Ventura Freeway


As we came back into the cottage, the first thing I noticed was that my pack had been moved from the couch, where I’d left it, to over just beside the door.

Bret came clattering down the stairs. “Aaron’s over at the Oates’ place,” he told us, breathless.

I looked at him quizzically.

“The Oates—Marti’s parents,” he explained. “Oh, sorry,” he added. “I moved your backpack. I was reading on the couch.”

Colby went upstairs to change.

Only then did I notice a dog-eared paperback propped open on the end table.

“When I saw my gear by the door,” I confessed to Bret, “I thought it meant Aaron was ready for me to leave right now. I mean, I realize I have to leave pretty soon anyway, but I …”

“Really?” Bret interrupted. “I thought you didn’t have a fixed plan.”

“I really like you guys,” I explained, crouching down to open my pack, “but I don’t want to crowd Aaron. It was nice of him to let me stay the night.”

“I think he likes having you here,” Bret said.

“I doubt it. He doesn’t look like it. Anyway, it’s my fault. I said something really stupid yesterday in the car that probably pissed him off.”


“You know, that crap about not being a ‘faggot.’” Afraid to see Bret’s reaction, I busied myself in pulling off my damp, smelly shirt and digging into my pack to find a clean one. When I looked up at Bret again, his face was a little flushed.

“So you don’t hate gay guys?” he grinned.

“That would be pretty stupid since I am one,” I said, forcing myself to meet his eyes. “I was scared to tell you yesterday ‘cause I didn’t know y’all.”

His soft-looking lips retreated to one side of his face, curving up in the shape of a new moon. “It’s OK. It’s not the kind of thing you should go around telling strangers. Hank told me he would always deny it unless he knew the person very well.”

Still on my knees, staring up at him, I felt like somebody—a knight maybe—prepared to ask a favor of his liege. Instead, I untied my sneakers. “Who’s Hank?” I asked, recalling that the last time I had asked this question the answer had been silence.

“Didn’t Colby tell you about him? He was my brother. He died on May 14th.”

“No! Nobody told me! What happened?”

“He stepped out in front of a speeding bus and got shredded.”

“Oh God, Bret! I had no idea. How old was he?”

“Twenty. Same as Colby. They were best friends.”

It was an accident, wasn’t it?”

Bret shook his head. “We can’t totally prove it, but accidents never happened to Hank. His whole life, he made everything come out just the way he wanted it.”

The suffering he must have been disguising until now straitened his face. He looked worn and bereft. Instinct urged me to pull him into my arms to comfort him, but I had no reason to believe he would want that, and anyway, I had just pulled off my shorts, which left me in nothing but a wet bathing suit.

“Why would he do that? Do you know?”

Bret made an equivocal face. “I guess I more or less know, but I don’t think I could put it into words. Maybe when I’m 100.”

“Did he mind being gay?”

“He wasn’t exactly gay. He did it with girls too. You could say he was both. And neither.”

“Sounds like he talked to you about stuff.”

Bret held silent. He glanced at me sideways. I could see he was deciding if he could trust me or not. “Can you keep a secret?” he asked after a few seconds.

“If it will help you.”

Bret walked over to where he could see up the stairs, as if he thought Colby might be standing up there listening. Then he came back, grabbed my forearm, leaned in, and whispered, “We did more than talk.”

He might as well have shoved a hand grenade in my mouth. I didn’t know which way to spit. “Shit! Did he hurt you?” I asked, backing up so I could get a good look at his face. “Bret! Did he make you do something you didn’t like?”

I hadn’t known Bret could look so somber and intent. For a second or two we just stared at each other. Then he half smiled. “You’re cute to get angry at Hank on my behalf. Especially since we just met. But you don’t know how Hank was with me. He was so protective that he makes these guys…”—he jerked his head toward the stairs to indicate, I understood, Colby and Aaron, even though Aaron was still out. “… he makes them look delinquent. Hank didn’t really trust anybody but me.”

“Colby said something really terrible had happened to you guys, but I didn’t realize it was life and death. I’ve never had to deal with anything like that. If I was in your shoes, I can’t imagine what state I’d be in. Probably not nearly as together as you are.”

