesson in his life. Austin had seen him hitting some balls with Twiggy Frost, the assistant pro, when Billy had some time off and the courts weren’t busy, but that was about all the tennis Austin figured Billy had been involved with. Austin had been taking lessons from the club pro for five years now and playing in club matches. He was number one in his age group: 15-year-olds. He’d been competing in tournaments, playing in front of an audience for years now. Billy? His job—he was employed by the club as a summer temp—was to do menial tasks, like picking up wet towels in the locker room; collecting the hundred or so tennis balls left on the court when someone like him, a club member, was done practicing his serve; emptying ashtrays and wastebaskets; running cases of pop and beer out to the refreshment kiosks out on the golf course; that sort of thing. He also was one of the ball boys at tennis matches, swooping in to grab loose balls on the court when play had paused.
The club hired several young kids like Billy for the busy summer season. His dad tended bar full-time. Austin didn’t pay much attention to any of the staff. He might ask one of the boys to get him a can of pop or a new can of balls when he was practicing, something like that, but that’s what they were there for and he didn’t think anything of it.
Today, he’d be playing against Billy. He wasn’t sure what to think of that. He could beat the kid playing left-handed; this was hardly a fair match, or a worthwhile opponent. Get it over quickly, he thought. It would be hot out there. The kid was probably out of shape, and with all the time he himself spent on the court and then in the pool, he was sure he was fitter. Make the kid run a bit in the sun, get his tongue hanging out, and maybe he’d even concede the match.
Calling his mom once again and getting the same response as before, no answer, Austin walked downstairs to find both his parents gone to the club already. There was a note for him to fix his own breakfast and ride his bike to the club.
“Fuck!” he said, and then grinned. Saying that out loud at home was something he never did. It felt a little dirty.
He walked into the mud room and checked the laundry. His sweats had been washed, but they were hanging on a line. His mother had told him when they’d bought them that they’d shrink if they ever got put in the dryer. But they were wet now, and since he wanted to leave soon because he was biking, there was no way he could wear them. He cast them a disappointed glance and left them to dry.
He had some cereal and a glass of orange juice, then took off for the club. He had on a pair of shorts, a tee shirt and sneakers. All his tennis gear was in his locker there, so there was nothing to take, not even a jacket. Even at ten in the morning, it was warm. It promised to be even warmer in the afternoon when his match was scheduled.
Billy Tyler was nervous. He’d not wanted to eat breakfast, but his dad had insisted. “You’ll need the energy later. A good breakfast is the beginning of a good day.”
He’d laughed, as had Billy. That had been the point of the comment, to get Billy to laugh and not be so serious. Talking about eating a good breakfast always lightened the mood because Ron Tyler was a horrible cook and Billy actually did most of the cooking for the two of them. Ron would use a line about a good breakfast many mornings when trying to inveigle Billy into cooking something for him. Billy would usually comply, although with teasing, which came back just as wittily as it was delivered. Today, though, Ron had simply been trying to loosen Billy’s obvious nerves.
He did know the boy would need food in his stomach, so he started some bacon in the frying pan, knowing his son would take over.
When they were eating, Ron asked, “Why are you so nervous? It’s just a fun match. No one expects you to win. Just enjoy yourself. No reason to be to uptight about it at all.”
Billy shook his head. “I know you’re right. It’s just that I’m playing Austin. I don’t want to look silly out there, and maybe I will. He’s much better than I am.”
“Why do you care if you look silly?”
Billy smiled. “I don’t think he knows I’m alive. And I want him to notice me. If I look terrible out there, he’ll never look at me the way I want him to.”
“Oh, that’s right. He’s the one you have a crush on, huh?”
Billy nodded. “There’s something about him. He’s cute, but it’s more than that. The way he carries himself, his self-confidence, how graceful he is on the court. And in the swimming pool! He wears these tiny bikini briefs and you can see everything, or at least get the idea you’re seeing it all. He’s slim and tanned and glides through the water like an otter, and when he gets out, I can’t look at him very long without getting, well, you know.”
