The Boy on the Plane

Chapter 15


Thanksgiving is great! Having Terry there makes it special. I love it when he eats with us. As his parents are at war all the time now, maybe he’ll be eating more often with us. I need to talk to Daniel about this. Terry eats a lot! Well, I do, too, and I can’t expect Daniel to bear the cost of two of us. I can offer to kick in more. Most of the money I get each month goes directly into my savings account. Sure, I want to have that for college, but that’s a long way off, and the time when we both need lots of food is now!

I also like having Mr. Lees here. I keep looking back and forth between him and Daniel. Daniel’s not out to anyone. I haven’t even told Terry. I don’t know about Mr. Lees, but he’s not married, and I’ve heard kids speculating that he might be gay. I can’t tell. If I’m supposed to have gaydar, well, perhaps I’m defective, because I don’t.

Hey! You know what? I said that as a joke. For years growing up, I thought I was defective. My mom always made a point that I was totally inept at everything and as an impressionable kid, you believe your parents. It’s not till your teen years that you start to see them as people, and sometimes as fallible. Mine were not very nice people.

But for me to joke about being defective and meaning it as a joke, I’m surprised. I didn’t know I could do that. I guess it’s true: getting away from my home in Massachusetts and into a supportive one a continent away has really helped my mental state. My mental balance is much stronger now.

Anyway, I watch the two of them together and can’t help think that if Mr. Lees were gay, they’d make a great couple. I notice that Mr. Lees spends a lot of time looking at Daniel when Daniel is looking elsewhere, and vice versa. Makes you think.

Terry is spending the night, the first time he’s done that. I’m excited about it. We leave the two of the old guys and go to my room after stuffing ourselves with pie. It was funny: Terry hogged the whipped cream—which was okay because we had a lot—saying it was the best part of the meal, and I told him in that case, skip the pie so there’d be more for me, but I was just teasing, of course.

I understand how he feels about that whipped cream. He made it, the first food he’d ever made, and like the first pie I’d made, it tasted awfully special to him. I made a point of mentioning a couple of times now how good it was.

I think we fell asleep for a while. When we wake up, we pig out on pie and whipped cream, then say goodnight to the olds and go to my room. There, alone, we can be us. We strip to our underwear to play video games, then off go the undies and we fool around, staying naked when we turn on a movie to watch from my bed. I fall asleep in the middle of the movie and think Terry probably does, too.

I wake up around 2 AM cuddled up with Terry. We might not love each other, but he feels awfully good in my arms, his back against my front. I need to pee badly, which is what’s awakened me—that and an awfully stiff boner in an uncomfortable position against his backside.

I slip out of bed without waking Terry and go down the hall to the bathroom. On the way back, I hear voices from the direction of the patio. Quiet voices but voices nevertheless, and no one should be out there at this time of the night. I’m sure Mr. Lees left hours ago. Is someone invading our home?

Cautiously, I decide to investigate. It could be teenagers sneaking in to use the pool. If so, I don’t want to call the cops. Or even wake up Daniel. I just want to see what’s what first. I open the door to the patio from the living room and step out, only then the slight breeze on delicate parts reminding me I’m still naked.

The voices are still there, soft ones, coming from the pool. I need to go farther out onto the patio to see. I creep forward slowly and silently.

I see two people in the pool. I see they’re Mr. Lees and Daniel.

“Shh,” says Daniel in a whisper. “I know, they’re teens. They’ll sleep like the dead two years into their eternal nap. But still . . .”

Mr. Lees giggles. Really. Surprises me, too. He’s always so serious. But he giggles. Then he swims under water to the shallow end, and I have to take a step back into the shadows to make sure I’m not seen. Daniel follows him, swimming a silent breaststroke, head above the water, eyes focused on Mr. Lees. They both stand up, and the shallow end being as shallow as it is, I see they’re subscribing to pool rules as far as bathing suits go.

And that they’re in the same state I was when I needed to get out of bed. I haven’t seen naked men before and certainly not aroused naked men. Makes me feel funny, seeing that.

But I can draw an easy conclusion here: I guess Mr. Lees is gay and that I’m watching something I shouldn’t be watching. I carefully pull back out of sight and noiselessly go back into the house, sliding the door shut as noiselessly as possible.

