Ventura Freeway


The next day, at breakfast, Colby said he and Bret were hiking up to the lake. They didn’t invite me, so I guessed that Aaron must have asked them to leave us alone. That made me feel extremely nervous. With Aaron, it was so easy to slip and say the wrong thing.

About twenty minutes after they left, he came downstairs and sprawled out on the couch that had my bed folded up inside it. Like the night before, he was wearing his glasses, instead of contacts.

“So what do you want to talk about?” he yawned, his half-closed eyes screaming, “I’m blasé!” in case I didn’t pick it up from his supine posture. He wore only a T-shirt and shorts. As he spoke, his bare feet mauled the pillow that I’d been using to sleep on. At least his feet looked clean! He kept grabbing the pillow with the toes of one foot and grinding it into the other ankle.

I perched at the front edge of a nearby chair, trusting that my upright pose would be seen as evidence of responsibility and maturity. “Can I ask you some questions?” I began.

He nodded.

“Um, how old were you when you first realized you were gay?” I imagined that he might respond well to a logical, sequential approach to getting better acquainted.

He didn’t answer. Instead, he shifted around on the couch, seeming really twitchy.

“When you get to Berkeley and start going to the meetings of the Gay Students Union, you’ll participate in rap groups where they ask questions like that. They’ll also ask you to tell how you came out to your parents, or if you didn’t do it yet, how you plan to.”

Man! All I did was ask him a simple question and instead of answering he has to call attention to my lack of imagination and to how far behind him I am in my development as a gay boy. If he was going to pull rank on me like this, I really didn’t have a chance. I felt an almost compelling urge to grab his pretty little feet and drag him around the room, like Achilles with Hector’s corpse.

He must have seen me wince, because he added: “But I should answer the question. I guess I first knew I was gay when…”

“Never mind! Don’t answer,” I interrupted, determined somehow to spark a better dynamic between us. “It’s not what I want to know anyway. Let me see if I can ask something closer to what I really want to know.”

I searched his face for clues. The dark, nearly black, hair that curled so tightly to his head as if it didn’t care to touch anyone else. The stubborn, determined brow. The black eyes that seemed to retreat, rather than reaching out with information. The barely perceptible hollows in his cheeks that suggested he could be hurt. Had been hurt. The firm, prominent nose—smaller than mine, but dividing his face like the wall in his mind that seemed to divide what he believed to be solid and acceptable from what he judged dubious and unworthy. The slightly pouting mouth that a million girls since the sixth grade must have wanted to kiss—the door to that place where his confident, smart, articulate words emanated from. If I could just get my tongue in there, I thought whimsically, some of his authority and persuasiveness might rub off onto me.

Time to take a stab.

“How do you keep from being angry all the time—at the people who make it so hard for us?—so hard to be gay? How do you keep from hating them? Or if it’s not anger, how do you fend off contempt? I care about people too much to just dismiss everybody. I don’t know how it is here, but where I come from, I never met a single person who had anything positive to say about being gay.” I started out meeting his eyes, but that distracted me—there was too much fierce energy—so I looked away. I glanced back in time to see him grab the pillow with his top foot and pass it casually, like a chimpanzee might, up to his hand. He pulled it into his lap.

“Who knows what other people really think?” he commented. “A lot of them couldn’t tell you if you asked them. And most of them probably deserve contempt. I think you’re a lot more charitable toward people than I am.”

“I don’t believe that. You picked me up from the side of the road,” I argued. “You brought me to your family’s home and made me welcome here. More or less.”

He smirked, embarrassed, I hoped, at the “more or less.”

“It’s two days later,” I went on, “and I’m still here. In my whole life, I don’t remember that I ever went that far for a stranger.”

I was looking into his eyes again, even though it made me feel light-headed. I had never talked like this with a guy. It wasn’t only the subject matter. High school boys don’t hold eye contact with each other because it seems too gay. But now I was having a conversation with a boy who publicly owned his gayness, and on account of it my body was firing off pinwheels and sparklers. I could definitely have used a pillow to hold over my lap, but I didn’t have one, so I just sat up straighter and hoped it wasn’t obvious how much it was priming my pump to talk this way with him.