“But you said he’s stuck up. Why would you be interested in someone like that, someone who thinks you’re beneath him?”
Billy thought about that for a moment before answering. “I guess I don’t really know that about him. It’s more an impression I’ve had, watching how he interacts with the other summer temps. The thing is, I’ve never even spoken to him, or had to do anything for him. So it’s only that, an impression, that makes me think he’s that way. Today, I’ll have to talk to him. Maybe after today, the crush will be gone. Maybe I won’t like him any longer.”
Austin checked the times of the day’s matches for the third time and found they were the same as the first two times he’d looked. He was still playing on court six at 3:30 PM. That meant a lot of waiting beforehand. As he spent most of his summer days at the club, the wait wouldn’t bother him at all. Thinking about that, he chuckled, realizing how Billy would feel, having to wait, and how nervous he’d probably get. The kid had to know he was going to be trounced; spending hours anticipating it would just make it worse.
He decided he wouldn’t change till closer to match time. No point in walking out onto the court in sweaty whites. There were sure to be people watching. He shouldn’t disappoint them.
The first matches of the day would start in about fifteen minutes, so he headed for the courts to check out the action.
Billy arrived at the club about the same time Austin did, but he always came in the rear entrance. Employees were encouraged to enter that way. They parked their cars or bikes in the back where they were less noticeable. The Mercedes and Jaguars and Cadillacs were in front, along with the thousand-dollar bikes the rich kids rode. Billy put his bike in the rack the temp boys used, not bothering to lock it. His would probably be the last one anyone would be interested in stealing.
It was his day off, and a very unusual day because he was allowed to use any of the club’s facilities, but instead of taking advantage of that, he headed for the bar to see if there was anything he could do to help his dad. He ended up cutting lemon twists and putting them with the olives, cocktail onions, maraschino cherries and lime wedges in the drinks garnish tray. After that he went into the kitchen and helped the cooks get things set up for lunch. He’d done this enough that he didn’t need to be told what was needed.
He checked out the locker room and showers to see if he could be of use there. Some golfers were either coming off the course or getting ready to play, and he made the rounds, asking if anyone needed anything. Some were fresh from the showers. He’d gotten used to the casual nudity he found there. It seemed to him that mature men were much less shy about their bodies than kids his age were.
One man he knew as Mr. McGregor smiled at him while sitting at his locker, drying his feet. “Aren’t you supposed to be taking the day off, Billy?”
“I’m not comfortable just loafing around, sir. I have a tennis match this afternoon. I’d get nervous, just sitting and waiting. Can I get you another a towel, or maybe a drink?”
Mr. McGregor laughed. “No, I’m not putting you to work! Who’s your game against?”
“Hey, he’s supposed to be really good. You know him?”
“No. But I’ve seen him around.”
“He struts around like some sort of prince. He’s your age, isn’t he?”
“Yeah, I guess. I suppose that’s why I was paired with him.”
“You play much tennis? I haven’t seen you on the courts, Billy.”
“No, not much. Mr. Frost has shown me some things. I know I can’t beat Austin. I’m just playing for the fun of it.”
“Well, good luck. You have the right attitude at least. Uh, a piece of advice? Don’t try to cozy up to Austin. He’ll just shrug you off like I’ve seen him do with others. Just play your own game and don’t expect him to be cordial or to let up any because you’re just a beginner and he’s at the top of his group. Don’t let his attitude intimidate you.”
Billy smiled at him. “Thanks, Mr. McGregor. I’ll do the best I can.”
From the locker room, he headed back to the kitchen. He thought a sandwich would be good for lunch, and he could always wheedle a free one out of the cooks. He helped them out when they were rushed, and they liked paying him back.
After that, there was nothing more to do than just kill some time. More waiting.
He wandered around a bit, ending up in the tennis pro shop. He found Twiggy Frost stringing a racket and stopped to chat with him. “How many of ’em do you have today?” he asked.
