Isolation breeds dangers — fewer challenges to conformity being chief among them. Small-town living has merits — knowing your neighbors well and people clustered close together in community. In small towns, though, everyone knows everyone else's business. When a man sneezes, the gesundheit may come from a mile away. People learn, too, not to disturb the surface stillness of the water.
Brent and North cooled down while moving up the drive to North's house. Brent was more relaxed about getting to know North, who turned about to be a regular kid — after discounting his running ability and his IQ.
That Brent lived in the city was unusual among his peers, most of whom lived on land north of Goldendale or east of US 97.
North held the door open for Brent, who walked in slowly as if he were entering a foreign country. A noise in the kitchen drew his attention to a tall, dark-haired man chopping something on a wooden board. "Hi. I'm Tom."
"Dad, this is Brent. He's a runner, too."
Tom smiled. It looked as if North was following his advice and picking them off. "I'd shake hands, but mine are covered in onion juice — well, shallot juice."
"That's okay, Mr. Underhill." North had been given Jim's last name at the time of the adoption. Understanding that Brent probably thought that both his parents would naturally have the same last name as North, Tom didn't correct the assumption about his.
"Please, call me Tom."
"So, how many miles did you do?" Tom asked as he poured wine into the pan with the shallots. North walked in, gave Tom a hug, and, leaning over the sauté pan, drew a deep breath.
"About eight, sir," Brent said.
"Smells great, Dad. Is Dad Squared around?"
"No, still at the center."
"I'm going to show Brent my room."
"Brent, you're welcome to stay for dinner."
"Thanks, but I need to get home soon."
North started up the stairs with Brent close behind. Brent looked around North's room, surprised that it looked much like his own, except for the Mac. North sat on his bed, waiting until Brent took the desk chair. On the desk were photographs of a blonde girl alone, the blonde girl with North, and one of Jason with a dark-haired boy that Brent guessed was his boyfriend.
"You must have some questions."
"So, no offense, but your girlfriend looks very hot. How long have you and she been together?"
"Three years. She's my best friend, and I can't imagine being without her. Have you ever felt that way about anyone?"
"Not really, but I hope I do some day. I've loved a couple of girls, but nothing that lasted more than a school year. Girls are so hard to understand."
"But entirely worth the effort," North mused.
"I guess that's why I don't get Jason switching teams."
"I'm not sure there are teams. Jason feels about Jonathan the same way I do about Annie, the way you want to feel about someone someday. Look at their picture again."
Brent looked back to the desk. The faces of the two boys shone with a kind of peaceful light, as if they were entirely comfortable and in the right place.
"Brent, I think that kind of relationship is what we all want — more than getting laid — the kind of relationship where you're always learning about your partner and finding more in them to love."
"I guess, but Jason with a guy just seems wrong."
"I've lived with gay dads for most of my life. One of them teaches and writes beautiful stories; the other heals very sick people when he can. They chose me. You know why I'm a good runner? They taught me to be the best that I can be, to find a way to finish a race. I am so fucking lucky."
"Your dad does seem like a good guy. If they taught you how to run, maybe I could get lessons."
"You know how you begin to feel when you start to fall behind me? I can help you with that feeling. You have a lot of ability. We might be able to get Goldendale out of the cellar. But I'm not going to waste time with someone who's going to give Jason a hard time. If you want to work with me, you're going to have to step up when other people try to abuse him. Talk to Jason; he's still the same guy you've always known."
Thursday evening, Jason packed for the weekend. North had invited him to spend the night before the first football game of the new season with him.
They would leave for Portland after the game directly from White Salmon, which was halfway to Portland from Goldendale. Jason thought that the condo in Portland would be like a second home now because Jim, Tom, and North treated him like family. "Mama, I'm headed over to North's."
"Give me a hug, first."
Jason walked to the kitchen to hug his mother. "I'd never leave without one. You sure you're okay with me going to Portland. I'd be glad to stay and help."
"Jasey, you need a break, and you need to see Jonny. Give him my love. Be sure you have my note for your coach or he won't let you ride with North after the game."
As Jason walked out and picked up his bag, he looked back at his mother. Jason could see the sadness in her eyes, that she missed his father so much. Sometimes he couldn't figure out how his harsh and cold father could engender that kind of feeling. Moreover, Jason was still ambivalent about his father's death, feeling a mixture of deep sorrow and emptiness along with relief that he no longer had to see his father's displeasure every day. Having a feeling of relief was painful. How could he feel relief from seeing his father die?
The old pickup truck he had driven to North's at the beginning of the summer waited in the drive. At least he had his license now.
He ached as he drove, both from punishment on the field and hunger for Jon. North had been a midwife at his birth to this new life, and Jason saw him as his champion. Every bounce of the old truck reminded him of his current ordeal, but he reminded himself that Jon and the others loved him; below his fear and pain was bedrock of hope.
He parked in his usual spot in front of North's house. Jason could hear Caballé's voice coming from the stereo, but rather than opera, she was singing with Freddie Mercury. Thinking of himself and North, he thought of the opera and rock stars, 'That's another odd couple.'
He didn't knock these days; he quietly walked in and took his bag upstairs. In the hall, he thought about which bedroom to use, deciding on North's. He threw his bag at the foot of the bed and wandered downstairs. Tom and Jim were in the kitchen, feeding each other bits of the raw vegetables they were cutting for dinner.
