Ventura Freeway


Now Colby’s hand rested against the middle of my back, guiding me. We were headed to a lake that he had said at breakfast he wanted to show me. I suspected that he had been assigned to get me out of the cottage so that Aaron could be alone with Bret. Could something be going on between them? All I had done was catch Bret’s eye a few times at dinner and share a grin or two. From the way Aaron glowered at me, you would have thought he believed I was carrying a contagious, life-threatening disease.

“Are you excited about starting at Berkeley?” Colby asked.

“I guess. I haven’t seen the place yet.” I felt he was managing me, patronizing. He probably thought of me as an awkward kid.

I would have given a lot to be as comfortable in my skin as Colby. Being a ruggedly attractive sports star and a total brain probably helped. I had learned at dinner that he played on the basketball team at Stanford. And not being gay. A girl named Stephanie had repeatedly been mentioned in connection with Colby’s plans and activities. Thankfully, at least, no special friend—girl or boy—had been named so far in relation to Aaron.

“Berkeley is really a cool place. A lot more alive and interesting than Palo Alto. Do you know what you want to study?”

I shrugged. This was getting to be like a conversation with somebody’s father.

“Aaron might be able to help you with that. He’s already taken a shitload of different courses, sort of testing everything out.”

When it had come out at dinner that Aaron was enrolled at Berkeley—he would be a junior this year—I started shaking with silent laughter and couldn’t stop. This fact fit so perfectly with the lie I had told my uncle and aunt in Orange County where I had spent the summer: that I was riding up to Berkeley with some friends who studied there! In reality, I had just wanted a few days on my own when I wouldn’t be under adult supervision.

Not being able to stop laughing happened when I was nervous. After the way Aaron reacted in the car and how Marti asked how long I’d been “with” him, I was starting to believe that he might be gay. The idea that something might possibly start here between us and continue at school was incredibly exciting, but it also raised the stakes a lot. At first my jittery laughter at dinner had been okay—Marti, Colby, and Aaron were trying to top each other by telling Bret funny stories about the teachers at Torrance High—but when I still couldn’t quit even after the conversation moved on to other things, I think Aaron started to think I was laughing at him, as if I found him pompous and preposterous when in fact I thought he was very appealing, if also intimidating.

“Did any of the courses rise to Aaron’s standard?” I asked, not trying to hide my irony.

It weighed on me, being constantly under probation with Aaron. I could see that he had only invited me to stay the night because Colby wanted him to.

I had developed a theory. Colby seemed like a socially oriented person. He probably made it a practice to avoid “three’s-a-crowd” situations. That probably explained why they had picked me up from the side of the road. If Colby had known that Marti would be staying at her family’s place nearby, he probably wouldn’t have leaned on Aaron to include me. I would have rotted and died in the grass beside the roadway, or some middle-aged pervert with beef broth breath would have snatched me up, and by the time I realized that I had blundered into the wrong hands, my opportunity to escape would have passed.

Colby’s voice returned me to the reality of my relatively good fortune. I was camped with these guys that I actually wanted to know.

“It takes a while to understand Aaron. You shouldn’t think that he has a fixed idea of what he’s looking for. He just wants to make sense of the new things that he encounters. And like anybody, he doesn’t want to get his hopes up too high and then be disappointed.”

Was he talking about Aaron’s course selection strategy, or by any chance was he referring to me—to Aaron and me? Colby had expressed himself vaguely enough that I could have taken it either way. Unfortunately, I hadn’t seen much sign of Aaron having hopes about me, other than the hope that I would soon go away.

Or maybe Colby meant to point out the contrast between Aaron and me. Despite my lie in the car about my sexual orientation, someone who took as much interest in people as Colby did had probably detected how much Aaron fascinated me. At dinner and again at breakfast, I could barely look at Aaron because every time I did, I felt my face starting to color. Colby must have noticed. Maybe he was warning me not to get my hopes up about earning Aaron’s attention and affection. Despite the evidence, I hung on to that desire because, whether or not Aaron turned out to be gay, he seemed to have a lot of the qualities I wanted to develop in myself. He was smart and sexy. Confident. He trusted his own feelings. His discernment penetrated right through the lies and pretensions of people like me. Also, he didn’t blurt out embarrassing things that he would then have to figure out how to take back.

We had been climbing for a long while now. Every time I thought we had surely reached the top, a twist in the path revealed another rise. Finally our way through the trees started to slope downward. Ahead, I glimpsed open space and water. Following Colby’s lead, I ducked under the low branch of a tree and started the descent. The ground became rocky until, before long, we reached the lake’s edge.