Twiggy Frost was in his twenties. He’d been a top college player but, as was often the case, not good enough to get on the top pro tour. He could have joined one of the junior tours, but they didn’t pay much, the competition was fierce, and when he was offered this job, he was happy to take it. It didn’t pay much, but the salary was steady and the club pro wouldn’t be here for much longer than another five years. He’d be the heir apparent if he just stuck it out and made friends with all the club players. He drew his salary and got paid for private lessons. It was enough for now.
“This is my fifth, and last. You ready for today?”
Billy laughed. “I’m getting nervous, but don’t know why. I can’t beat him. Don’t even think I want to. Don’t think he’d like it.”
Twiggy nodded, then winked at him. “You like him, don’t you? Crush at least?”
Billy blushed. “Yeah. But maybe not so much after today. Everyone says he’s stuck up, really full of himself. I’ll find out. If he is, maybe the crush will go away.”
Twiggy knew Billy was gay. Billy didn’t try to hide it. Twiggy had a soft spot for the kid. He was a hard worker and was nice to everyone. How could he not like him? And, Twiggy didn’t have much use for Austin. The kid acted like Twiggy was a nobody; he basically ignored him in the pro shop or when they bumped into each other outside. Even the club pro who gave Austin lessons hadn’t warmed up to him. Twiggy would have liked nothing better than to see Billy beat Austin, to knock him down a peg or two, but knew it was pretty unlikely. Still, he’d talked strategy with Billy. He now did so again, then added an opinion.
“If you can beat him, then you’ll really see who he is. You’ll see him at his worst, or his best. And you can beat him with a little luck. Remember what we talked about. Play that way and you’ll have a chance.”
“Thanks, Mr. Frost.”
Twiggy laughed. “When are you going to stop calling me that?”
Billy grinned. “Maybe when I’m 18?”
After that, Billy headed out to watch some of the tennis being played, but he found that just standing and watching both hot and boring, and quite soon he got tired of the sun beating down on him. It was taking something out of him, so decided to go back to the clubhouse and sit on the shaded patio and wait, just relaxing, for when he needed to be on the court.
The patio was a large area overlooking the 18th green spread out around the back side of the clubhouse. Trees provided shade, and the tables were set up around and beneath them. Billy chose a chair just off the area where club members sat at the tables. He didn’t feel comfortable taking a place where the members sat, and even on a casual day like this one, he didn’t feel dressed to mingle with the club regulars. He sat on a folding chair on the edge of the patio. He was surprised to see Austin sitting at a table by himself. He was obviously doing the same thing Billy was: waiting.
Billy found it difficult not to stare at him. He was a good distance away and to the side of Austin; it was unlikely he’d be caught looking. So, look he did. There was something about Austin that caught Billy’s attention and got his heart doing funny things. Austin’s appearance seemed to affect other parts of Billy’s anatomy as well. Billy was always careful not to look too long, and not to be observed gawking at him.
He noticed that Austin was sitting alone. He realized that was often the case with Austin; people, especially kids, didn’t seem to congregate around him. This was a little strange. Austin was good looking, athletic, and as club champion in his age group he should have had a lot of admirers, both male and female. At the very least, he should have friends to hang with among the younger crowd at the club. Yet he was almost always alone.
Billy was pondering this when he saw a boy walk up to Austin. Billy recognized the boy as another summer temp. He had his lunch with him and said something to Austin—it appeared to Billy that he was asking if it was all right for him to sit. Then Billy saw Austin grin at him, perhaps with a condescending grin—Billy couldn’t tell from the side angle he had—but what he did next made Billy think that must have been the case: Austin gave the boy the finger. It was a quick gesture, and Austin then disguised it by chewing the fingernail on the rude finger, but the effect was apparent. The boy standing at his table stopped smiling, turned and walked away.
Billy shook his head. Maybe there was a lot of truth to the rumors he’d heard.