North was at the pass-through, reading, when he noticed a smiling Jason. He jumped off the stool and charged Jason, grabbing him in a tight hug.
"Ow! Take it easy, man. I'm still a bit raw."
"Shit. Sorry, Jason. You ready for the great escape?"
"Damn right. I feel as if I haven't seen Jon in a year."
Jim's voice rang from the kitchen, "Come on, you two, before I have to wash your mouths out with soap. Dinner's on."
Dinner was simple and delicious — chicken breasts with steamed vegetables and a salad. The boys cleaned up the dishes and the kitchen after dinner.
The four sat in the living room for a while before Tom told them to get up to bed; they still had school the next day. They'd be leaving for Portland immediately after the game tomorrow. Both North and Jason hugged the fathers and headed upstairs.
"I assumed you'd be okay with my sleeping in your room."
"Fair assumption, Jason."
The boys completed their before-bed hygiene rituals and stripped to their underwear before climbing into North's bed, where they lay on their backs. Sleeping together wasn't unusual when they were at each other's homes. Jason was aware the North was unusually comfortable with this kind of intimacy. North's unstudied affection was a part of his character that made Jason feel safe when they were together. His original crush on North had been replaced with something more than brotherly affection but less than infatuation.
"Things are worse than you thought they'd be?"
"Not really. I just didn't count on the physical pain. I figured I'd take a lot of verbal flack, but I wasn't prepared for the physical stuff. Football practice seems to be a license to beat up on me."
North turned on his left side and put his right arm across Jason's chest. "You could give up football."
"That's the problem. I'd feel as if I were running away."
"None of us want to be visiting you in the hospital."
"I don't think it'll come to that. The worst-case scenario is that Coach won't let me play, but if that happens, Jeremy won't be playing either. Next week will tell the tale."
"You should talk to Steve. I think he might listen."
"He did have words with Jeremy after the last practice. But I don't think anyone can influence Jeremy."
"Maybe not, but Steve could influence others, and others can isolate Jeremy."
"I'll try. Anything's better than standing around waiting to get creamed." Jason turned his head to see North's blond hair spread on the pillow. He felt nothing but comfort in North's touch.
Jason remembered their first disastrous meeting and the humbler second. "I'm glad you gave me a second chance, North."
"I'm glad you came back and gave us a chance. Other than Annie and Jon, you are my closest friend." North moved his hand to Jason's shoulder. He closed his eyes and reminisced about how his friendship with Jason had started.
"Do you know Brent?"
"Yeah. I used to think he was a good guy, and I know he loves running. Why do you ask?"
"He's turning into something of a running partner." North wouldn't reveal Brent's adoption unless Brent gave his permission.
"I thought you said nobody on the team was talking to you."
"I talked to him. We found some common ground. He came over to meet Dad before you got here."
"Really? I had him pegged as one of Jeremy's boys."
"I'm beginning to think Jeremy has fewer true apostles than we think. Not to nag, but you should talk to Steve."
Jason rested his hand on the forearm that North had thrown across him. "I'll give it a shot. But I may not have a chance before the game."
"You got the note from Vi?"
"Yeah. I'm all set for the trip to Portland with you."
"You and Vi still doing okay without Fred?"
Jason didn't answer for a few seconds. "Mama has this sweet sadness, but she keeps busy with the farm. Ben and Martin have really stepped in to help."
"I'm okay. Jon and Mama gave me such a gift of support. I'm happy that I came out to Papa before it was too late, but I'm sad that he didn't have more time to come to better terms with me."
"I know he loved you. I think he and you would have found your way."
More than the high-school warfare about Jason's being gay, North worried about how his friend was navigating the loss of his father.
"The long-distance thing with Annie and Jon sucks," North said.
"It feels like an amputation. Something happened between Jon and me when we camped on the mountain — not just sex. We're parts of each other now. I guess that's a silly way to think when we're our age."
"You went through a lot together in a short time, Jason."
Jason gave a long sigh as if he was contemplating something inevitable. "I know Jon's going to lean on me to run away to Portland for good."
"He'll understand, whatever you decide. You two are some of my best work."
"Oh, really? I got the impression that we're Annie's best work." Jason grinned.
"Maybe we're all Annie's best work." North kissed Jason on the cheek, and turning onto his back, fell immediately asleep.
Jason's difficulty with sleep continued. Listening to North's easy breathing, he thought that North didn't have a clue as to how he affected people. The boy didn't worry about convention; if he wanted to hug or kiss a friend, girl or boy, he did. How could people hate that kind of sweetness?
After closing the house up, Tom and Jim turned in. While they were getting ready for bed, Tom floated a plan.
"I have an idea, Jim. You'll have to help."
"What do you have in mind?"
"I'm thinking of having Annie and Jonathan come to White Salmon for the game and a surprise. They could take the train from Portland to Bingen. They'd arrive about 6:30, and White Salmon is only about 10 minutes up the hill. You'd have to make some excuse to leave and pick them up without letting North know what's up."
"I knew I kept you around for a good reason — brilliant plan, just what the doctor orders."
"I'll call the kids and set it up tomorrow morning if they can do it."
"Somehow, I think they'll make it work. Remember how desperate we were for reunions when we were apart? We weren't that much older than they are."