“You don’t get much choice,” Bret said. “The sun still comes up in the morning, all intense and energetic… just as if the new day is gonna be filled with fun and adventure. It turns out you have your life all to yourself, whether you want it that way or not.” He paused to find words. “You imagine you’ll feel sad, and I do feel that,” he went on. “But more than anything else, I feel weird. I’m used to having to factor Hank into everything I do, but now I can’t. Nothing I do can touch him, ever again. I can’t get used to that.”

“What about the rest of your family?”

“It’s just Mom and Dad. They’re OK, but they have their own lives. Colby and Aaron know them. It’s why they’ve been so nice to me since Hank died. Colby always treated me like a younger brother, even when Hank was alive, and I’ve known Aaron since I was in 6th grade. Hank got him to tutor me. He’s been calling and sending me letters off and on since it happened, just to check how I’m doing.”

The screen door scraped open. As the handle of the inner door started to turn, Bret just had time to whisper, “Don’t say anything to Aaron.”

Needing to clean up and change gave me an excuse to get away from Bret and his unhappiness. I nodded to Aaron and Marti as they trooped in, then shut myself up in the bathroom. In the mirror, a stranger skulked—someone you might pass and never meet again. After a while, it occurred to me that I had wronged Aaron in thinking that he was taking advantage of Bret. He was probably just helping the guy through an incredibly ugly time. I began to wonder if Aaron might not be more innocent than Bret, even if he was four years older.

The night before, trying to get to sleep, I had heard a repetitive, rocking motion from upstairs and had indulged in the searing, jealous fantasy that it was the sound of Aaron despoiling Bret. This Victorian-sounding word that I had learned from Playboy Magazine didn’t conjure anatomical details for me; just the notion of longing, will, and a life-changing intimacy. When the rocking was interrupted, I could pick out their voices, but couldn’t tell what they were saying. In my heart I knew nothing like my fantasy was really going on. Most likely one of them was fidgeting in a rocking chair while they were talking.

And to be fair, if anyone had wanted to get all touchy-feely with Bret it was me. The minute I saw the three guys in the car, even before I knew they would stop, I wanted to get close to all of them.

“Nathan!” It sounded like Aaron had his mouth pressed right up against the bathroom door. He sounded uptight. Was he about to tell me it was time for me to head out? I quickly checked my reflection in the mirror, brushing my fingers through my hair so it would appear more casual, and sparking up my eyes as best I could. The clean T-shirt I had yanked on fit well: just snug enough to suggest the possibility of impressive deltoids. I pulled it straight and opened the door.

The instant I saw Aaron, I could sense that something had shifted. He looked almost fearful. There was something newly vulnerable in his face. I noticed for the first time a nearly invisible vertical line in each cheek that formed a tiny hollow. Like sadness dimples.

“We’re going out to lunch. Want to come?”

Over his shoulder, I caught a glimpse of Marti and Bret leaning against the kitchen counter. Maybe Marti had changed Aaron’s mind about me. She seemed to like me. Or maybe Colby or Bret had told him about my apology.

“Aaron, I don’t want to just barge in and take over your private life …” Hearing myself, I almost burst out laughing, so much that I couldn’t finish the sentence. Barging in and taking over Aaron’s private life, friends and all, appealed to me greatly. I had only even started this phony expression of concern about intruding on their lunch because, for the first time, I sensed that Aaron wasn’t ready to get rid of me.

“What’s the joke?” he asked, suspicious.

“Can I tell you later? I have something to apologize for, but I can’t say it right now. It’s kind of private.”

“It might not be as private as you think. I’ve already heard it from Colby, Bret, and Marti.”

“I didn’t say anything to Marti.”

“With Marti, you don’t need to. I thought you might be gay when I first saw you standing by the side of the road. And by the way you caught on fire when Bret slumped over on you in his sleep. Look, just be careful about Bret! He’s only sixteen and I’m responsible for him so I need to be sure you don’t mess with him. In any way. He’s had enough grief this year and he’s way too young to know what he’s dealing with.”

Hilarity and outrage fought in me. Aaron was so sure of Bret’s innocence! And how could he think I would hurt or trick him? All I wanted was to help Bret feel loved. No genius about relationships, I could still see, based on what Bret had just told me, that the way to win his trust and respect was not to try to rush him into bed. Anyhow, I had no confidence that he would be interested. Besides, I was taken. I could already picture Aaron and me walking down a Berkeley street late at night, holding hands and exchanging insights about the great books and ideas of the Western world. We’d share a pizza and then head back to Aaron’s dorm room where we’d sleep, like every night, tangled up together in his big, comfortable bed.

