Alex - Chapter 20 

 

 

 

The door suddenly opened, and dad was introducing the photographer to Phil and me.

 

“You won’t believe how I actually proposed to her,” I told Phil, as dad, Huong, and the photographer made their way across the room.

 

Phil looked at me bemusedly.

 

By now dad had caught on to what I was telling Phil and nodded for the photographer to listen to the story he had already heard numerous times before.

 

“Well, after the phone call to my mom, I kind of felt all relieved – like I had done my part, and then that opened the door to my mom actually asking me to forgive her. I didn’t want to accept it at first, ‘cause she’d always say stuff like that to get out of a jam. But after that, Beth Ann and I went over to Sal’s Pizza for something to eat, and talked about it. That’s when I started realizing how mom’s voice sounded desperate. Like she really was sorry about all she did in the past. We both were feeling pretty good about being able to tell Pastor Berger the next day that we had actually forgiven someone, and we started acting goofy.

 

“That’s when I broke the pull tab off my soda can, got down on my knees right there in front of twenty or thirty other people, and asked her to marry me. In the end, I think everyone was watching, because it got so quiet. Then when she said yes, the whole place went crazy. Sal even told us that our food was on the house.”

 

“You are one messed up, boy,” Phil told me as he playfully gave my head a shove. “Guess we oughta get our picture taken,” he said as he tightened his arms around my chest and lifted me clear out of the chair.

 

When Phil let go of me, and I was standing on my own, I slugged him in the arm again. “I’m not an invalid.”

 

“Yet!” Phil retorted as he landed a solid one on top of the bruise he had already inflicted on my bicep. “You feelin’ up to it?”

 

“Yeah, I’m good now.”

 

The photographer took several shots of us in the dressing room and then asked us to step outside for more pictures. I stopped Phil at the door before he opened it. “Phil?”

 

Phil turned and looked into my eyes.

 

“Would you pray that my tests come back negative? It’s not that I’m afraid to die… Well maybe I am a little bit, but I’m more afraid of Beth Ann having to take care of me when she has our kid to raise. I should be taking care of her and the baby, not making all kinds of grief for her.”

 

“Alex, dude, what do you think I’ve been doing for the last hour?”

 

I ducked, anticipating another slug on the arm, but instead he pushed my head over and roughed up my hair again.

 

 

 

What a blast we had with the photographer. We had rented black tuxes, but instead of wearing formal shoes, Beth Ann and I decided that everyone should wear high-top sneakers, on account of her having trouble with her feet swelling. We got shots on campus, in the limo, and even some in a trashy alleyway near the church. I couldn’t wait for Beth Ann and the girls to see them.

 

 

 

Less then an hour to go – I was so nervous.

 

 

 

Peeking in the back of the church, I listened to the praise band as they finished up practiced. Dalton caught my eye, whacked the high-hat, and with a big grin on his face, waved to me. It was a grin I didn’t deserve.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Several weeks had passed since I had called mom. Neither she nor I had made the effort to call each other again, and the more time that went by, the more I wondered if she actually was sorry for the grief she put me through when I was young. I have to say that I did feel some relief after we had talked that day, and after that, I could honestly look in Pastor Berger’s eyes and tell him that I had forgiven her. That’s not to say I didn’t still struggle with my feelings toward her at time, because I still didn’t really want to be around her. Evidently, she didn’t particularly want me around either, or she would have at least invited me and Beth Ann for dinner so she could meet her. She had sent back her wedding RSVP, so at least she was planning to come to that.

 

Forgiving Eddie was another story. He had doomed my time here on earth to become unnaturally shortened. I know I was certainly a willing partner in it, but his recklessness, in having unprotected sex with god knows how many other guys, was the reason that I was positive – that much I was sure of.

 

He had tried numerous times to call me over that past month and a half, but I could never bring myself to answer his call, or even listen to the voicemails he left. Pastor Berger asked every time he saw me whether or not I had made any progress toward forgiving him in my heart, even if I couldn’t bring myself to talking with him.

 

“Alex,” he asked on one occasion, “do you think God knew what was going on when the two of you were together that night?”

 

I just stared at the floor, not wanting to commit to an answer.