"I do indeed, love."
Jim was well into his day at the cancer center before Tom got ready to drive both boys to the school Friday morning. North fixed breakfast for Jason and himself, but Jason was agitated, alternately walking away from the table and sitting. He only picked at the cereal and fruit.
"Jason, calm down, man. You know how long it took me to fix this breakfast?"
Jason sighed, but smiled, "What? About two minutes?"
North returned the smile. "It's the thought that counts. You worried about the game?"
"The game, seeing Jon again, everything."
Wolfing down his bowl of cereal, North tried to settle Jason down. "It hasn't been that long since you saw Jonathan. Nothing's changed with you two, and Jeremy doesn't play for White Salmon."
Jason returned to eating his cereal and managed to finish the bowl. "No, you're right. I need to stop acting like the assholes have won. It's amazing how a few jerks can turn your life upside down."
"If you let them isolate you, you're letting them win. We're all with you, Jason. They're trying to make you feel alone, but you're not. We're all here for you."
Jason put their dishes in the dishwasher. "I've become a stranger in my own town."
"You guys ready?" Tom asked, opening the front door. "Let's not be late."
The boys followed Tom to the Forester, and Tom noticed that Jason was withdrawn and distracted. He thought about his discussion with Jim. Maybe this situation had gone on too long. He would talk with Vi today about the possibility of getting Jason to Portland if necessary. The fact that North had been hovering over Jason for the last week was a bad sign. North must have seen something worrisome in Jason's behavior.
The boys hopped out at the school, and Tom watched them walk in. He saw the other teenagers in small groups, among friends. None of them greeted Jason or North or even acknowledged their existence.
Back at the farmhouse, Tom sent a text message to Jonathan asking him to call when he had a chance. Then he returned to reworking a poem for the fifteenth time. He wrote poetry longhand on a yellow legal pad. Sometimes getting a poem in shape took half a pad. He was fond of a line but was becoming convinced that it weakened the poem. He was reading it aloud with and without the line when his cell sounded.
"Hey, Jon. Thanks for getting back to me."
"Is Jason okay?" Jonathan's voice was strained.
"He's fine, Jon. I wanted to suggest something to you and Annie."
"I could get tickets for you to take Amtrak to Bingen this afternoon and surprise Jason and North. You could see Jason's game. That would mean that you'd see him sooner than if you waited until he got to Portland. Think you can make the sacrifice?"
"Hell, yes, Tom! Sorry. You're a genius. What time would we leave here?"
"The train's scheduled to leave at 4:45. Would you check with Annie and text me if she wants to make the trip? You'll need to check with your parents and have Annie check with hers. If it's a go, I'll get e-tickets and send them to your phones."
"I know she'll want to go, but I'll check in with her. Thanks, Tom. I'd go crazy worrying about the game and waiting for him to get here."
Twenty minutes later, Tom had the answer and went to the Amtrak website to buy the tickets. After he emailed the confirmations to Jon and Annie, he put the legal pad aside. He wouldn't arrive at a decision about the line today. He would post the poem on a forum read by other poets and ask for their help. Now, talking to Jason's mother was more important than writing.
Tom thought briefly about calling Vi but decided that he needed to see her while they talked. Vi had a way of nurturing everyone in her presence, so he thought that she was probably acutely aware of Jason's struggles and of his desire to remain in Goldendale at least for the next year. Maybe Jason was in better shape than he and Jim thought, but Tom was increasingly worried about the boy, who was showing more evidence of stress every week.
When Vi's cell phone rang, she stopped work and looked at the caller ID to see Tom's name. She always made time for Tom and Jim, who had helped Jason so much as he struggled with being different. She knew in her heart that her husband's grudging accommodation of her son's sexuality was conditioned on the way Jim had treated him before his death. Her parents had taught her that help often arose when it was needed if one was open to the possibility.
"Hey, Tom. How are you and Jim? Nothing wrong, I hope."
"No, Vi. We're all fine over here. I want to come over and talk with you if you have time this morning."
"For you, I always have time. I'm working on some tack out in the horse barn. Come on over."
"Fifteen minutes, and thanks, Vi."
Rather than drive, he decided to run over to Vi's and Jason's place. After quickly putting on his running gear, he took off down the driveway. He made the run in fifteen minutes almost exactly and walked back to the outbuilding where Vi was working.
Everything on the property showed the same fundamental order that had existed before Fred died. Vi and Jason had a great crew of hands, including the foremen, Ben and Martin, who loved Vi as they did their own mothers. The men had learned from Fred how to run the place, and now they pitched in with a zeal that belied their status as hired hands.
When Tom came through the barn door, Vi looked up from the bridle she was repairing and rose to hug him. "Tom, you called before I had a chance to call you. I am troubled and want your counsel. But first, how are you?"
Tom knew that, unlike most questions about how he was, this one wasn't just social convention. "Jim and I are fine, Vi. If not for Jason's and North's troubles, we would count the move to Goldendale a success. I enjoy the solitude, and my writing is coming along. I have another novel through the main editing phase and ready to go for final edits. Jim and I have reconnected a bit. The boys are becoming a real source of concern for us, though." He hesitated a moment, but Vi, as was her custom, didn't jump into the conversation. "How are you doing? The place looks great, but you must be lonely."
