Ventura Freeway


“I can start,” Marti proposed. “Hank was a born athlete—and a daredevil. He looked a lot like Bret—blond and handsome. But Hank worried more about his looks. You could tell from how he dressed and even how he held himself. Bret is more natural. Hank kind of worked at it, and, well, he also worked it.”

Colby laughed. Bret looked embarrassed. Maybe he wasn’t used to being called handsome (though I’d have called him that several times a day if I thought I could). What I’m sure he didn’t grasp was that Marti had just succeeded in tipping me off, without saying it in so many words, that Hank was the better-looking brother.

“What sports did he play?”

As everyone chorused in with a different answer, I tuned out for a minute, realizing that I had probably never asked this question about anyone in my whole life. In high school, I carefully avoided talk of athletics. In this group, somehow, I felt less intimidated. From what they were saying, it seemed like Hank had tried all the major sports and ended up focused on football and diving.

“What else did he do that was daredevil besides diving?” I asked.

“Diving isn’t necessarily daredevil,” Aaron contended.

“It is to me. But then I’m scared of pretty much everything. Especially diving.”

“Hank was scared of it too,” Bret piped up. “I hung around him a lot the summer that he started to get serious about diving. I was twelve, and he was sixteen. We would go to Oak Lake, this country club that Mom and Dad had joined. They had two pools—one with a high diving board. Hank was so scared of heights that every time before he climbed up to dive his hands would be shaking. He showed me. Once he got to the top, though, he’d stroll out like he felt completely at ease up there, but it was an act. He was really a hundred percent terrified. I’d be watching from the shallow end of the pool, and he’d shoot me this huge, loony grin.

“He’d go up on his toes, almost like a ballet dancer, and flex his knees before starting into his bounce. I think he’d done some diving the year before at summer camp, but it seemed like he was doing more than just repeating what he had learned. I had to watch really carefully, because he would ask me questions afterward about how it looked. If he screwed up a dive, it would piss him off and he would go again and again until it turned into something right. But sometimes, when he knew it had gone perfectly, he would shoot through the water over to where I was, swim under me and stand up with me sitting on his shoulders. He’d come up out of the pool like that, holding on to my legs really tight. He clung on partly to protect me from falling, but also because he would still be feeling shaky and needed something to grab onto. He told me that once.

“All these sexy girls would be around the pool, sunning themselves. They were the reason he dove. Hank would saunter around the pool with me, this little twerp, on his shoulders, flirting with the ones he thought were prettiest. After a while, if a girl spoke to me, he’d say, ‘Bret, you lazy bum, why don’t you stand on your own two feet?’ We had worked out this cool way for me to get down. He’d duck his head and I’d push off his shoulders. I’d twist around and slide down until he had me kind of resting over one hip and could set me on the ground. We’d practiced it at home till we had it smooth.

“Twice he arranged for us to go on double dates with sisters we met at the pool that were our same ages. I’ve still never had a girl throw herself at me like the second one of those. It looked like she thought I was gonna be the next Hank.”

“A lot of girls are gonna be interested in you,” Marti told him.

“Did you see the girl again?” Aaron asked.

“School started up and since she lived out in Sherman Oaks we never crossed paths.”

“Hank had a car, though. Did he see the sister any more?”

“I think he might have seen her one more time.”

Marti and Aaron exchanged glances. “I know a girl that met him at that club,” Marti said. “Her name was Brenda.”

Bret shrugged. He didn’t remember her.

“Brenda said she and Hank went out several times,” Marti continued. “She said he was like the perfect boy—not just his looks and manners but in the way he would talk to a girl as if she were the only one in the world. He really listened and a week later he might bring up something she had said.”

Something in Marti’s tone clued me that we had arrived at one of Hank’s negative traits, maybe one that Aaron saw in me.

“Bring up how?” I asked.

“He would just bring it back into the conversation when it was relevant,” Marti explained.