I’m feeling a lot of things walking back to bed. Lots of thoughts floating around, mostly happy ones for Daniel. Thinking how things are going to change around here. Then I start smiling really hard as one thought predominates.

If Daniel and Mr. Lees become more that friends—well, if they become way more than friends—I’m looking at a really easy A in French.

I’m enjoying working on the newspaper. A lot of that is because it means I’m rubbing shoulders with Daryl. Not literally, but we’re in proximity when we’re both in the office where the work on the paper happens. I get to see him, watch him, and I do. He’s cute and very appealing. I’m memorizing all his small twitches, his body language, his expressions. Every now and then I catch him looking at me. I wonder if he sees me watching him. That wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, his noticing I’m interested in him.

We’re reporters. Reporters get stories, write them up, and give them to the editor. He chooses what gets printed and makes any changes he feels necessary. So Daryl and I are in competition. We both fight for more inches. No, not that kind. Column inches in the paper. When the two of us gather up news around the school and write it up as news articles, we’re both thinking how to make the stories sparkle and come alive and grab the readers’ attention. That’s what’ll get them printed and get our names before our public.

Some of what we do gets printed, some doesn’t, but the battle is always on. I’m determined to have more inches than Daryl in every edition; he feels exactly the same.

I try to keep the rivalry friendly. I discover I’m a little more competitive than I had thought. Luckily, my competitiveness isn’t all that extreme, and also luckily, Daryl seems the same. We both congratulate the other on whatever gets printed. I know I check his inches and mine. He probably does, too.

I want to get to know him better, to really become friends, but as we look for different stories, there’s no reason for us to be together. I get to thinking, how can I get us to work together rather than in competition.

I think about it and get an idea, and then the idea grows and I see a way to get what I want. Well, maybe get what I want. But I do form my idea into a plan. A little bit devious, but all’s fair in love and war, isn’t it? And right now, Daryl and I have a little bit of both going on. Well, I have toward him. I don’t know what he feels about me.

My plan covers that, too.

Daryl’s brother’s name is Ethan. He edits the paper. I go talk to him. He’s aware of the battle his brother and I have going on and is loving it because it’s making the paper better. School papers are often boring. With the writing Daryl and I are doing, our paper is nothing like that. Ethan notices our competition and realizes he has to be scrupulously fair in what he prints, not favoring his brother at all. And he’s been just that: fair.

“Ethan,” I say when I’ve got him pinned down at his desk and he has to listen to me, “I’ve got an idea that I think you might like. The paper now carries a variety of stories. We cover the athletic teams and clubs and throw in a little about problems like not enough parking or what Principal Lester thinks about the movement to have more choices in the cafeteria, stuff like that. None of this is terribly exciting. We need some livelier stuff the students will be eager to read. I’ve got an idea of a series of articles that’ll have the students lining up to get the next edition of the paper each week.”

“Oh, yeah? And what’s that?” He sounds almost bored. Well, I never figured going into sales was something I was suited for. I don’t have the energy in my voice to sell anything. I try to ramp it up now.

“The kids in this school care about other kids and their teachers. Way more than budget restrictions or what the chess club is going to do over the Christmas break. So that’s what I want to write about. Specifically, a series of interviews of our teachers. A different teacher every week. Who they are, what their interests are outside the school, who they’re sleeping with . . .” I stop with a laugh as he jerks his head up, but I can see he’s interested.

“Okay, maybe not their extracurricular love activities, just whether they’re married or not, have kids or not and how old they are if they’ve got some. But I was thinking, this would go better if Daryl and I did it jointly. With both of us interviewing each teacher, we’d get more in-depth questioning, and writing it jointly would probably make for better-written articles. What do you think?”

He’s nodding as the idea takes root. “I like it.”

He agrees it’s a great idea and calls Daryl over to discuss it.

That’s how our Meet the Teachers columns gets started. That’s how I get to work directly with Daryl. I find he’s different from what I expected. He has a much better sense of humor than I thought. I also find something about him that I’m not sure how to deal with. He’s all about rude comments and teasing and put-downs; I guess it’s what the sports guys would call trash talking; it’s Daryl’s way of dealing with other kids he’s being social with.