She considered the question a moment, as if, for her, every answer was consequential. Fixing Tom with a warm gaze, she answered, "My life has been a long journey of finding and losing. Some losses are barely tolerable, but as long as I keep finding as I go along, the losses aren't crippling. I don't feel lonely, and I'm grateful to North, you, and Jim for your friendship. Something drops away and another thing grows."
"I find friendship with you natural, Vi."
"Well, I'm happy to hear that, Tom. Friends are always truthful with one another, yes?"
"Yes. What's troubling you, Vi?"
"Fathers and sons have always been a mystery to me, but I think men learn how to be fathers from their own fathers. Fred was unfortunate in that regard. His father wasn't a good model. Jason always needed more from Fred than he could give, and I tried to help both of them, with limited success. It took Fred knowing he was dying to loosen up just a little, but I fear it wasn't enough."
"Vi, you and Fred managed to raise a wonderful young man. Jason is a special person, and the last few months have shown how special he is."
"Jasey is special and in ways that have been known to my people for generations. Now, he's surrounded by a newer culture and a newer religion. His life is here with old friends who have deserted him and new friends who are supporting him. He has the love of a fine partner, though they aren't physically together much. But his father's death has foreclosed the many possibilities of what the two of them might have become. He's sad, angry, and confused about his father, and he is bewildered about the way his old friends are treating him."
"I worry that he's getting tired of struggling," Tom told her.
"I've suggested that he spend more time with you in Portland, but he feels that he has shoes to fill here, and he is offended by the notion of running from the problems he faces."
"Jim and I are worried enough that we've created a sort of backup plan to move back to Portland till they graduate if things here don't turn around for the boys. If he's willing, we'd like to take Jason back with us. Is that something you'd consider letting Jason do?"
"If Jason wanted to move to Portland, I'd be glad to see him with you. But, he's the one that would have to make that decision."
The team bus left Goldendale at 4:00 PM. Jason sat in the back of the bus, and as he expected, no one sat near him. Jeremy and his group of linemen sat about halfway down the length of the bus. Steve sat closest to Jason, two seats ahead. For Jason, football had ceased to be a team sport. As the bus travelled west on Washington 14, Jason's anger and anxiety built.
As the bus drove through a few short tunnels, Jason continued his internal debate. He had nearly decided that continuing to take the physical abuse so that Jeremy wouldn't think he was winning didn't make sense. But he knew that if he didn't stand up for himself, no other gay kid would ever feel safe coming out in Goldendale.
Jason's anxiety made him extremely alert. Five miles before the turnoff to White Salmon, he had a startle reaction, and looking up, he saw Jeremy quietly and steadily moving to seats closer to the back of the bus. Jason started to rise, thinking that if Jeremy was going to attack him at least he would be standing. Before Jeremy could get to him, Steve stood and stepped into the aisle to cut Jeremy off. He and Jeremy faced each other in the aisle.
"Jeremy, you need to go back to your seat. Now," Steve said quietly.
"What are you doing, Steve? You don't want to get between me and the little fag."
"Well, I'll tell you, Jer, I'm tired of putting up with your crap. You think you're my leader? You're a fucking bully, and you have always been one. You just don't do so well when people stand up to you. Now, go back to your seat or I'll put you back in your seat."
Jeremy looked behind him to see if any of his little posse was rushing to his aid, but they were just looking at Steve. "You're going to regret this, Steve. Has he turned you into a fag, too?"
Steve laughed. "Give me a break, Jer. That line doesn't work on everyone. All I'm interested in is winning the game tonight. I don't care if Jason is fucking your brother. We need him to win, and the whole backfield and I will take it very personally if you keep up this little vendetta. Now, for the last time, sit.
Jeremy muttered to himself but returned to his seat. Steve sat again without looking back to Jason. 'What was that all about?' Jason thought. Maybe North was right. Steve hadn't exactly given Jeremy a ringing defense of Jason's right to live openly as gay, but it was clear that Steve didn't like Jeremy or the way he was operating.
Jason remembered what Steve had said the day that he and Jon had come out to him. He had said he wouldn't pile on, and he had showed that he wouldn't.
At 5:00, Jim, Tom, and North set off for White Salmon. North was driving on his restricted permit, with Jim up front and Tom in the back seat of the Tribeca. North had asked Jim why they were taking the big car, and Jim had told him that he thought it needed to be driven on a longer trip.
"You think you're going to train with Brent from now on?" Tom asked.
"I think so. I know Brent is going to talk with Jason. He seems like a reasonable guy, and Dad didn't frighten him off."
"Yeah, but I had a chef's knife in my hands."
Jim said, "I think that the more your schoolmates know about you and us, the less they'll have to fear."
North mused aloud, "I just hope Jason survives long enough for them to come around."
"North," Tom said, "I know coming out has been a struggle for Jason, but I wonder if that's the main source of his distress."
"I think he'd be doing better with being gay if he wasn't angry about the way things went with his dad. He won't admit it, but something's going on there."
"Does Jon understand what's going on?"
"Yes. He and Jason have some other issues to resolve. Jonathan is really set on having Jason move to Portland for the rest of the school year, but Jason is stubborn about staying to help Vi and to show Jeremy that he's not winning."