“What’s wrong with that?”

Colby shifted impatiently in his chair. “Nothing’s wrong with it,” he said. “It’s just that girls would think Hank was putting on an act because he gave them his full attention when he took them on a date, but later when they were out of sight he forgot about them.”

“Why did he do that?”

Colby made a helpless face. “He used to say that he could just tell it wouldn’t work out. Maybe him believing that made it true.”

“He didn’t like people to crowd him. He said that a lot,” Bret put in quietly.

“But then why did he come on so strong in the first place?” Aaron objected.

Colby and Marti looked at each other as if they had discussed this subject before.

“I doubt he set out to jerk you around,” Marti said.

“I think he got panicked,” Colby added.

“Wait—do you mean … ?” I stammered.

Aaron showed his teeth. “I mean Hank told me he loved me and I believed him. Then the next week, when we were back in LA, he just brushed me off with no explanation.”

I had been 99% sure that Aaron was gay and open about it with his friends, but now finally he had confirmed it. A bunch of muscles in my chest started to relax. I had never expected that when I finally got to meet an openly gay boy he would be as intelligent and sure of himself as Aaron. The one gay guy I’d met in LA seemed even more freaked out and scared than me.

“You brought him up here?” I said, remembering that Marti had told me this.

Aaron nodded. “At spring break. He called me at school last winter. Said he was coming to Berkeley and wanted to see me. He only had an afternoon in Berkeley and I showed him around the campus. It turned out he had heard that I’d come out. He asked if I would go out with him. We decided to meet in LA at spring break, which was a couple of weeks away. When the time came, we were getting along so well together that I invited him to come up here.

“We stayed up here for three days. It was idyllic. He was incredibly romantic and made me feel that I was perfect for him. Then after we got back to LA, he wouldn’t even return my calls. The one time he did speak to me he wriggled away from every question I asked and rushed me off the phone. After that I literally never heard from him again. I guess he decided I wasn’t what he wanted after all.”

“Aaron,” I said as gently as I could. “Don’t you feel like maybe getting crushed under a bus is sufficient punishment?”

I’d figured out that Aaron held me responsible for what had happened, since Hank and I apparently resembled each other so much—not physically but in our character.

Aaron didn’t say anything. He just looked at me, eyes moaning like a saxophone.

“Aaron doesn’t want to punish Hank,” Colby explained. “He wants him back.”

“No I don’t!” Aaron exploded. “Not in that way.”

We were talking about Hank, but it felt as if Aaron was rejecting me.

Colby, noticing my face, made a placating motion. “What he means,” he said to me, “is that he wants to understand. We all do. We all just wish everything hadn’t turned out like this.”

“Have you ever been like that?” Aaron asked me, serious.

I welcomed the chance to distinguish myself from Hank. “What do you mean?” I sputtered. “Like what? I’ve never even gone on a date!”

“Even with a girl?” Marti asked.

“Oh, sure with girls, lots of times.”

Marti and Aaron shared another glance.

“What?” I cried. “What have I done now?” It occurred to me that I had just admitted that for me girls didn’t count.

“You haven’t done anything, probably,” Marti said. “I was just wondering how many girls’ hearts you broke in high school.”

“I doubt I broke any,” I asserted. “Well… maybe one. I certainly didn’t try to do it. It’s not my fault if I’m not straight. In the end I told her the truth.”

“That’s not the point. Did you make her think you loved her?” Marti insisted. “If you don’t mind my asking.”

“I do mind, and I did love her. I think I always will. I just can’t love her that way.”

“But you waited to tell her and by then she had her heart set on having you as her boyfriend.”

I sighed and nodded, looking away.

“Thank you,” Marti said. “We girls don’t get very many chances to ask about things like that.”

The way she said it made me wonder if she had had a crush on a gay guy herself.

“Did you sleep with her?” Aaron asked.