 

“Forgiveness isn’t something that, when you do it, it makes everything better – I think you know that. All forgiveness is ever meant to do is unlock the door to the rest of your life, however long that might be. If you can’t trust God, and bury the wrongs from your past – both your wrongs, and other’s – you’ll carry the weight of what you’ve done on your shoulders forever. And as long as you carry that burden with you, it’ll affect every other relationship you ever have.

 

“Let me lead you in a prayer of forgiveness for Eduardo, Alex. You don’t have to say it out loud if you don’t want to, but I want you to look me in the eyes when we’re finished, and tell me that you prayed it.”

 

I looked at him through unfocused eyes when we had finished praying. I didn’t feel any different, but I could look him in the eyes – kind of, and tell him that I had done it. It was a start.

 

“Listen for the Holy Spirit’s prompting, Alex, and if you feel like you need to contact Eduardo, do it. If you never feel his leading to call, then just move on with your life, and know that you’ve forgiven him.”

 

I walked away from that brief conversation, with the knowledge that I had “done the right thing,” but feeling as low about what he did to me as I had before. Not five minutes later, my cell phone rang, and I saw that it was Eddie. My heart was pounding in my chest, and I kind of knew that I should answer, but instead, I silenced the ring and shoved the phone back in my pocket. Why, if I had just forgiven him, was it so hard to tell him that?

 

 

 

It was Tuesday again, and I made my way over to the Henderson’s for supper. When no one answered the door, I let myself in with the key Dottie had given me, and wondered where everyone was. Spying a note, scribbled on a piece of scratch paper, lying on the dining room table, I picked it up and read it.

 

 

 

 Alex,

 

 

 

Dalton was rushed to the hospital this afternoon.

 

There’s food in the fridge.

 

Don’t know if we’ll be home in time for supper.

 

 

 

Dottie

 

 

 

I tried calling Bill’s cell phone, but it was evidently off. I called Pastor Berger’s cell phone to see if he knew what was up. He told me to pray. That Dalton and another boy had been beaten up at school, and that Dalton was in surgery. “It’s bad, Alex. They don’t know if he’s gonna make it.”

 

I couldn’t help but wonder if Jeb was the other boy, as I rushed out the door and headed to the Los Angeles Community Hospital. It was only a few blocks away, and I hoped that I would find them there.

 

I had guessed right, because when I made my way to the surgical waiting area, Bill and Dottie, and a few others where there. Dottie looked like she had been crying, and Bill’s face was pretty sober as well.

 

“Alex,” Bill stolidly greeted me, “thanks for coming. The surgeon just left. Dalton’s gonna be okay,” he managed to say, as he buried his face in his hands and began weeping.

 

A few moments later, he composed himself, and told me what had happened. “Dalton and… and the boy we told him he couldn’t see again, were found in the boy’s bathroom at school. Dalton wasn’t conscious when they found them. Someone had beaten them both, and left them there. It must have been more than one, because whoever did it, stuffed their mouths full of paper towel, and held them down to write the word…” Bill again choked up. “They used a marker and wrote the word ‘fag’ on both of their chests before they beat them up. The police found the marker in the trashcan that they probably used. They’re checking it for finger prints.

 

“Dalton had a couple of broken ribs, one of which punctured a lung, and the lung collapsed. Another one lacerated his liver. They must have kicked him savagely. He lost a lot blood before they found him.

 

“Oh my God, who would do such a horrible thing?

 

“They think they know some of the boys involved, because apparently it’s not the first time something like this has happened. How could I have been so blind? He told me he got the bruises in football practice.”

 

 

 

Memories of the day Dalton had pulled his shirt up to show me the pounding he was getting in the locker room, assaulted my mind. It was my own loose tongue that had knocked down the first domino in the line, and I felt helpless to stop the chain reaction. Even though I was painfully aware of the effect my own mother’s words had on my life, I had never before stopped to think how easy it was to say something that caused ripples in other’s lives – ripples that swelled into tidal waves when they came ashore.

 

I found myself thinking that it was probably that very same thoughtless mentality that allowed Eddie to pass the HIV infection to me, and to who knows how many others. After my epiphany about cause and effect, for the first time, I felt sorry for Eddie, and in that moment of compassion, I was finally ready to do it. Pulling out my cell phone, I hesitantly punched Eddie’s number into the keypad. I stared at the number for a while, but couldn’t bring myself to pushing “send.” Disheartened, I folded the phone in half again, and slid it back into the dark sanctuary of my pocket. Out of sight out of mind was my intention, but it didn’t work.

