Ventura Freeway


“How about we go out for a walk,” Aaron said abruptly, pulling his feet away and getting up. “I’ll just get some shoes on.” He fled up the stairs before I even knew what had happened. I think I had let my hands slip a little ways from just resting on top of his feet, encircling his ankles. Maybe he felt I was getting too intimate.

When he came back downstairs, I asked him if something was wrong.

“I don’t know when Bret and Colby are coming back,” he said, “but I don’t want us to be here talking about this when they do.”

That made sense to me, but it didn’t explain the suddenness of his move. As I followed him out the door, my heart sank some. He still didn’t trust me much.

We went in the opposite direction from the lake. For a while, neither of us said anything.

“I’m sorry I was terse,” he said at last, using a small word exactly, in the way that had been making me fall in love with him for the past two days, and speaking so quietly that I had to draw closer to be sure I would hear him and really take it in. “I thought it would be bad form to inseminate your pillow.”

“Huh?” It took me a second to figure out what he was talking about, and another few to get the nerve to look at his embarrassed face. I didn’t completely understand it, but I took the compliment. Maybe ankles were erogenous zones for him, I hypothesized.

“You don’t have to worry about that around me. Lately, I’m kind of on that edge all the time,” I confided. “I can get close just from the sound of a guy’s voice. Especially yours.”

The blushing smile left his face and he turned serious again. “Nathan, don’t go around saying stuff like that! It’s exactly what Hank was doing. In fact… I hate to say this but you can’t stay here much longer. Colby and Bret are going back to LA the day after tomorrow, and when they leave, you have to go too. There’s no way I can stay here alone with you. You’re a loose cannon. Especially when you keep saying things like that, without having any idea, or giving any thought, to where they’ll lead.”

Something short-circuited in my brain. How could he just push me away like this? My vision narrowed—the color drained out of everything, leaving just sepia, and at the edges not even that. I put my hands on his shoulders to confront him, and the next thing I knew he lay flat on his back in the gravel road. I guess I must have shoved him pretty hard. He looked up at me bewildered and scared, like he thought my next move would be to gouge his eyes out with a spoon.

I stood there over him, absorbing how completely I had blown it. I felt my face crumple up like a little kid’s: that hard-edged frown with the scrunched-up eyes. Tears started to flow. The muscles in my upper arms began twitching like crazy.

“I want you so much and you hate me!” I screamed. “How long do I have to wait to be happy?” Everything ached so badly that I bent double. I pounded my foot in the dirt, then moaned, way too loud.

Aaron propped himself up, straightened his glasses, and stared at me like I was a psychotic person babbling in the street.

“What?” I shouted. “I’m sorry! OK? I’m sorry! I can’t help it.” I covered my face with both hands and whispered, “I’m falling in love with you.”

“You have a fucked-up way of showing it,” he muttered.

He got up unsteadily and dusted his shorts off. He had scraped one hand and wrist trying to catch himself when I shoved him down. He was bleeding. Seeing this, I got more frightened. I gasped for air; the tears renewed themselves.

“Aaron, I’m so sorry! God, I wish I’d never been born.”

“So do I,” he said.

“That was a joke,” he added after a minute.

“We should go back and clean up your hand,” I urged, making a stab at steadiness. In high school, humiliation had accompanied me through every day. This was the first time since coming to California that the old feeling had overtaken me.

“I’ll live,” he grunted. “There’s a creek up here a little ways. I’ll wash it off there.”

He turned away.

“Aaron, I swear I’m not a violent person. I’ve never done anything like that before. I don’t know what came over me. I don’t expect you to forgive me, but I hope you can at least believe that it surprised me—what I just did—at least as much as it did you.”

“The creek is just a little further,” he mumbled, walking away.

I followed him on down the road and onto a narrow path that led us through the woods. When we reached the creek, he climbed down the bank and squatted on a big rock in the stream to wash his hands.

“I’ll give you my T-shirt and you can use it to wrap up your hand for now,” I suggested, reaching to pull it off.

“For Christ sake Nathan, keep your goddam T-shirt on,” he blurted out, recoiling.

He glared at my hands, where I had started to pull up the shirt as if they had just committed a murder. “If you’re lucky, you’re gonna learn that there’s some problems in life that can’t be solved by taking your clothes off, and this is one of ‘em. This is why I can’t stay here alone with you. You don’t see it because you’re young and you’re just coming out. Lust is not the same thing as caring. If you lead with your body, you’ll wait forever to be happy, because sex is as far as you’ll ever get. Look, I’m twenty. I’m trying to find someone I can depend on. Someone I can respect and trust.”