Jim asked, "What would you think about having Frank chat with him?" Frank Gerard, a psychiatrist specializing in children and adolescents, was a colleague of Jim's, who North saw a few years back.
"Oh man, that might be a bit extreme. Frank is cool though, and he sure helped me."
"You don't think Jason would be angry if I talked to Frank?"
"No, I don't think so. Frank's good at starting conversations."
The bus pulled onto Bruin Road shortly after 5:00. They were at the field five minutes later, and Jason waited until most of the team had left the bus before walking to the door. Steve waited as well, and as they exited the bus, Jason thanked him for intercepting Jeremy during the ride.
"If it won't create problems for you, I'd like to talk with you for a few minutes sometime soon."
Steve looked at Jason, contrite. "I've missed talking with you about schoolwork and hanging out. We should talk, because thinking about your situation is taking up way too much of my time. Next week, okay?"
"I'd like that, but I don't want to cause you any problems."
"You know, I've never liked Jeremy. You've taken a lot of shit from him, and you're no different than you were before. I don't understand the gay thing, but I won't stand for that kind of behavior on any account, and I'm feeling more and more like a pussy for standing around watching. Last night, my father asked me if you were a friend, and I said yes. Then he asked me if that was true, how come I was standing around with my head up my ass?"
All Jason could say was, "Next week, then."
They hopped off the bus and went to change for the game. At White Salmon, as at most high schools, football games were played on the infield of the track. Jeremy was relatively well behaved as the players put their pads and uniform jerseys on, probably because Steve was keeping an eye on him.
Goldendale didn't have a good record against White Salmon. In fact they didn't have a good record against many opponents. Welcome to small-town football.
Jason's Goldendale family arrived shortly after 6:00 and found seats in the bleachers. Almost immediately, Jim looked at his phone. "Sorry guys, I have to get across the river. I shouldn't be too long. Give Jason a few yells for me."
"Dad Squared, this sucks. How're we going to get to Portland if you get stuck over in The Dalles?" North complained. He was in no mood to spend the weekend in Goldendale.
"North, calm down. I should be back before the end of the game. If not, I'll call Vi, and she can come and rescue you."
"Sorry. Be careful."
Looking at Tom and trying not to give anything away, Jim replied, "I will, North. Love you, and see you in a bit." Jim figured he'd just about make it to meet the train if Amtrak managed to keep its schedule.
Goldendale elected to defend to start the game. Jason was the Sam, the strong-side, linebacker, and alternated between covering a big, strong and fast tight end on pass plays and forcing running plays to the outside. Goldendale's defense had also worked on a Sam-A blitz in which Jason would slide off the tight end and head for the quarterback.
Jason looked into the bleachers and saw North and Tom but no Jim. He wondered where Jim was.
On the first few sets of downs, the tight end banged past Jason and caught short passes in the flats. Fortunately, White Salmon's quarterback didn't have a rocket for an arm. Jason adjusted to the short passes and successfully defended a couple of them. On the first Sam-A blitz, he got his arms around the QB before he could release the ball and, with the help of the right defensive end, sacked him. Even Jeremy stood up and screamed at the sack before he remembered who was responsible and promptly sat down.
When the defense came off the field, Steve gave Jason a hug and whispered, "That'll show the assholes."
The train was late arriving in Bingen. At the middle of the quarter, Jim was back with Annie and Jonathan. North was so intent on watching the game that he didn't notice Annie until she sat in his lap. "Hey! Watch out," he said with an annoyed look on his face. Then he realized who it was. "Annie! How did you get here? Jonathan, you too? How cool." He hugged Annie and gave her a more circumspect kiss than he wanted to.
Goldendale's offense was on the field, and when Jason looked back to the bleachers behind the bench, he saw Jonathan and then Annie and Jim. They all waved and hooted at him.
He would have gladly left the game right then and left for Portland, but there was the rest of the game to play.
Goldendale's offense had problems, largely because Jeremy and the other linemen were big but slow and not too skilled. Although Steve was able to consistently make short runs, Goldendale constantly found itself in passing situations, and the porous offensive line made the Goldendale QB a sitting duck. The first time Jeremy let a defender get into Goldendale's backfield, North screamed, "Way to go Jer! You need more practice." Jeremy looked up at the bleachers, and he wasn't happy about having been called out.
Jonathan grabbed North's arm and said, "You're going to get Jase killed if you keep that up. And if that happens, Annie and I will kill you."
"Sorry, Jeremy's just such a talentless lump."
Jim added, "That kind of thing isn't helpful, North."
Annie put her arm around North's shoulders. "Okay, okay, I get it," North grumbled.
The game was surprisingly close, but Goldendale lost by ten points. Jason played well considering his size. He was happy with his game, especially forcing some sacks.
After ditching his pads and changing, Jason left the rest of the team to the school-bus ride home.
Tom and Jim looked at the four teenagers in the living room of their condo in Portland. Sitting in the living room, North and a cleaned-up Jason looked like kidnapping victims rescued from Somali pirates by Navy Seals. Their smiles masked residual turmoil over their situation in Goldendale. The smiles, though, were persistent and genuine as they clung to Annie and Jon. The dads wondered if Annie and Jon would get permanently deformed hands from Jason's and North's grips.
"So, what are you going to get up to while we're here?"
Jon looked squarely at Jason. "I'm going to try to talk Jase into staying here so I can keep an eye on him."