Austin had arrived at the club with nothing much in mind to do. He ended up watching some tennis, then going for a quick swim. The pool wasn’t crowded and he did ten laps, then stopped, not wanting to tire himself. He’d showered afterwards, taking his time, then went to the locker room figuring he might as well dress in his tennis gear rather than have to change again later. He donned his whites, which he felt were pretty classy: white shorts with black piping on the sides, a white shirt, also with black accents and a crest over his heart, and new, brilliant-white tennis shoes and socks. He stopped to look at himself in the locker room mirror, gave his hair a couple of sweeps with a brush, then went out on the patio. There he had lunch, and after that just sat, thinking about the upcoming match and how he should play Billy. Put him out of his misery fast, he decided, and the way to do that would be to hit hard balls right at him, one after another, and let the pace of the ball and the game quickly overcome him.
At three-fifteen, Billy and Austin both arrived at the court, Austin in his whites and carrying a large athletic bag containing four racquets, two extra white shirts and one pair of shorts, six towels and three unopened cans of balls among other various paraphernalia. Billy was still wearing the clothes he’d come in, shorts, a tee shirt, and long white sweat socks with colored bands around the tops. He was holding his only racquet in his hand.
“Hi,” he said, and smiled at Austin as they met at the door to the court. “I’m Billy.”
Austin nodded, a bit imperiously, Billy thought, but then stuck out his hand to shake, saying, “Austin. I’ve seen you around.”
“You too,” Billy answered, and shook the offered hand.
They took opposite ends of the court and began warming up, hitting balls back and forth. Austin didn’t hit them hard. He thought he’d be better off not showing his power till it counted. As it was, Billy returned all the balls and looked better than Austin had expected doing so. They both hit balls to the other’s forehand and backhand sides. Billy didn’t seem a bit out of place.
They both hit some practice serves, and the referee in his chair asked then if they were ready. Both nodded.
Billy won the racquet spin and opted to serve. Austin saw right away that Billy didn’t have a hard serve. He did spin the ball, but that was no problem for Austin. He returned the first serve with a hard stroke, hitting the ball right at Austin and landing it near the baseline. Billy didn’t have time to react to the short bounce and mishit the ball badly. Love-15.
The second serve, Austin again attacked with a hard stroke directly at Billy. This time Billy had retreated quickly after serving and was far enough behind the line that he could play the ball. It was a fast ball, but Billy handled it, hitting a soft half-lob that landed near the baseline. Austin returned it, another vicious forehand directly at Billy, and Billy somehow returned it.
The point took some time to play as both players continued doing what they’d done already. Austin never changed the direction of his shots, always hitting the ball right at Billy, hard and always landing his stroke near the baseline, with Billy managing to return them, mostly softly but deep enough that if he wasn’t going to volley them, Austin had to remain behind the baseline. Eventually, one of his strong returns hit the top of the net. Austin expected it to drop over, but instead it dropped on his side. 15-15.
Billy’s next serve was a spinner that was much softer than Austin expected. It just cleared the net, fell into the serving box, and skipped hard to Austin’s right. He started to race up to reach it and realized he couldn’t. He stopped, the ball bounced again then rolled away. 30-15.
After that, Austin moved up from the baseline to receive serve. He returned Billy’s fourth serve with another vicious forehand. Billy was in position and hit another soft half-lob back. This time, after hitting his same hard return, Austin charged the net. Billy returned the ball in a slightly higher lob this time, just out of Austin’s reach as he leaped as high as he could to hit it, and it dropped a couple of feet inside the baseline. 40-15.
Austin glared at Billy. Billy was looking at the balls the ballboy was tossing him and didn’t notice.
Billy served, and Austin hit a great forehand, this time finally angling the ball to Billy’s forehand side. Billy got to the ball, but instead of hitting his floating lob back as Austin expected, he chopped the ball sharply, putting a lot of backspin on it and dropping it softly just over the net. Austin ran as hard as he could but only managed to get the tip of the frame of his racket on it. Game to Billy.
Austin stood at the net, glaring at Billy. This time Billy noticed. He walked to the net. “What?” he asked, his voice showing his puzzlement.