The scent of eucalyptus combined here with fresher air that came off the lake. We stood on a rock that protruded into the water. Far to the left, where the lake widened out, the water turned bluer. I couldn’t tell how big the whole thing was because the larger part of the lake curved out of sight.

“What do you think?” Colby asked, shaping his tone to be as neutral as possible.

A pair of black birds swooped down and landed for a moment on a big rock that rose out of the water in the middle distance. The movement of the lake made quiet lapping sounds. Apart from the whine of what must have been a motorboat someplace, I saw no sign of other people.

To be in such a beautiful, unwrecked setting with this St. Bernard of a guy fell so far outside my normal experience that I worried I might spoil it by grabbing his hand and making an incoherent, maudlin speech of thanks. Instead, I darted a quick glance at Colby and rolled my eyes, trying to convey a wry protest at his unnecessary solicitousness.

“You don’t like it?” he cried, surprised and disappointed.

That he cared so much about what I thought pleased me to the point that I had to swallow before I could answer. “I love it! Anybody would love it. It’s beautiful. I was just making fun of you for thinking that I wouldn’t.”

He turned sunny again. Stepping a little closer, he kind of butted his arm against my shoulder. Then we stood in silence, not touching and not talking for a while.

“You’re the one who made Aaron stop to pick me up, aren’t you?” I said.

Colby looked away. “It was a group decision,” he replied after a moment. “Ready for a swim?”

I tried not to feel nervous. If he wanted to swim all the way down to the larger part of the lake, I knew I would never be able to do it. “Where would we swim to?”

“We can just splash around near the shore, if you want,” Colby said, evidently guessing at the reason for my question. “Or we could swim out to that rock and soak up some rays.” He pointed to the rock where the birds had landed.

Relieved, I confessed that I had thought he might want to go a lot farther. I pointed to the most distant shore, way off to the left.

“You can swim over there if you want,” Colby said, his copper-green eyes big and humorous. “And when you reach the beach, it would be a nice gesture if you would let the lifeguard know which part of the lake they should drag to recover my sunken, lifeless body. Because there’s no way I could make it that far. That’s got to be a mile and a half.”

His wry joke made me like him still more, but I also thought, “Maybe you can’t swim that far, but don’t try to deny what a total jock you are.”

Guys like Colby were a different species from me. I could like them, but I knew they would never understand how it ached to be me. Physical challenges could sometimes bring me pleasure if I was allowed to meet them alone—truly alone—but joining with other boys in any activity, even one I normally excelled at, fricasseed my nerves. To participate in a competitive team sport like basketball ripped me completely apart, disabling all coordination and rendering logical thought impossible. Every high school PE class had turned me into a trembling chipmunk.

Colby and I had both worn our bathing suits under our shorts, so it only took us a minute to get ready to go in. I led the way, climbing down into the shallows, wading, and then swimming out to the big rock. Once we climbed up, we had to sit up hugging our knees because the ridges on the rock made it impossible to lie flat.

Colby asked me to tell him about my life back in Georgia.

“Nothing ever happened to me back there.”

“What would have been an example of something happening?”

“Getting laid?” I proposed. “Falling in love? Skydiving without a parachute. Taking a ride with NASA. Having friends like you and Aaron and Bret are friends. Being pulled by a dogsled across Canada in the summer with my shirt off. Actually, that would be part of making an ad for designer sunglasses.”

“The dogs would be wearing sunglasses?” Colby asked.

“Yes,” I said, trying not to smile. “The dogs would be wearing sunglasses, but I’m the one who would be paid a ton of money.”

“Did you really not have friends in high school?” Colby wanted to know.

“I had girlfriends—friends who were girls—but not guy friends like y’all are to each other. Well, I had friends like that up until the seventh grade. But after that they all kind of wandered off.”

“Did you turn into an asshole or something?”

What kind of question was this? I wasn’t an asshole. Or was I? Being in such a totally new situation made it easier for me to really consider this probing question. “I wasn’t an asshole,” I declared eventually, “but I probably made it pretty much impossible for most people to be my friend.”

“I think that’s the definition of being an asshole,” Colby remarked.

You’ve never been an asshole—I can tell that and I’ve only known you about 20 hours.”

“Yeah, except for the fact that I pretty much ki…” He trailed off, turned away, murmuring something to himself that I couldn’t hear. I could almost swear that he was going to say he had pretty much killed somebody, but obviously that was unlikely.