 

 

 

Thursday, I called Bill. I wanted him to ask Dalton if I could stop by the hospital for a minute. I just wanted to apologize again for my part in the harm that had come to him. There was no way that I could ask him to forgive me. Not now. Not with the way things turned out. I didn’t deserve that, and I knew it.

 

I was surprised when he told me that last night, Dalton had asked him to see if I would stop by his hospital room. I hoped that he was well enough that he didn’t injure himself when he yelled at me.

 

When I got to his room, there was another teen sitting by his bed. I supposed that it was Jeb. He was nothing like I had pictured. Maybe the two black eyes and arm sling made him look more nerdy than he really was, but the kid reminded me more of Caleb before he hit his growth spurt, than the hunky teen that I had envisioned Dalton being attracted to. He jumped when I came in the room, and immediately started getting up like he wasn’t supposed to be there, but Dalton told him that he should stay.

 

I was ready for the worst, so when Dalton smiled at me like he was actually glad that I had come, it caught me a little off guard.

 

“Hey, Alex.”

 

“Hi,” I sheepishly answered him.

 

He went to say something, but instead he grimaced and rolled slightly to his side, like someone had just punched him in the stomach.

 

“Sorry,” he whispered. Then he tried to make a joke by telling me, “It only hurts when I laugh – or talk – or move.” He grimaced again.

 

“Look,” I began. Having rehearsed my apology over and over, I started to tell him how wrong I had been to spill his secret. “I just want to tell you…”

 

“You’re forgiven, dude.”

 

I looked at him, astonished. My giving away his secret had been the start of the chain reaction that caused of him being beaten within an inch of his life, and he was telling me he forgave me? It wasn’t sinking in, so I started again.

 

“Alex, it wasn’t your fault. I forgive you.” He suddenly coughed, and rolled to his side again. “Oh my god, that hurts when I do that.

 

“How can you just forgive me? I mean… after what I’ve put you through.”

 

Dalton reached over and took Jeb’s hand in his. The look they gave each other made me think of Caleb, again, because it was clear that they were special to each other.

 

“Dad and mom feel bad too. They basically told me that they thought they were wrong to tell me that I couldn’t ever see Jeb again. I guess they’re really struggling with the way I am, but they told me they would never keep my friends out of the house again – that they want our home to be a safe place for me and whoever I want to have as a friend, to be together. Then they went to Jeb’s room and apologized to him too. They even invited him to come to the house so they could get to know ‘their son’s best friend.’ How cool is that?”

 

Dalton looked over at Jeb, and blushed slightly. “They did tell us, they wouldn’t allow us to be alone with each other with the door closed, and that they expected us not to do certain stuff until we’re older, but at least they’re trying to understand.

 

“They think Jeb’s cute,” he said, smiling, just before another painful cough sent him onto his side.

 

“Alex, did you ever get beat up for being gay?”

 

“I can’t believe how God must have protected me. Eddie, my first boyfriend,” I said for Jeb’s benefit, “and I kissed in front of the entire homeroom one day, just to make a point. Except for verbal abuse, no one ever laid a hand on either of us. Even the next year, when everyone found out about me and Caleb, no one really tried to do anything. I can’t believe there are actually guys out there who do this kind of stuff to guys just because they’re different. Do you know who did it?”

 

“I don’t know, I think they were mostly seniors. Aside from Samuel McIntosh, who’s on the football team, I didn’t recognize any of them. I think they were high on something.”

 

After a pause, I asked Dalton again if he really meant it, that he had forgiven me. I mean after the way he practically tore my head off the first time I had tried to ask him, I just couldn’t comprehend that he could just erase the whole thing out of his memory, and treat me like his brother again.

 

“I never did hate you, Alex. I was just scared that my whole life had tanked, and I guess I sort of took it out on you. Sorry. I guess I should be asking you to forgive me,” he said looking at me to see if I would respond.

 

“I can’t believe you,” I said, astonished at his words. “I nearly get you killed, and you ask me to forgive you?”

 

“Well? Do you?”

 

“Of course I do. Can you forgive me?”

 

“I already told you I did, big bro.”