Why couldn’t he respect and trust me? Here I was, ready to give him the shirt off my back, yet he acted like I had sprouted hooves and horns. Maybe his idea that I wanted him to see me without a shirt and find his resistance weakening held a sliver of truth, but I meant for it to benefit him too.

I sank down on a rock. With terrible dismay, I recognized that the time when rhetoric of any sort could rescue me had just passed.

Crouched down on his separate rock, his scraped up hand trailing in the water, Aaron seemed like maybe the last of a long-endangered species. It wouldn’t change anything, but I needed to explain what I felt. “When I look at you, I want to take care of you. I want to make you happy,” I reported. “Yeah, I want to give you physical pleasure. That would be incredible.” In my head, I heard myself make that last point in more vulgar terms. The distorted echo effect confused me, but I managed to ramble on. “That would be incredible. But I also want to learn from you. And maybe get to the point where there would be something you could learn from me. I know it’s too late, but I just want you to know that whoever gets to be your boyfriend, he’s gonna be a very lucky guy.”

Aaron wasn’t willing to say anything.

“He won’t deserve you,” I added bitterly, not realizing how over-the-top it was for me to be criticizing this imaginary person, until I heard Aaron snicker.

We sat in silence. After a while, Aaron said, “You’ve gotta know I can’t be the boyfriend you want right now. But you say you want to learn from me, so let me be your big brother for a minute or two if you can.”

He paused to find the right words. “It’s natural you’re so emotional about getting it on. That’s what coming out is like. Am I right that you’d never kissed a boy or even told people you were gay until just the last few weeks?”

I nodded. I had told my friend, Mercy, in high school, but what he had said was close enough.

“Nathan, try to be patient. Don’t throw yourself at the first—or second—gay guy you meet. In a few days you’ll be in Berkeley, and when school starts you can go to meetings of the Gay Students Union. You’re gonna meet guys who are in the same place in life as you. Some of them are gonna be attracted to you. Maybe none of them will be exactly Mr. Right, but they’ll have something. You’ll go on dates. When you find someone you really like, and you’re sure you can trust him, you’ll go to bed with him. Little by little, you’ll figure it out. You won’t get everything you want right away, but you’ll get enough to keep you alive. Every month, you’ll learn a little more—about relationships and especially about yourself. Eventually, one day, you’ll find the right person and you’ll be happy.”

Ugh! Bludgeon me with a wrench while you’re at it!

“But listen to me,” Aaron continued, heedless of my misery, “and pay attention because this is important! Remember when all the other guys in your high school were dating girls, maybe getting rejected, maybe going steady, or breaking up? You and I might have done some of that too, but it was with girls so it didn’t matter that much to us. I mean it mattered to us that we didn’t look stupid or hurt them too much or let them take advantage, but it wasn’t life and death for us. For a lot of the other guys, those things meant life and death, and they got to learn from them. We didn’t get that chance in those years, so we have to be cognizant that when we come out, we’re starting way behind for our age. I know you feel like you’ve waited far too long and you finally want what you want right now, but you need to stay patient some more. You can’t make up for those lost years in a few days or weeks or even months. I’m sorry, but it’s the truth.”

We sat quietly again while what he had said filtered down into my consciousness. I really didn’t want to think about any of his counsel, but I couldn’t dismiss it because of the earnest way he had offered it and because, unfortunately, it made sense. After maybe ten minutes, I took off my sneakers and socks and waded into the water. The heat was surging now, even in the shade, and it felt nice to cool off and also to pamper my own feet again. It started to get easier to breathe and to think. Eventually, I chose a rock near his and sat down. At a certain point, I reached for his arm, pulled it gently up out of the water, kissed an undamaged place on the back of his scraped up hand, then turned it loose.

“You’re a class act, Aaron. It even shows from your friends. Colby and Marti are really good people. I admire them. Bret’s got some hard things ahead of him, but I think he’s gonna be a great guy too. You can’t blame me for wanting in on the whole package. Just seeing y’all in the car, I wanted to be one of you, and the more I’ve gotten to know you, the stronger I’ve felt it. But I respect you, too. It’s not just desire. So I’m gonna trust your judgment. I think I should leave today. There’s no point in my staying. I’d appreciate it if you could help me get to a train station. I don’t think I want to hitchhike anymore.” I brushed the water off my feet and put my socks and shoes back on. Aaron let me help him up.

“I feel terrible about hurting you,” I said.

“I guess we hurt each other a little,” he said, “but it was less hurt than it could have been.”