Austin started to answer, then realized he really didn’t have anything to say. He was angry, but angry at himself. He’d played the game stupidly, emotionally and without any regard for his opponent. It was obvious to him that he’d been right: Billy was nowhere near his caliber of player. Yet Billy had won the first game, and it was because Austin had been so dismissive of him.
Billy was still standing, waiting for an answer. He saw Austin’s face change.
“Hey, great game,” Austin said. “I’ll try to play better.” He smiled.
Billy smiled back. “Wish you wouldn’t,” he said, then laughed. It was funny enough that it even brought a grin from Austin.
Billy didn’t win another game. He did manage to keep the games somewhat competitive. He used lots of drop shots and made Austin run more than Austin was making him run. He wasn’t intimidated by Austin’s power; Twiggy had accustomed him to receiving hard shots and returning them. But Austin’s overall skill level was higher than Billy’s, his experience was greater, and his game strategizing better.
When the match was over, 6-1, 6-0, both boys were covered in sweat, and both boys were showing the effects of playing hard under the bright sun in a high sky. They shook hands at the net, and Austin said, “You played much better than I expected. If you played and practiced more, you could be quite good.”
“Thanks. I’d never be in your class, and I don’t have time to do anything other than hit a few balls with Mr. Frost a couple of times a week.”
“Well, that’s too bad. You’ve got talent. But let’s go hit the showers. I need to get out of the sun, and you’re probably feeling the same thing.”
Billy wasn’t sure about that. He didn’t think he belonged in the members’ showers. But he did need to get out of the sun, and the thought of cool water cascading over him was too attractive to resist.
So, he followed Austin to the clubhouse and into the changing room. Austin went to his locker and began pulling off his sweat-soaked clothes. He was sitting down, untying his shoes, when he noted Billy just standing, watching.
“What’s the matter?” Austin asked.
“I just feel really out of place here,” Billy said. “And maybe this isn’t a good idea anyway. I’ll just have to put these same wet clothes on again.”
“No you won’t. I’ve got a bunch of tennis outfits in my locker. You can wear one of them. We’re about the same size.”
“You’d do that?” The surprise was evident in Billy’s voice.
“Sure. Why not?”
Billy looked at him, wondering what to say. Finally, with more courage than he thought he had, he said, “Well, you’re you, and I’m me. I just never thought—.” He stopped, and looking down at Austin, saw complete confusion in his eyes. He really didn’t know what Billy was talking about. Billy took a deep breath, then said, “You know, you’re different from what I thought you were.”
“What do you mean?”
Billy blushed. “I shouldn’t have said that. It’s nothing, really.”
“Why? You had to mean something. What did you think of me?”
“Oh, something not good, huh? I’m not surprised. I don’t have any friends here. Other kids just leave me alone. I’m not sure why. But you know why. I can tell you know. Would you tell me? I’d really like to know.”
“It would be rude of me, and I’d rather not.” Billy cast his eyes at the ground, showing how uncomfortable he was.
“Hey, that’s not fair. Well, let’s look at it from another direction, then. Let’s see.” His voice became joking, showing he wasn’t being serious. “I whipped your ass bad at tennis, so I should win a point for the victory. And I insisted you shower, which you were reluctant to do, and now you’re doing it, and you’ll enjoy it, so that’s two points. And all I want is a simple explanation. That’s certainly worth two points, isn’t it?”
He gave Billy his sad hound dog eye look, then laughed, making it clear he was teasing if Billy hadn’t already caught on. Then he said more soberly, “I didn’t really whip your ass at tennis, you know. You gave me a tough match, and I play all the time and you don’t. You don’t owe me anything for that. For anything, really. But you could help me by telling me.”
He’d finished removing his shoes and socks and now stood up; he dropped his shorts and jock, leaving him naked. Billy took a quick look—there was no way not to—blushed and turned around.
Austin frowned. “What?” he asked. “And are you coming or not?”
Billy sat down on the bench by the locker, looked up into Austin’s face, then away. Not looking at Austin, he said, “You’re different from what I thought. I though you were stuck up. I thought you felt superior to all of us summer temp boys. But you’re not. You’re nice.”