 

 

 

I left the hospital an hour later, still not quite comprehending what had taken place. More than that though, I was giving some second thoughts to the way I still seemed to be struggling with feelings that, even though I had prayed with Pastor Berger, to forgive Eddie, I still wasn’t sure that I had actually done it.

 

I powered up my phone, and saw that I had a text message from Phoenix.

 

 

 

gotta talk 2u

 

soon

 

 

 

Aside from spending the night getting drunk once with him and his metal faced friend, I hadn’t talked to Phoenix much at all this semester. We weren’t in any of the same classes, and it seemed like over break, he had either been surfing, or out somewhere.

 

Before calling, I stopped by the mail room to see if I had anything, and received an official looking letter from the LA County Center for Disease Prevention and Control. I figured it was something regarding my HIV status, so I didn’t think much of it as I tore the envelope open. What I found inside, not only surprised me, but made me sad as well.

 

 

 

 

 

Mr. Alex D. Harper

 

 

 

It is our duty to inform you that a person, who claims to have had sexual relations with you in the past twelve months, has recently tested positive for the presence of the Human Immunodefiency Virus, commonly known as HIV, which can lead to the developing of Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, commonly known as AIDS.

 

 

 

We request that, at your earliest possible convenience, you proceed to any physician’s office, or public heath clinic for a simple blood test to determine whether or not you have contracted the disease.

 

 

 

Respectfully,

 

 

 

Dr. Adrian Carp, MD

 

Center for Disease Prevention and Control

 

Los Angeles County, California

 



 

 

Thinking that Eddie must have just found out that he was positive did little to make me feel better about him. In fact, the thoughts that went through my mind at that moment were anything but kind. At least if I had to die young, he was going down with me.

 

“Fuck you,” I mumbled as I crumpled the letter, and threw it in the nearest trashcan. “Burn in hell, dickhead.”

 

Later that evening, having forgotten about Phoenix’s text message, I met Beth Ann. She was starting to show a little. I mean, most people wouldn’t notice, but she was wearing lose fitting, long tops now, so she could let the button of her jeans unfastened. I told her that Eddie must have gotten tested, because I had gotten the same letter from the CDC that she had gotten two months ago.

 

“You’re glad you finally know he’s positive, aren’t you?” Her eyes bore into mine, looking for the truth. I was ashamed of myself, because I couldn’t tell her that I wasn’t. But, I was a Christian, and Christians are supposed to be able to forgive and forget, right? So why had I been waiting to hear that he had gotten the same bad news from the clinic that I had?

 

“What makes you say that?” I asked meekly, hoping that she was just guessing.

 

“Because you look miserable, Alex. I can always tell when you’re struggling. You wear your feelings on your face like a clown wears his nose.” Then she giggled a little to break the tension. “You’re cute,” she added with a smile. “That’s what I love most about you. You’re so authentic. You can’t ever hide your true feelings, and I don’t think you even want to. It’s kind of your way of letting everyone know that you know that you’re not perfect, and don’t expect them to be either.”

 

I looked at her, unsure of what to say. She was right about me. I always try to make people feel okay about themselves by exposing my own weaknesses to them.

 

“I know it’s hard… it’ll be hard for both of us, but we’ll make it, Alex. You, and me, and our baby – we’re gonna be okay. You’ll see. Just remember that you already forgave Eddie, even though we’ll never forget what happened.”

 

“You think I should call him?”

 

“What do you think, love?”

 

“It’s so hard.”

 

Beth Ann’s hand snaked across the table and grabbed hold of mine. “I know, babe. But God love’s Eddie too.”

 

 

 

I struggled all night with the thought of calling Eddie to seal the deal on my forgiveness of him by actually telling him that I had. I wished he would become a Christian and ask me to forgive him, because that would be a whole lot easier. As it were, I still couldn’t force myself to call him.

 

 

 

“Phoenix,” I called across the quad, when I saw him the next day. “You spend the holidays on the beach?” The words had barely cleared my mouth, when I saw that something was different about him. His smile was gone. His shoulders slumped. His hair hanging in greasy strings, and when he looked at me, I could see that all the sparkle was gone from his eyes.

 

“What’s up, man,” I asked him, but he refused to look up again. “Man, what’s goin’ on? You and Shawn having troubles?”

 

“You get the letter?” he inquired.

 

“Letter?” I asked, not sure what he was talking about.

