The skid of the car jolted my blood. Finally, something was happening.
Scooping up my backpack, I scampered along the road. I had to run a long way before the scent of baking asphalt and even the fresh Pacific breeze were overwhelmed by the idling car’s exhaust fumes.
Inside the sun-whitened Ford Fairlane waited the three guys whose unreadable faces had made me miss a breath as they sped by. The one in the back seat reached over and kicked the door open for me. He looked younger than me—maybe sixteen.
“Thanks for stopping!” I panted.
The driver was small but tough looking. I guessed he might be twenty. A mustache was starting on his lip—almost black like the short, tightly curled hair on his head. His skinny right arm rested on the back of the seat. As I climbed in, I glanced up his half sleeve, praying he wouldn’t notice me scoping out his wiry body.
He didn’t return my smile.
“Where you headed?”
“Berkeley?” I offered. “Or maybe I should just say anywhere but here.”
The guy nodded and put the car back in gear. His eyes didn’t yield anything. I pulled the door shut.
Orange-maned and shirtless, the front seat passenger loomed large. He had half turned around when I reached the car. Now, as we began to move, he offered a hand.
“I’m Colby,” he said, grinning to the eyes. His grip felt solid. With his pumpkin-colored hair and those prominent smile-lines, he looked like the kid on the Dutch Boy Paint can, recently inflated to manhood.
The air-conditioner wasn’t working very well, and with Colby’s arm extended I got a momentary whiff of sweat. On most men, perspiration smells furtive and nasty, but this guy wore his acridness like the flag. He held onto my hand a couple of seconds longer than I expected. By the time he let go, I was starting to get a bulge on.
“Fuckin’ hot enough for you?” the blond boy remarked across the back seat.
Though not nearly as beefy as Colby, this kid had that “regular guy” look that always spoke to me: the boy whose performance in sports and academics is just good enough not to attract attention. The guy everyone accepts because he was designed from birth to fit in.
He had a reasonably sweet jaw line and gray eyes that I wouldn’t have minded monopolizing. In my dreams! I was just beginning to groove on the way the afternoon sun lit up the fine blond hairs on his arms when he reached over to shake.
“Bret,” he croaked.
“Ray—uh, Roy,” I grunted, remembering too late the precise identity I had decided to give myself.
For three beats of silence, it almost seemed that my obvious slip would be allowed to pass. Then Bret and the driver both snickered.
“Son, I don’t think you can lie worth shit,” the driver observed. It surprised me that he would call me son when he was probably just a year or two older than me, but I found I didn’t mind. It made me feel I was in capable hands.
“What’s your name really?” he asked.
“Nathan,” I admitted.
“Where are you from, Nathan?” Bret asked, laughing.
“I didn’t pick it up until just then when you wrung that extra syllable out of your name.” Bret’s gray eyes smiled, so I didn’t so much mind him teasing me.
“I’m working on changing that, but it’s hard,” I told him. Actually, I had an ear for accents and after ten weeks in California I’d done an outstanding job of exorcizing mine, but I found that if I got upset and lost my cool my drawl would come ambling on back like an out-of-work cousin.
“Ahhhhhm,” Colby said, trying out my way of saying “I’m.” “Maybe you should keep it. Might help you pick up girls or something.”
What did he mean by ‘or something’?
“You don’t look like the typical Southern boy,” the driver remarked.
I didn’t say anything, hoping this line of questioning would die away if I didn’t feed it.
“From your name and looks, I’m guessing you could be a Jew,” he pursued.
Having been caught in one lie, I didn’t like to take a chance so soon on lying again, even though the next thing could be the three of them kicking me out of the car—or worse.
“Yeah, I am,” I admitted.
I thought I might as well go down with a sliver of my pride intact, though I knew it wasn’t safe to admit to being Jewish—especially out here in the sticks. To a lot of these folks, ‘Jew’ translated as ‘The Christ-killer.’
“Me too,” said the driver.