Jason slowly shook his head. "Jon, let's not start an argument, okay?"
"I won't argue with you, but I'm not going to shut my trap when you keep yourself in danger, Jase."
Annie interrupted, "Now, boys, you need to spend some quality time together before you discuss this."
Jason agreed, "Sorry, Jon. We'll figure this out, I know. Let's at least hold off the discussion until tomorrow."
North ventured, "Joan Osborne's at the Aladdin tomorrow night."
"I'd like to see her. Let's all go," Annie said.
"Dads, could you get us tickets online if we pay you back?"
Tom and Jim looked at each other. "Sure. How many?"
Jon said, "We should check with Frannie, Pete, and Mary."
Jim laughed. "Well, check, then. Tickets may be gone."
After a few minutes on her phone, Annie announced, "Seven it is."
"Dad Squared, would you talk to Mark if they're sold out? He owes you."
"He owes me nothing, wise-ass son."
Jason looked at Jon. "Mark is the owner of the theater," Jon said. "Jim helped him a few years ago. He can usually score tickets in a pinch." Jason nodded. Nothing about his extended family surprised him anymore.
"Jason," Tom asked, "would you drive? You can take the Tribeca."
Jason smiled broadly, "Sure, Tom. I'd love to."
Annie giggled, "Crash helmets for everyone."
"Jim and I are going to turn in. You all look tired enough that you should do the same."
North's room was dark save for the light from the monitor of the iMac on his desk. All at once, he wanted to hold Annie all night long, talk with her all night long, and have sex with her all night long. He began to lift his shirt over his head.
Slapping his hands from his shirt, Annie protested, "No, no, no. Northy, I get to undress you."
"We'll do each other, one piece of clothing at a time."
She pushed North back onto the bed and took his shoes and socks off.
"That's more than one piece, Anns."
North stood and pulled Annie's t-shirt over her head, sighing as her breasts came into view. He leaned forward to kiss them, but she pushed him back onto the bed again. She unbuttoned his jeans and pulled them down his legs, dropping them on the floor. His erection was quite obvious in his boxer briefs. "For me? How very nice."
He sat up and removed Annie's jeans, leaving her in a small pair of panties. "For me? How very nice." Annie slapped him lightly on the back of his head. She leaned over and yanked his underwear over his thighs and pulled them off. His hard-on snapped back against the bottom of his shirt. He reached for her panties.
"Not yet. Stand up."
North stood and waited.
"Turn around." She watched as he turned. "You have no idea how much seeing you hard wearing nothing but a t-shirt turns me on."
"I'll keep that in mind for the future, Anns." He kneeled in front of her and buried his face where her legs joined, taking a deep breath, inhaling her particular sweetness that reminded him of how much he loved and wanted her. "Let's lose these."
She pulled his t-shirt up and as he raised his arms she kissed his chest. Naked, they fell on the bed. Looking at her, feeling her in his arms, he lost touch with his own need and understood how much better a person loving her made him. He drew his right index finger from under her arm, over her ribs and flank, tracing the gentle curve above her hip. "This is my favorite place on your body, Annie."
"Jase, lie down. We can fuck a little later."
Jason made himself prone on the bed, adjusting his erection so that he was comfortable. Jon kneeled beside him and began to slide lotioned hands over Jason's shoulders and back and then down to his ass.
"Don't think, Jase. Just feel."
For an hour Jonathan caressed and massaged Jason until he felt him begin to cry. He felt the deep shuddering in Jason's shoulders. "Don't try to stop, Jase. Let it out. I'll always be here for you."
"I'm sorry, Jon," Jason sobbed, "I don't know what's wrong with me."
"Not a goddamned thing, sweet one."
"I'm just so tired of all the crap, and I don't get to see you or touch you every day."
"We'll work it out, Jase. How about if we just hold each other for a while and then sleep?"
North had never been a morning person. After a night of reunion love, Annie woke up and watched him sleeping, his deep breathing on the edge of snoring. He didn't look much different than when she had first met him, but he was slightly less boyish. He had never had the awkwardness of most boys his age, but she hoped he would never completely lose that boyish quality. They had latched on to one another like a foregone conclusion. She had never regretted her commitment to him.
Her parents worried that she was too heavily involved with North at too early an age, but over the first two years of the relationship, their concern had diminished because North had the same effect on them as he did on almost everyone. He easily won them over.
Annie reached out to touch North's hair and silently thanked Tom and Jim for not screwing up the boy they had chosen to nurture. He was on his side, facing away from her, and she spooned in behind him and leaned over to lightly nibble on his earlobe.
"Go away, Annie. I need sleep."
"I didn't wear you out. It's past nine, and your dads have been up for hours. Let's go down for breakfast."
"They're old, and they can't stay awake all night making love like we did. Please, have mercy."
She kept up the attack on his ear and added a hand on his dick, which hardened. "Come on. Rise and shine or I'll make it impossible for you to pee."
He was awake now, mostly because he couldn't sleep when she bothered his … ear. "All right, but there's a price. One more time before we go down."
Annie giggled. "How about we go down on each other first, then have another go, and then have breakfast?"
"You're insatiable, Anns. You know, sexually it's all downhill for me from now on."
"That's why I'm taking advantage while you're in your prime."