“There’s a reason that Aaron and Bret and I are here right now,” he said.

The urgency in his voice disturbed me. Whatever they were up to, it seemed that Colby had trouble talking about it. I hoped it didn’t have anything to do with Aaron and Bret coupling up. The kid was too young. I didn’t even know if Bret was gay, but he certainly seemed to idolize Aaron. I let the silence go on, hoping Colby would offer a clue.

“I don’t want to say too much,” he finally confided, “but we’ve been through a really hard time these last few months—me and Aaron and Bret. Especially Bret. So what looks to you like great friendships… We are friends. I care about these guys. But the intensity is on account of this bad thing that happened that we’re still trying to figure out. I mean—we’ve known each other since ninth grade. Bret was in elementary school. That’s true. But we haven’t always been this wrapped up with each other.”

I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, and immediately I wasn’t sure I wanted to find out. Colby was peering at me like he expected me to say something. But what could I say to the heavy layer of unidentified trouble he had spread? I abruptly recalled that I was a kid fresh out of high school who didn’t have any friends and hadn’t even resolved how to come out to his own family. It was only ten weeks since I had left home for the first time, at the beginning of June.

“I’d like to help you guys if I could,” I divulged cautiously, “‘cause you’ve really been generous to me. Especially you. Well, and Aaron. Even Bret.” I was thinking about Bret leaning into me in his sleep. He had already trusted me! And then how he had grinned at me at dinner. In high school, I would have sold my soul to have an accepted, average guy like Bret take to me that way. Those guys had always ignored me unless it was to harass me about something.

“You are helping,” Colby said. He clearly enjoyed the surprise with which I greeted this comment. “You’re already helping, and you can help more just by being who you are.”

His goodness and sincerity unlatched something in me. “You mean like my famous, crowd-pleasing, ‘I am not a faggot speech’?” I spat out.

It was either break down the wall I hid behind or never reveal myself at all. If I wanted a chance to make these people my friends, I had to prove myself willing to pay the price—I had to risk. My face turned so red so fast that I thought I would lose consciousness from the circulatory vacuum in my brain. Even with my eyes cast down onto the rock, everything seemed to be swirling around me. Only after this private whirlwind finally began to slow could I glance up at Colby.

“What about it?” he said.

“I may not exactly be a faggot,” I said hoarsely, “but I am gay. I think you probably know it.”

“I didn’t know it for sure, but I thought you might be.” I still felt like I was spinning around, so his voice seemed to cycle in and out of range.

“You’re only the second person I’ve ever said it to—well, unless you count a guy I met in the parking lot of a gay bar this summer.”

“How did it feel?”

“How did what feel?”

“How did it feel saying it just now? I’m not asking you how it felt making it with some guy you picked up in a bar!”

“I never got into the bar. I was still under age. And I didn’t make it with that guy—well, not to much of an extent. Neither of us had a place to go other than the backseat of his car.”

Colby grimaced, registering, perhaps, that my life so far hadn’t had much profile, but since he didn’t make any comment I was compelled to soldier on.

“How did it feel saying it to you? It felt okay.” (Other than the premonition that I might throw up any second.) “Pretty good, I guess. Because I think I can trust you. I can tell you’re a decent person.”

“Except when I’m a complete asshole,” Colby sighed. “Let’s start back, huh? I’m getting hungry.”

It felt good, swimming back to shore with Colby. He let me set the pace. Every time I turned my head to breathe, there he was, swimming right alongside me. We got most of the way back to the house, without more than a half dozen sentences passing between us.

When we came out on the dirt road that led to Aaron’s family’s cottage, I said, “You ought to become a guidance counselor or something. A psychologist.”

Colby looked pleased and embarrassed at the same time.

“Why do you say that?”

“I think you have a knack for making people feel better.”

He brightened, then, abruptly, his glow dimmed. “Thanks, but I’ve been known to fail. Colossally. I used to think I understood people, but lately they seem mysterious and unpredictable.”

Wanting to lighten his mood, I grabbed his shoulders (which felt surprisingly high and bulky), shot him what I hoped was a weird, unexpected look, and intoned, “Gah-ruba. Gahruba ulelee!”

He pushed me away, his lips twisted to a lazy smirk. “That wasn’t even slightly mysterious. I knew you were gonna do something like that. Anyway, don’t go ape-shit on me. I’d much rather we just understood each other.”