If anything, he now looked even more embarrassed. “Don’t give me too much credit,” he said. “To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have invited you back to the cottage if Colby and Bret hadn’t been along. Or if I had, I’m pretty sure we would have both regretted it.”

I thought I knew what his sheepish grin meant. He meant we would have had sex without getting to know each other and then we would have felt ripped off and wanted to get apart. That’s how I felt after being mashed flat by that boy in his car behind the bar in Garden Grove. I never did call the phone number he gave me, even though he wasn’t that bad looking. Our short time together felt like mutual abuse.

I needed to do something more aggressive now. I stood up. “Move your feet.” He pulled his knees up and I sat at the far end of the couch from him, angling sideways enough to keep eye contact. “Aaron, are you willing to tell me what really happened with Hank? I know you think it’s relevant, but it’s not fair because you haven’t told me the whole story.”

He closed his eyes. What would those fugitive hollows in his cheeks feel like to touch?

“It’s hard to talk about,” I heard him say.

His feet lay near me on the couch. I grabbed one in each hand and pulled them into my lap. “Start at the beginning and just tell me how it was.” Having his feet in my hands felt so amazing that I couldn’t let go. I wondered if I could get away with caressing them.

He gave them both a little jerk. “Nathan, I really don’t want to have sex with you today,” he asserted.

The fact that he considered this even a theoretical possibility shocked and delighted me, and that would probably be my thrill for the day. I hoped he wouldn’t feel my hands trembling. I didn’t let go of his feet.

“Nothing like that’s gonna happen,” I assured him. “But I’m asking you to tell me something really personal. In comparison to that, me just touching your feet doesn’t seem like a big thing. Can you understand I’ve waited my whole life to meet a boy like you, and you’re telling me I can’t even touch your feet? Jesus washed people’s feet and there’s no record that it led to rape.”

Aaron snorted. “I thought you were a Jew.”

“Nobody grows up in Georgia without learning a lot about Jesus,” I said.

He nodded.

“So what do you want to know?”

“When did you first meet Hank? What was he like?”

He relaxed a little. He knew how to answer this one. “When I first met Hank, we were in the sixth grade. He was the school bully. He was bigger than anyone else in our class. He must have had an early growth spurt, because by a few years later a lot of the other guys had caught up with him. In those days, Hank hardly talked. He scowled. Everyone tried to stay out of his way. He never participated in class discussions. He had a genius for harassment and petty property crimes. He stole and destroyed people’s stuff, but almost never got punished. He had a sixth sense of where the teachers were looking, and he knew how to duck. Students wouldn’t tell on him because you could see he would retaliate.” Once he started he didn’t stop.

“In the spring of that school year, he somehow decided I would be fun to harass. No one called me anything but Aaron, but he started calling me ‘Aarie the fairy.’ I inspired a fury in him. If I lingered at all coming back from recess, he’d waylay me. He didn’t do that much damage: he mostly threatened. He’d twist my arm a little and explain how he could break it, but he never actually did. A few times I got in trouble for being late back to class, but I never told on him. By then, sixth grade had almost ended and I thought he’d forget about me over the summer. In seventh grade, though, we shared the same gym class and he started right away trying to pick fights with me. Shoving, poking, pinching, name-calling.”

“Do you think you’d done anything to provoke him?”

“Some people may have seen me as a bit of a know-it-all,” Aaron confessed, suppressing a smirk. “Anyway, Hank made things rough for me. I was wary of him, but I didn’t exactly hate him. I almost felt sorry for him. He didn’t have any friends. Even the athletic kids didn’t like him, because he just watched out for himself, so he wasn’t that welcome on teams. Finally I got my courage up and one day when he was really messing with me I hit him as hard as I could. I knew I’d only get one chance, so I put everything I had into that punch. He was so surprised, he staggered back and hit his head on the low branch of a tree. I don’t remember exactly what happened after that. I can’t recall running away, but I doubt I hung around very long.”