An hour later, they were washed up and dressed in shorts and t-shirts. They quietly headed downstairs past Jon's and Jason's still-closed bedroom door.
Jason was awake again when he heard North and Annie going down for breakfast. After his crying jag, he and Jon had kissed and cuddled until Jon fell asleep. Jason was awake for another hour before he too fell asleep. He woke every two hours or so, but soothed by Jon's presence in the bed, he fell back asleep quickly. He was irritated that he had cried and was very unhappy that, after looking forward so much to having sex with Jon, they hadn't.
He didn't like feeling as if he had to be taken care of, but he also loved Jon for wanting to take care of him. Jason thought that his mother must have taught him how to love and trust someone without smothering him. Although Jonathan had given him no reason for concern, he worried that Jon would tire of all the drama of his life. On his part, Jon was very good with boundaries; he knew how to strike a balance between his own wishes for their relationship and Jason's current struggles, so he didn't push things too far.
Jon was on his back, his head turned to face Jason. His face was relaxed and had the small half-smile that Jason loved. Jason told himself to stop whining and just enjoy this beautiful boy. Then he noticed that Jon was looking at him while pretending to sleep.
"I know you're awake, Jon."
"I didn't want to interrupt whatever you were thinking about. You looked so serious."
"Mostly, I'm pissed that I didn't get to taste you last night. I hate to waste an opportunity."
"I thought the night was beautiful, as if I disappeared into you and you let go some of whatever's been troubling you."
"For not bugging me to come live in Portland."
"You already know how I feel, but I never want you to make decisions just to please me. Besides, part of my wish to have you here is pure selfishness."
"I just feel like my father would have expected me to help out at the farm until I leave for college. It's not fair to leave Mama with all the work."
"Has she actually asked you to stay?"
"No. She's suggested that coming to Portland might be the best thing for me."
"And, you don't believe her?"
"I have to live with myself, Jon. I'd feel as if I were letting her down."
"Okay. Do me a favor, Cowboy, and get yourself inside me. I'm not leaving the room until I've been thoroughly fucked."
By the time they got down for breakfast, it was nearly time for lunch.
"So nice of you two to finally join the living."
"Annie, some of us needed more rest than you and North apparently did," Jon retorted.
"Hey, Anns woke me way early. I'd still be up there asleep if it were up to me."
"Men have only two ways of relating to the world: sex and sleep," Annie said. "How did you two avoid the limitations of your sex, Jim?"
"Who says I did? Tom will have to speak for himself, though."
North said with a smile, "Yeah, Dad looked pretty worn out this morning."
Jim saw that Jason was a little more relaxed. "You sleep okay, Jason?"
"I did, Jim. Thanks."
Jon jumped in, "Methinks he fibs, Jim."
"Hey, City Boy, you best not get on my bad side. I might cut you off."
"Ooh. Best be careful there, Jonathan," Annie warned.
"I'm not worried. He'd be cutting himself off, too. No way that's going to happen."
"You got me there, Jon. I guess I shouldn't make threats I can't follow through on."
Jim made a late breakfast for the two late risers. The kids decided to hang out for the rest of the day until they left for the concert. Pete, Frannie, and Mary would come to the condo before the concert, and Jason would drop them at their homes on the way back.
The Aladdin has been an intimate venue for live entertainment in Portland since 1993. Before that, the Aladdin was successively a vaudeville house, a family-movie theater, and a porn institution where Deep Throat had a long run. These days, many singer-songwriters found the 600-seat venue and the closeness of the audience nourishing. More than a few of them had performed at the Aladdin before signing with major labels and continued to perform there after a measure of fame. Jazz, rock, folk, and the unclassifiable all found the little theater a haven.
Jason drove the group across the Willamette River on the Broadway Bridge and headed south on MLK Boulevard to Powell Boulevard and then to Milwaukee Avenue. The group chattered about music, about love, about the great unfairnesses and joys of life. Mary and Frannie had settled into a relationship with each other. Maybe the water on the west side of the Cascades contained some liberalizing tonic. Both girls still dated boys occasionally and didn't consider themselves gay. Pete often accompanied them, either as part of a couple with either of them or of a threesome.
They had decided to arrive at the theater when it opened an hour before the show. Jason found parking on a side street near the Aladdin, and the gang walked to the will-call window. The line was already long, and as they waited to enter and have their hands stamped, Jonathan recognized a couple of friends.
He called to them, "Look for us inside!"
"Okay, we will!" came the shouted reply.
The line moved briskly. "Who are they?" Jason asked Jonathan.
"They're among the first gay friends I made after I came out. They were friends with each other for a long time, but now they're a couple. You'll like them."
The seven moved through the glass front door, presenting the backs of their hands for a small stamp, and into the lobby, pleasantly jostling against the mellow crowd. The refreshment counter was on the right, and two double doorways on the left led to the aisles between the seating at the sides of theater and the center seats. Ahead, a broad staircase led to the balcony. Everyone in their group but Jason was an Aladdin veteran, so without discussion, Annie, North, and Pete went through the first door to the auditorium.
"Where are they going?" Jason asked Jonathan.
"They're going to save seats near the front if they can find seven."
"Shouldn't we help?"
"We're on cookie and drink duty with Frannie and Mary."