But this is an area where I have to take myself in hand. It’s very difficult for me to deal with criticism, even if it’s meant to be in jest. For many years now, my reaction to criticism or antagonism or confrontation has been to withdraw, often into a funk, sometimes, if the criticism is too brutal, even into a fugue. That’s been my default defensive pose in the past. It’s a well-developed mechanism I have. I haven’t needed it here because I haven’t been facing that sort of thing. Now, suddenly, here’s Daryl and his trash-talking, and even if it’s meant humorously, it’s directed towards me.

I know he doesn’t mean what he says. I understand that intellectually. But emotions and intellect run on different tracks. I know his comments are meant as humor, perhaps as a way of defending himself from imagined assaults. I can tell he likes me okay as a co-worker. I’ve noticed that he doesn’t treat people he isn’t friendly with this way or even talk behind their backs. With people like me, people he knows and works with, he can be insulting while smiling. He does that with his brother, too, and he’s close to him. I can easily see that.

I have to learn not to be bothered by it, or I have to have the guts to tell him that it’s difficult for me to hear that kind of talk. I haven’t decided yet. I’m trying hard to get used to it as just friendly banter.

The other thing about him that bothers me is his friend. He’s another freshman, a kid I’ve seen in classes but don’t know at all. His name is Ryan, and he’s probably gay. He might even be out; I’m not close enough to him to know. But he looks effeminate, acts effeminately, dresses effeminately, speaks effeminately. I don’t mind any of that. It doesn’t put me off at all. What I mind is that he hangs with Daryl.

I don’t have the nerve to tell Daryl I’m gay or to ask him if he is. The fact he held my hand too long when we met suggested it to me at that time, and nothing’s happened since then to make me think differently, either for or against. Of course, he seems to be best friends with a boy who’s probably gay, and that’s suggestive. So those are the two things that put him on the gay side of the ledger in my thinking.

I hope he’s gay. I’d like us to be together. I’m quite attracted to him. The way he looks and speaks; his intelligence; his quick insights; his quirks, like the way he flips his hair out of his eyes or scratches behind his ear when thinking about something; the way his eyes light up when he thinks of something—I just find these all speak to me, draw me to him. But I’m making no progress at all getting closer to him. He hasn’t given me a bit of encouragement in that area.

He listens to my proposal and his brother’s acceptance of the idea. I watch his eyes as he considers it. Then he says, “Of course, the byline will be Hasserly and Tressman. That’s not up for debate.”

I laugh. “In your dreams. What I was thinking is we’ll have an interview written and printed every week. We’ll both be in on the interview, asking questions. And then we’ll write it up together. Working together. And we’ll split the byline. One week you’re name’s on top, the next, mine. Fair’s fair. You’re right about one thing: no need for a debate.”

We split the writing. He writes it one week, me the next. When he’s writing, I stand behind him and watch and make any comments as they come to me about any deletions, additions or corrections I think will improve the piece. He accepts them or we talk about them. It works fine. But, when I’m the one writing, and he’s behind me making comments, his aren’t like mine. They’re not objective and focused. No, his, possibly meant humorously, are mostly trash-talk.

Part of that I like, the standing-behind-me part. A lot. I feel we’re really close when we’re kibitzing each other. Physically, I mean. I now know what scent his deodorant and shampoo have. That close. He writes well. I think I do, too.

But the comments we make to each other? Mine are all constructive. His tend to go the other way. He can be quite caustic when I’m writing. I know he’s only half serious, maybe only a quarter, and that this is just the way he is, but sometimes the remarks sting, and I have to be careful to keep my cool then.

The articles are going fine. And having the two of us do the interviews together was a great idea, because while one of us is asking a question and listening to the answer and making notes, the other is thinking of another question, one that may not have occurred to his partner. We get more depth from the interviews, more insight into the interviewee, this way.

After we finish an interview with Mr. Woods, one of the shop teachers, and I’m on the keyboard writing the story, Daryl makes a couple of brutal remarks and then laughs to show he didn’t mean it. I have to stop writing and hang my head before forcing myself not to do that. He may notice, probably has, because after that, he doesn’t do it again right away, which for him is odd. The article is very good. The writing is snappy and funny and, in my opinion, one of our best, so I’m feeling good about that but still shaky about what Daryl said.

I finish writing the article and get up, grab my stuff, and simply walk out without a word spoken or a glance back. He calls my name when I’m at the door, but I don’t stop. I don’t answer, either. I’m not sure what my voice would sound like.