“I wouldn’t have guessed,” I responded carefully, in case he was luring me into a trap, but now I realized he had precisely the look I associated with Jewish boys. Quick dark eyes and a smug expression that said he considered himself God’s gift to the girls. Or to the planet. Like he had been petted and doted on so much as a kid that he believed himself smarter and more adorable than anyone else.
“You have more the look than I do,” he remarked. He glanced at me in the mirror. Meeting his hard, dark eyes made me sweat.
Colby turned around again and gave me the once over. “We can still call you Roy—or Ray—if you like,” he grinned.
I just snorted, working to project confidence.
“Why are you trying to be incognito?” Bret wanted to know.
“Believe me, no one is looking for me,” I swore. “It’s just that … I’ve decided to start everything over.”
“Nothing left to lose?” suggested the driver.
“You could say that,” I agreed, finally mustering my toughest, most nonchalant voice.
Except that that made me sound like somebody I wasn’t at all. Once again, I had lied. Why did I keep sabotaging myself? My stomach started to burn.
“Actually, I have plenty of stuff to lose,” I chirped out, surprising myself probably more than them.
No one responded, though the driver kind of twitched at my second reversal. A few moments of silence expanded into an eternity. This stretch of Southern California highway offered little stimulation, and neither did the music playing on the guy’s eight-track. I hadn’t slept much the night before and despite my best efforts I must have started to doze because all of a sudden I realized that Bret had gone to sleep and leaned his blondness rather heavily onto my shoulder till his hair was falling across my face. The second I felt it caress my left cheek, the blood started careening around my body.
I couldn’t stand to move away, but staying close to him like this was begging for trouble. I hoped the guys in the front seat weren’t watching us. I could feel Bret’s knee resting against mine, and as he softly snored his sweet breath was kind of licking up across my mouth. I struggled to banish all evidence of pleasure from my face. Committing myself to giving the appearance of being dead asleep, I really did nod off again. I felt like I was riding some kind of dolphin, sailing across the sea.
The car coming to a stop jogged me awake. Colby was leaned over, snickering and saying something in the driver’s ear. I jerked enough for Bret to wake up too. His arm grazed against mine as he moved away. The driver and Colby were laughing. Bret yawned and absently rubbed his eyes.
The driver offered me a handkerchief. “Here, you might want to use this,” he smirked.
Not understanding, I casually took it and mopped up the sweat on my temples and forehead. Even this late in the afternoon, the heat was strong. “Thanks.” I handed it back.
The driver narrowed his eyes and twisted his head as if his neck ached. “I thought you might use it to wipe off Bret’s drool.”
I quickly looked around, confused, then noticed a strange feeling at the top of my chest where my shirt spread open. I glanced down but it wasn’t a place I could see without a mirror.
Now wide-awake, Bret took a good look at me. His blush spread to his ears. So that no one would think I liked the idea of getting intimate with this boy and his bodily fluids, I forced a scowl.
“I’m sorry, man. I… ” Bret began.
“Forget it. It’s almost dry,” I lied, brushing my collar a little against my skin.
“God, I’m such a pathetic spaz!” Bret muttered, surprisingly angry at himself.
The driver reacted like somebody had slapped him.
“Don’t you ever say that!” he ordered the younger boy. “You’re Super Cool Bret, our favorite friend. You’re a major success. Am I right, Cole?”
Colby nodded soberly.
Wow! If only they would worry about my self-respect and conspire together to say encouraging things to me.
Now it wasn’t hard for me to look disgusted. Anyway, I craved for Bret to take pleasure in touching me, not disavow it.
“Don’t worry, Bret. I think this fellow loved it. You gave him the thrill of his life and you weren’t even awake.”
The driver had the balls to say this and glance right at me, his gaze still maddeningly unrevealing. The guy wielded his intuitive grasp of my weaknesses like a futuristic weapon.
I must have looked like I had smeared my face with watermelon. Red and dripping. “What are you talking about?” I barked, sullen.
“I’m thinking maybe you’re the kind of guy who needs to have everybody drooling over him all the time.”
Hold it! Had my feelings announced themselves that clearly? And why was he turning on me this way, when all I wanted was to reach over the seat, pull him toward me, and circle his fierce black eyes with soft little kisses? I couldn’t think clearly because somebody was pounding on a tom-tom—no, wait, that was my heart.