Unfortunately, Aaron couldn’t grasp this future. He seemed to envision me pressuring Bret into satisfying my selfish, momentary urges, unconcerned about the boy’s misgivings. Then I would probably just dump him.

I must have been staring into Aaron’s face with a look of bewilderment. He shifted now, seeming uneasy.

“Just don’t turn on the charm with Bret, okay? Or anybody else while he’s around.”

Too dumfounded to say anything, I nodded.

“That’s good,” he said, smiling slightly. He touched the sleeve of my T-shirt, sending currents of energy through the center of my body. “Let’s go.”

The screen door flung open and Colby thumped in, juggling a bunch of stuff he must have gathered up from the car. “It’s all ready,” he said.

The five of us piled into the Fairlane. Marti sat between Bret and me. I wanted to wrap an arm around her and ask her how she was doing, but I guessed that might be “turning on the charm” so I adopted a watchful silence instead, hands folded safely in my lap.

Marti, Colby, and Aaron did all the talking as the car bounced along the dirt road. This gave me time to sneak glances at Bret and wonder exactly how his mourning felt to him. If my sister died, God forbid, I knew I would feel upset and empty for a very long time—maybe forever. No one close to me had ever died, but when I was eleven and Alison was fifteen, our dad moved out. That was my closest experience to having someone die. In some ways, his leaving solved my problems: no more wondering what to do when he and my mom got into their shouting and shoving matches. Now I only saw him about twice a year. I could always call him on the phone, but what for? I didn’t really interest him. When we spoke now, it mostly concerned business arrangements. He would be paying all my expenses at Berkeley that weren’t covered by my scholarship.

Thinking of Dad made me realize that I could offer to pay for lunch for everyone. I owed them. But would Aaron interpret this as “turning on the charm,” like I was trying to buy everyone’s friendship?

The restaurant turned out to be one of these hyper-Californian places—all mung beans and sprouts. We sat outside. I had the chicken Waldorf salad, which they made without any mayonnaise.

Since Aaron ended up sitting next to me—I had chosen a place at the end on one side of the table and he presided at the head—I was able to lean over and whisper in his ear (cheap thrill for me!) that I’d like to pay.

He didn’t react well. I had my hand resting on his arm and I could feel him tense up when I said it, like a spasm of irritation. Guessing that he thought I was trying to show off, I whispered that if he wanted to he could pay and then I would pay him back later. The others wouldn’t have to know.

By way of annotation, I mouthed, “Maimonides,” and wiggled an eyebrow at him. Maimonides was a Jewish sage who thought to organize different kinds of charitable giving on a scale of increasing virtue. He taught that it was better to give anonymously than to let everybody know your good deed. It was one of the few things I recalled from ten years of Jewish Sunday school.

I was sure Aaron would recognize my allusion to this principle and thought he would like me for offering to follow it now. Instead a frustrated scowl crossed his face.

“Will you stop it!” he hissed, his teeth sharp and feral-looking against the warm, appealing background of his tongue.

My eyes started to sting, but I made myself smile. “I’m just trying to do my part.”

“When it’s time for you to do your part,” he sputtered near my ear, “I’ll tell you. Right now you need to relax and act like a guest. Please.”

It began to dawn on me that maybe Aaron and I just wouldn’t be able to get along. Everything about me seemed to make him angry. Okay, I told myself. My idyllic vision of our future life as lovers might not be all that well conceived. Even building on my solid, detailed, five-year foundation of daydreams and fantasies of what life with a boyfriend would be like, I couldn’t easily imagine Aaron’s attitude toward me turning worshipful and cherishing. Instead of drinking in my witty yet practical take on philosophy and other Berkeley subjects as we fed each other pizza, he would probably be criticizing my manners and telling me I didn’t know the first thing about whatever I was talking about. This vision of what our future would really hold if it ever got off the ground chewed the edge of my heart. Fortunately, I told myself primly, he isn’t the only boy in the world. As much as I wanted to join this crowd, maybe I needed to stop bothering them and move on before the gains I had made so far evaporated.

From the other end of the table, Colby had been exchanging heavy glances with Aaron. Now, as the waitress carried away the remains of our meal, his face brightened up and he began to speak, meeting all of our eyes in turn, but mainly focusing on Bret.