Okay, my brilliant plan doesn’t include my going into a funk at what he says to me. Of course, I didn’t know him very well when I concocted the plan. I also know the problem isn’t him. I’d walked out angry and embarrassed and dejected, and that was all me. He was just being himself.

Thinking about it, I decide I can make this fit into the plan. Because the plan wasn’t just to work with him doing interviews and writing them up. It was a lot more than that. The ‘more’ was the cunning part.

But I could still do that. First, I had to get over myself. He had said things to me that had cut, sharp thorns that had hurt. I thought about why and realized the truth that had underlain his comments was what had really stung. He’d pointed out a sentence that was convoluted and poorly written, and writing well was something I felt strongly about. Because of my past, whatever I did, I tried to make it perfect, and writing was something I was good at and one of the few things I had to be proud of. That sentence hadn’t been written well. He hadn’t needed to be so condescending when he commented on it. He hadn’t needed to tear it and me to shreds. It had hurt and awakened memories of things I hadn’t done to my main critic’s approval in the past.

When the reverse was true and I was monitoring Daryl’s writing, I pointed out places his writing could be stronger or where he’d used the wrong word or misspelled one, but I always did it politely. Polite criticism just wasn’t who Daryl was. I’d put up with it from him before, but those times the problem wasn’t anything major, usually more a matter of a difference of opinion than fact. This had been a bad sentence; I knew that when he started complaining about it, and I was already in the process of fixing it, but he went on and on, and it got to me. I am too thin-skinned. It’s my problem.

But, thinking about it after the fact, I see how I can use it in my plan. A good plan should have contingencies to account for the unexpected. This one does; I think I can use what happened to my advantage.

Terry has a dentist appointment and leaves school right before lunch. That means I eat alone in the cafeteria. I could sit with Terry’s friends whom I now know; they’ll be happy if I sit with them. I don’t; I sit alone instead. I know where Daryl and his friend Ryan sit. I sit where Daryl will see me. Sitting alone.

I watch them peripherally as they eat and talk. I kind of poke at my food and don’t eat it, knowing Daryl will see. He’s glancing at me all the time he’s speaking with Ryan. I wear a sad look on my face. Easy for me to pull that off; it was my default expression for years.

Yes! Daryl is coming over! I figured if he had an ounce of either compassion or empathy, he would. If he didn’t, then maybe I’d misjudged him. Maybe I wouldn’t want to be closer to him. But he’s coming over.

“Rob? Can I sit down?” He’s asking very tenuously. I like that. Usually he’s too sure of himself in a half-humorous way that just borders on cocky. Now he’s not acting like that at all.

I look up at him and hesitate. Then I nod and drop my eyes.

“Look,” he says, “I’m sorry. I guess what I said yesterday came off much meaner than it was supposed to. I think I hurt your feelings. I didn’t mean to. I was trying to be funny. Sometimes I try too hard.”

I continue looking at the table for a moment longer than etiquette would demand, then raise my eyes. “It was my fault as much as yours. I let words hurt me too much. Always have.”

I have more to say, the crux of my plan, actually, but think it’ll go better if this is a conversation rather than a speech.

“No, what I said wasn’t funny at all. The fact is, I’m a little jealous of how well you write, and maybe that jealousy ended up coming out in what I said. Can you forgive me? Can we just move past this?”

I hesitate again, then say, “You know, part of the problem is, we don’t know each other very well. I have an idea. How about this? We do these interviews, and then, when we think we’ve done all we want to do, we interview each other and print those up as well. Some soupy title like: Your interviewers interviewed. We should interview each other and learn more about each other, and then maybe we’ll understand each other better. Maybe you’ll see why I’m so thin-skinned, and I’ll see why you try to turn so many things into jokes, even when it isn’t appropriate. Maybe we’ll each become more sensitive to each other. What do you think? It would make a great last column in the series even if nothing else comes of it.”

I think I have him, because I think at this point, he’ll do most anything I suggest. And he does. He agrees.

“I think it would be best if we did this in a different venue,” I say, as though it’s just occurred to me and I’m kicking it out for approval. “I volunteer to the initial guinea pig. But it should be at my house. You can come and see where I live and interview me there, and then vice versa. We can maybe get a better idea of who each other is by seeing where they live. How does that sound?”

He will be coming to my house this afternoon after school. I’ll clear it with Terry, who’ll be unhappy about it but will understand. And my plan will be formally put into action.