Austin took that in, digested it, and said, “Is that what everyone thinks? Why?”
“Do you want to embarrass me even more?”
Austin snorted. “I didn’t want to in the first place. But now that you’ve told me what people think, I need to know why so I can fix it. I can’t fix it if I don’t know why people think that. Look, you’ll be doing me a huge favor if you tell me. Come on; get undressed and tell me in the shower. I’m getting a chill standing here like this.”
So Billy stood up and began undressing. Shoes, socks, shirt, and then a pause.
Austin was watching him. When he stopped, Austin said, “What now?”
“I guess it’s my day to be embarrassed,” said Billy. “Because I have to tell you something else before we go in there. You probably know that I’m gay. I don’t hide it and am out if anyone is curious. That’s not the embarrassing part. I’m gay and don’t feel any embarrassment about that. The embarrassing thing is, I’ve had a crush on you all summer. And now you’re here, you’re standing here naked in front of me, you’re gorgeous, and, well, why do you think I had to sit down?”
Austin was staring at him, not speaking, and Billy finally raised his eyes. Austin looked at him, saw that Billy was blushing and how he was holding his hands together in his lap, and he couldn’t help himself. He burst out laughing. He held up his hand like a school crossing guard stopping traffic and tried hard to stop; he actually did force himself to in a moment or two. Billy was looking hurt by then. His expression was why Austin had his hand out like the crossing guard. He’d been trying to prevent Billy from feeling the laughter was derisive, or even aimed at him.
“I’m sorry, Billy,” Austin said when he could. “You must feel awful and think that I’m laughing at you, and I’m not. I’m laughing at the situation, and at me. You really have a crush on me? Really? That’s amazing. Of all the summer boys, you’re the one I’ve really noticed. You’re amazing. I keep trying to decide if you’re cute or handsome; I think it’s probably both. You’re so cute and handsome I get freaky just looking at you. I’ve watched you. You seem to be good at everything you do, and you’re so polite. I’m amazed you never saw me looking. You like me? Wow!”
“Wait a minute. You’re gay?”
Austin’s happy smile faded in an instant. “My father’s Persian. From Iran, you know? I can’t be gay. It’s against our religion.”
Billy studied him for a moment, his expression, the way his shoulders had dropped. Then he said very softly, “You can’t be, but are you?”
Austin didn’t answer, just stared at Billy. Billy paused for several seconds, then stood up and dropped his remaining clothing. He was no longer rigidly hard, but still plumped. He didn’t try to cover it. He’d already explained. He stood, walked over to Austin and took his hand. “Let’s shower,” he said throatily.
They stood next to each other, letting the water rejuvenate them. Billy hadn’t realized how exhausted he was till the lukewarm water beating on him relaxed his tired muscles. He washed himself, then noticed Austin was staring at him. “What?” he asked.
“You were going to tell me why I put people off.”
Billy started to answer, then double-clutched. He smiled and said, “And you were going to tell me if you’re gay. Sounds like a fair trade to me.”
“No it isn’t. Hypothetically, if I said I was gay, it could ruin my life. My dad . . . you don’t know my dad.”
“Does he love you?”
“Well, yeah. But his faith is important to him.”
“Why is he living here, then, instead of in Iran?”
“It’s complicated. A few years ago the government there became very repressive. Freedom of speech, freedom of most everything was compromised. Religious fundamentalism took over. Dad is a progressive man, and he hated the restrictions, hated how people were forced to behave. He decided he didn’t want his kids to grow up that way. So we came here.”
“So he loves you, and he wanted a better, freer life for you. How do you know he wouldn’t be able to accept you as a gay man?”
Austin was quiet for some time before answering. Then he said, “I guess I really don’t. But the risk is too high to tell him.”
“So you’ll never live the life you want to live. Isn’t that why he brought you here, so you could live that life?”
“You don’t know him.”
“I know, and I can’t tell you what to do. What about your mother?”
“She’s a good Iranian wife. She does as her husband wishes.”