Aaron sighed. “After that, he changed. More respectful. He would say hello to me, even hold a door. I could finally relax. I never tried to be his friend, but we developed a sort of détente.

“Starting in the eighth grade, they put the students in different tracks. I got moved to the fast track with other kids headed for AP classes. Hank stayed with the vocational school types, even though he wasn’t stupid. I didn’t see him much, but he would still say hello to me once in a while, especially if other people were around. It seemed like he wanted to show off that he knew me.” This last he said with a surprised shrug.

“By the end of that year, I began to notice that he had friends he always sat with in the cafeteria. He’d fallen in with some decent guys. He pretty much stopped the crimes and mayhem. I mostly lost track of him in ninth grade. In tenth I was forced to take an art class, a subject I had no talent for. It was just one semester. A sampling of work hung on the studio walls, including a few really good drawings of people. In fact, they stood out so much from the rest that I assumed the teacher had made them, or if not her then one of the senior girls. I remember especially a drawing of a teenage girl with a handsome boy’s head floating in the background, like an image in the girl’s dreams. Or some kind of spirit. You can imagine how much it stunned me to find out that Hank had drawn that and some of the other best work too! I mentioned it to some of my friends, and it turned out that everybody in the school but me already realized that Hank had more skill as an artist than anyone else. I had missed it because I had almost written him off in my mind.

“After that, I started to pay attention to him again—to watch him. By this time, he was playing football. He looked like a jock, but he sheltered a feminine side too. The guy was part freight train and part rare tropical fruit. It struck me as truly attractive that he had those extremes. Do you have any idea what I’m talking about?”

What he was saying about Hank actually echoed what I had been thinking about Aaron.

“Yeah, I do know what you mean,” I choked, all of a sudden feeling a huge charge to be holding his naked feet in my hands. My brain sent a lock-down order to my fingers: Don’t move!

“What?” Aaron asked, noticing that I was struggling with something.

I could feel myself blushing as I met his eyes. “Nothing.”

Aaron shrugged like he would go on. He said “Anyway,” but then subsided.

My hands stayed immobile, but for a second I was afraid I was going to lean down and uncontrollably start licking the soft, clean bottoms of his feet.

“What is it now?” he asked.

I gulped. “You’re like that. I see that in you. Very sure of yourself, masculine, but vulnerable too. You don’t want to get hurt again.”

“I guess I can’t help the way I feel,” he said.

“It’s OK. Go on about Hank.”

“This is where Bret comes into the story. One day, out of the blue, Hank stops me in the hall and asks if he can talk to me. This wasn’t too long after I’d discovered his artwork. He led me outside. He didn’t exactly apologize for the way he treated me in junior high, but he was openly sheepish about it. Said he hadn’t meant me any harm. That gave me a chance to mention how much his art impressed me. Which surprised him. All of a sudden we found ourselves on pretty good terms. He started telling me about Bret—what a great kid he was, how much he wanted him to succeed and be happy. He could see that Bret was really struggling in school, especially with math and history. I hadn’t even known that Hank had a brother. I can’t remember exactly how he put it, but he intimated that their parents stayed out of his and his brother’s lives. That didn’t surprise me, remembering how unguided Hank had been in junior high. I had realized then that nobody at home cared about him. Now he had friends, and it seemed he really cared about this brother, whom he wanted me to tutor. He thought he could get his parents to pay me.

“I was busy, but I ended up agreeing to his plan. I liked the idea of earning my own money. Also, it intrigued me that I’d be able to see inside of Hank’s family. I wanted to understand him. To be honest, I’d started to find Hank kind of sexy. Maybe I always had. Besides that, I wanted to reward him for finally taking some responsibility for how he had treated me. I agreed to meet Bret. Immediately, Hank got even nicer to me. He turned on the charm full blast. I couldn’t believe it was the same guy. Now, instead of calling me a fairy, it seemed that he admired me extravagantly for my mind, which for most of my classmates was the most fairy thing about me. It bolstered my ego to have him change like that. I began to think I might really be hot shit.”

“You are really hot shit,” I thought.