Bret reared back in his chair, his eyes wide. “Why are you clawing this guy apart?” he cried angrily. “He already said he’s not proud of hurting the girl.”

“He’s doing it because he’s interested in me himself,” I explained to Bret. It was just a hypothesis, but it made sense to me. I didn’t quite dare to look at Aaron.

“You’ve got that right,” Bret said, agitated. “You should have heard the lovesick moan he made when we first saw you standing on the roadside. He’d just been saying how he wished he could finally meet a guy who was right for him, and then we came up over that rise and you were standing there with your thumb out and he made this ‘mmmm’ sound like a guy makes when he sees something he really wants—a new Camero or …”

Bret’s recitation was interrupted by the sound of Aaron’s chair scraping back from the table. In the time it took Aaron to dodge around Marti’s chair, Bret had leapt up and thrown himself around an empty table nearby.

“Mmmm,” he moaned out between giggles, taunting Aaron even as he zigzagged back toward the gate that led out to the street.

“Look at that boy!” Bret cooed, clearly mimicking what he remembered Aaron saying, or maybe just what he imagined Aaron to have thought. He escaped out the gate, disappearing behind the wall.

By this time we had all gotten up and everyone but Aaron was laughing. “I’m gonna kill that little shit,” Aaron swore.

I felt so much better. Aaron liked my looks—at least he had yesterday, at a distance. I estimated that Aaron was 60% upset and 40% relieved to have his potential interest in me more out in the open.

“You can’t kill your ‘favorite friend,’” I teased, recalling what he had said to Bret in the car.

Colby looked nauseous. Had I said something wrong yet again? Too late it occurred to me that Aaron and Colby might both feel somehow responsible for Hank’s suicide. “Let’s go find Bret,” Colby said to Marti.

It was just like him to know to leave us alone, and to finesse it so Marti would go with him.

After they wandered out, I finally felt safe to face Aaron. His aura of smug perfection showed signs of compromise. A hint of sweat even dampened his forehead.

“I’m loyal to my friends,” he remarked, as if telling me who he was.

“I believe you. But I also think you’re more careful than most people about making friends.”

Aaron looked away and then back at me. “You have to understand. What happened with Hank and me, I can’t go through something like that again. And even though you’ve turned up, I hardly know anything about you. Plus you’re young.”

“I still don’t understand why you think I have to be another Hank.”

His dark eyes met mine for a second then slunk away. “It’s better for both of us if I don’t explain it,” he said.

“Do anyway.” I waited.

“Your wanting to pay for the lunch while letting everyone think I paid is an example.”

“What about it?”

“Have you ever done that before when you went out with people?”


“Well don’t you see?” Aaron whined. His dark eyes begged me to let it drop.

“I’m sorry, but I really don’t see.”

He looked off to one side, as if for inspiration.

“If something’s too good to be true, it’s because it’s false. Hank was false. He would say and do whatever he thought the person he was with wanted, but only for a while, and then he dumped them.”

“I don’t think I’m like that. I want you to like me. I want to be your friend. At least. So naturally, I’m trying to be nice.”

Aaron’s face changed when I said ‘at least.’ I felt encouraged to get a reaction. Hopefully, I was finally getting through to him.

“Have you thought about the fact that when you get to Berkeley there will be a pack of guys interested in you?”

“I doubt that.”

“They will be.”

“Because they’ve swarmed around you?”

“No one’s swarmed around me,” Aaron said coldly.

“I don’t see why not.”

He tried not to react to this, but an edge of his pleasure peeked through.

“I still don’t understand what you’re so worried about,” I pressed.

I dreaded to have my pride flattened, but I couldn’t let it go.

“You do stuff that’s too good to last,” he said. “There’s no percentage in that. Let people see what you’re like every day, not just when you’re making a special effort to get them in your power.”

Aaron saw me as having power? At last he was treating me as an equal, as a human adult instead of a badly behaved child or some lumbering, destructive animal.