Billy chuckled. “You’d better marry an Iranian girl, then. Finding an American girl who’ll always obey her husband’s wishes would be like finding a frog to kiss and watching it turn into a princess. Or in your case, a prince. But, you’ve answered my question. You’re gay. Now we just have to find a way to get your father’s blessing.”
“I told you I have a crush on you. Want me to prove it?”
Austin’s eyes opened wider as Billy stepped under the shower Austin was using. He ran his hands over Austin’s wet body, then dropped them to below his waist and grabbed Austin’s crotch and held on. He used both hands . Then he moved behind Austin and continued his fondling from there, while sliding against Austin’s rear.
Neither boy lasted long. The shower removed any evidence of their fun, and being young, their deep breathing and light-headedness only remained for a minute or two.
When he could speak, Austin said, “OK. I’m gay. But it has to remain a secret.”
Billy shook his head. “That isn’t a healthy way to live. You have to be proud of who you are. You have to love yourself. How can you have any self-confidence it you’re stifling an important part of yourself? You have to embrace who you are to be a whole man. One way or another, that has to be your goal. That's where happiness will come from. You owe it to yourself, much more than you owe it to your father. He lives the life he’s chosen for himself. You have to have the courage to do the same.”
“You make it sound easy.”
“I don’t mean to. I know it’ll be hard. But doing what’s hard is what builds character, especially when it’s the right thing to do. I’ll show you. What I’m about to do is difficult for me, but I’ll go ahead and do it anyway. It’s explaining to you what you bargained for with me.”
“You mean telling me why people don’t like me?”
“Exactly. I’ll tell you why. It’s this.” Billy took a deep breath, then said, “People are put off by the way you act when you meet them. You’re stiff and uncommunicative, and what they take from that is that you’re aloof, that you think you’re better than they are, and they think it’s probably because you’re rich. I wondered about this, too—if you’re really that way—even while I had this crush on you. I thought today I’d find out about you for sure. I have. You’re nothing like I thought you were.”
“I’m not aloof,” Austin said. “But I think I know why they react to me like that. I’m shy. I know, I put on an appearance of confidence, but it’s an act. I act all confident and comfortable when I’m by myself in a crowd, but when someone talks to me, I get all defensive because I usually say the wrong things and get tongue-tied. It’s my shyness that causes that, and I don’t know what to do about that. That’s why I seem cold, and I guess I come across as unfriendly and standoffish.”
“If it’s just shyness, then how do you explain giving the finger to that boy who wanted to eat lunch with you today?”
“I saw you. He came over with his arms full of food and wanted to sit down at your table. You gave him the finger and he walked away.”
About halfway through Billy’s statement, Austin began shaking his head. “No, I didn’t!” he said when Billy had finished. “I had a hangnail and was nibbling at it. I had no idea why that boy walked away like that. I was pleased he wanted to sit with me. Then he didn’t. Did it really look like I was giving him the finger?”
Billy laughed. “Yeah, it really did. And why have you been able to talk so easily to me? You don’t seem shy at all now.”
“That’s because we played a match first. I can talk about tennis, and playing against someone who challenges me makes me forget the shyness. We went through a struggle together, we were both feeling the same things afterwards, tired and hot and all. To me, that seemed to create a little bit of a bond between us, a connection, and it made me able to talk to you and be comfortable when I did so. Even with you, who I’ve been thinking all these thoughts I’m not supposed to have about. But without that connection, and in other situations, I’m still shy.”
“I guess that makes sense. And, we can fix it,” Billy said.
“There’s that ‘we’ again,” said Austin, but he was smiling now.
“I now know who you are. I’m not letting you go that easily. I’ve got some ideas already about how to find out how your father feels about gay kids. You assume he’ll hate you, or kick you out, or something tragic like that. Maybe he won’t. But we need to find out a lot more before you come out to him. We’re going to figure all this out. I’m going to help.”
“That’s going to be really hard,” Austin said. “What are you going to get out of it?”
Billy smiled. “You.”
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