 

“From the CDC. Did you get the letter from the CDC,” he asked impatiently, unable to look at me.

 

“Phoenix, how did you know I got that letter? I mean… were you… did Eddie…” I was so confused. Then he told me flat out that he got a positive test result. Knowing that he wasn’t a slut, I asked him how – or more specifically who.

 

“Shawn. He’s nothin’ but a frickin’ tramp. I told him to get lost last week.”

 

Phoenix turned and left me standing alone. It was like my brain was short circuiting, trying to figure out what part Eddie had played in Phoenix’ and Shawn’s infection, as if he was the boogie man, and was visiting all my friends, making them sick. I was in a total daze.

 

 

 

­­­

 

 

 

“Life is too short to hold grudges,” Bill Henderson told me one day last week, when he saw me alone, an angry grimace plastered on my face. He’s right, but after meeting Phoenix today, I kind of knew that I was now carrying a grudge big enough to cover all three of our grievances. Sleep was just not to be found that night as I lied on my bed.

 

I don’t have any idea what time it was, but campus was starting to quiet down for the night, which meant that it was probably after three AM. My mind was spinning at over a hundred mile-per-hour, and I had been getting madder at Eddie by the hour. It was then, that from somewhere out of the blue, another thought struck me – one that was so far out there, that it kind of shut down the rest of the noise in my head for a while.

 

“You’re not mad at him because of the disease,” my mind was telling me. “That disease is every bit as much your fault as his. You’re struggling because you’ve never gotten over your bitterness toward him for not playing by your set of rules in high school.”

 

That’s when I realized how true Pastor Berger’s words to me and Beth Ann were, when he told us that not everyone who hurts us needs to be forgiven – that sometimes we expect others to act in a way that’s unnatural for them, and against their own belief system, and when they don’t comply to our way of thinking, we make ourselves believe that they’re deliberately trying to hurt us. “That’s the time we need to ask God to change our heart, so we can accept others exactly as He created them.

 

I can’t honestly say that that thought train, wherever it came from, made me feel any better, or even allowed me to get to sleep. But I knew from that point on, what it was that I had to do – and somehow, I was no longer afraid of it.

 

 

 

At nine the next morning, I finally made the phone call that I had so dreaded.

 

“Hey, loover boy. You fine’ly call me back, hombre.”

 

“Hey,” I nervously replied.

 

“So, I been tryin’ to call you to tell you I got some official letter that said someone I slep’ with got AIDS. I was so scared when I got that. Then when I got tested, they foun’ out I got the clap again. So I wan’ed to tell you that maybe you should get yourself tested, especially if you’re doin’ that chick.

 

“Rumor has it she got one in the oven. You should’ve stayed with me, ése. Remember that time we went clubbing, and you wrote that note to your mom, an’ tol’ her we were gonna sleep in the same hotel room, but she shouldn’t worry, because neither of us were gonna get pregnant? That was so funny. Alex, you should have stayed with the sure thing. I still haven’t gotten pregnant.”

 

Same old Eddie. He didn’t even ask me if I had gotten tested. He still doesn’t even know that I’m plus.

 

“Yeah, well,” I told him, “I guess it’s a little late to change my mind. She’s due in August. We’re getting married in May.”

 

“Oh, my god, hombre. You gonna stop messin’ aroun’ or are you gonna have an open marriage?”

 

His words kind of ticked me off, but then I remembered that he wasn’t playing by my rules – in fact, he never had – so I just shook my head and let his words fall like water rolling off a duck’s back.

 

“You know me, Eddie, I’m still a one lover at a time kind of guy. We’ll find a way to make it. I want this to work.”

 

Eddie’s sad puppy dog imitation made me want to knock him silly.

 

“Well, lover boy, when the kid’s screaming his head off, and you’re about ready to explode on account of she’s not putting out, just give me a call, and I’ll take good care of you.”

 

“Don’t hold breath waiting, Casanova.”

 

I was halfway to Beth Ann’s dorm when I realized that I had never actually asked Eddie to forgive me for trying to make him be someone he wasn’t all these years. Somehow, I didn’t think it was all that important anymore, because I knew that I no longer held a grudge against him, and that whoever needed to be forgiven, for whatever wrong we had done to each other, was taken care of. I was at peace with myself for the first time since the Christmas at Phil’s house over two years ago – and it felt so good.