The driver was staring at me like he had my number. Somewhere in the back of my mind I registered that Colby had twisted most of the way around in his seat, unhappy about what was going down.
I made myself stare defiantly back at the driver. His kissable mouth was set, but his hard, dark eyes shone like they were laughing at me. “I’m no faggot,” I gasped, barely able to breathe.
If the driver had looked uptight before, now he seemed absolutely stricken. Did he somehow want me to be gay? And anyway, why did I volunteer such a major lie? Boys dominated my thoughts from morning till night. Boys in general and getting a boyfriend in particular.
Colby cleared his throat. “You guys calm down! Nobody’s trying to start anything. We’re all just hot and tired.”
Bret’s frightened eyes and tensed jaw relaxed a little. The driver seemed to hesitate, maybe wondering if he should lower his guard.
“Nathan,” Colby said. “When do you have to be in Berkeley?”
“When I get there. Well, by the time school starts, in about two weeks.”
“By the time school starts,” Colby echoed, emphasizing the words as if they confirmed some opinion about me he had long held. “What year are you going to be?”
“So you don’t have to be there today.”
I looked at my watch. 5:30. “I don’t think there’s much chance I’m gonna get there today.”
Colby gave the driver a long look. His friend shrugged, smoothed out the handkerchief, and stuffed it back into the pocket of his shorts. Something outside of the car caught my attention. The highway had disappeared. We were idling on a narrow dirt road beside a field.
“Uh, where are we?” I couldn’t quite keep the nervousness out of my voice.
Bret looked around too, curious. Despite everything, my body ached for him to lean into me again. Being with these guys scared and excited me both. If only they would be my friends! If only they were gay. I really needed some friends.
“You said no one was looking for you, right?” the driver commented slyly.
Determined not to lie anymore, I nodded.
“That’s good,” he said, smiling broadly at me for the first time. For some reason, he now exuded such enthusiasm about me that he even nodded twice. “That’s really good,” he went on, “because we’re gonna take you out here in the woods and kill you.”
I could see a quarter smile around the Raggedy Andy curl tucked behind Colby’s right ear. Bret was looking out the window. He grinned but wouldn’t meet my anxious gaze. The car started forward again, veering suddenly into a narrow side lane that wound into the trees.
“Shit,” I whispered to no one in particular. I didn’t really think they would kill me, but where were we going? After bumping along for a long time, we pulled up at an old wooden cottage. The motor died. The driver jumped out, came around behind the car, and wrenched my door open.
“Come on,” he said, yanking me out. “You can stay with us here tonight, and I promise we won’t start tearing your guts out until at least tomorrow.”
Even though my stomach was turning flips, I liked how firmly he was holding my upper arm. I grabbed my pack and went with him.
The place had two stories. While Bret and Colby took their gear upstairs, the driver set me up with a pile of linens on the sofa bed downstairs.
“I don’t mean to be a jerk or anything,” he told me, “but I need you to stay downstairs while you’re here. I’m sure you’re cool—you’ve made that plain enough,” he sniffed, rolling his eyes, “but it’s a house rule. Nobody goes upstairs until my folks have met them.”
So it belonged to his family. No wonder he seemed to be in charge of everything.
“Uh, thanks for having me here. I’ll try not to steal very much,” I remarked, hoping to make him ashamed. “If I knew your name, I could thank you more properly.”
For some reason, it rocked me—hearing his name. I wanted all three boys to like me, but especially him, maybe because he stood as the leader.
“Well thanks, Aaron,” I said, reaching out and shaking his hand. My energy really picked up when our hands touched. The suspicious attitude he was taking toward me, probably because he suspected me of being gay, was starting to make me frantic. He wasn’t as sweet as Bret or as warm as Colby, but something about him—maybe his quickness and confidence—made him incredibly desirable.
“If you want to take a shower or anything, you can use that bathroom,” he said, pointing. “I’ll be back down after a while and see about getting us some dinner.”
He took the stairs two at a time and didn’t look back to see me staring after him.