They bought chocolate-chip cookies, coffees, and hot chocolates and made their way into the auditorium, looking for North and the others. People had congregated at the front of the theater and in the aisles. The audience was a real mix of ages and styles — young, emo, goth, older, 60s survivors, and soccer moms and dads. Jason saw a lot of kids his age and some younger. Jonathan spotted North and led Jason and the girls through the bodies clogging the aisle, turning into a row about a third of the way from the front. North, Annie, and Pete had negotiated with some people and managed to stake out seven seats together by the aisle on the left. The refreshment detail distributed drinks and food and they all sat.
Jason looked up to the high ceiling and then turned to look back to the balcony. Toward the stage, he saw an opening on the right leading to stairs heading up to what he thought must be a space above or behind the stage. The proscenium was about fifty feet in front of their seats. Jason wondered why someone as well-known as Joan Osborne would choose to perform in this small venue.
Jonathan sensed, in the way that deeply connected people sense, that Jason was uneasy with the noise and crowd. He reached to take Jason's hand. "Take a breath, Jase. It's a bit frantic, but the people here are a good bunch."
"I'm okay. You worry too much."
Jonathan thought that he had good cause to worry about Jason. "I'm only worried because you've been under a lot of stress, and noisy crowds can't help much. Maybe coming to the show wasn't a good idea." Jonathan lifted and kissed the back of Jason's hand.
As he returned Jonathan's gesture, Jason told him, "We have to take our social life where we can find it, and coming to this concert is a great idea."
Jason's shoulders relaxed and some of the tension left his face. If Jon could touch him like this every day, the struggle would be so much easier. As he quietly waited for the show to start, barely aware of the crowd and his friends except Jon, Jason tried to identify the source of his growing discomfort.
He wasn't unhappy that he had come out nor was he surprised at his teammates' reactions, although he hadn't expected the opportunity for physical punishment in the football program. He certainly didn't feel that his sexuality was a burden, considering his fortune in finding a partner who helped him find continuing joy. He knew that Jon had been a source of strength as he stood with him struggling with his father's ambivalence toward a gay son during his final illness. He couldn't figure out what was bothering him.
Jason jolted out of his musing when he felt a hand on his shoulder from behind. As he turned to find its source, he saw a pair of arms around Jon's neck. "Jon, you did very well."
"You creeps! You scared him. Jason, these two are Charlie Wright and David Thompson. They are responsible for the boundless depth of my homosexuality."
Jason saw two happy faces — nice, normal faces: not strikingly handsome like Jonathan but not unattractive by any means. "Charlie, David, I'm more grateful than you can imagine for your assistance with the gaying of Jon."
Charlie responded, "We didn't do anything but clear the way in front of him. The rest was natural ability."
David added, "He told us you were beautiful, but he understated."
"Damn, Jon, what did you tell them?"
"I told them the truth, Jase."
The lights dimmed, and the people still milling around found their seats. Charlie whispered, "We'll talk at intermission."
A middle-aged man came to a microphone at the front of the stage and began a welcome and rundown of the coming acts. Jon whispered to Jason, "That's Mark Adler, the owner." Jason remembered that North mentioned that Jim and Tom knew Mark. As the introduction concluded, the band came onstage and picked up their instruments.
"… give a warm welcome to Joan Osborne."
As Adler walked off, Osborne walked to center stage, and the audience applauded enthusiastically, some of them screaming welcomes to her. She smiled broadly, turned her head and nodded to the band. The band kicked into gear and she began to sing His Eyes Are a Cool Million Miles.
The program continued through some songs familiar to Jason and some blues and jazz standards that Jason hadn't heard. Her voice was clear, and her range was wonderful as she navigated the emotion in each song. Jon was tapping his feet and swaying in his seat during the fast songs and holding Jason's hand tightly during the slow ones. Some in the audience called out requests between songs and shouted encouragement that she obviously heard. She smiled and joked with the crowd between songs. Jason could see now why she played the Aladdin.
She ended the first set sitting at a piano, playing alone, and singing Cathedrals.
In the cathedrals of New York and Rome
There is a feeling that you should just go home
And spend a lifetime finding out just where that is
The house lights came on, and as he stood, Jason thought that she must have aimed the closing lyrics at him. Pete, Annie, Mary, and Frannie left for a restroom break, leaving North, Jonathan, Jason, Charlie, and David stretching their legs by their seats. Charlie and David began to tell Jason some very embarrassing stories about Jon's early life — nothing hurtful, but clearly showing how close the three of them had been — as close as he felt to North. Jason began to know the relaxation of friendship with other gay boys. North, for his part, was happy to see Jason so at home with Jon and his friends and hoped that breaking the isolation he and Jason felt in Goldendale would solve some of Jason's problems.
Annie returned, saying that the others were getting some water for everyone. She touched North's cheek in concern and encouragement. Jason sensed the depth of her concern about the situation North and he were facing in Goldendale. Annie shook off those thoughts and, smiling, remarked, "I was hoping she'd sing Let's Just Get Naked.
"Annie," North protested, "knowing how horny Jason and I are, we might just do that. So, be careful what you wish for."
"Okay, Northy, I make it an official dare."
"If she sings it, I'll think about stripping."
All the other guys in the little group told North that they'd like to see that. North, speechless, actually blushed. Annie cracked up. "I don't mind sharing, but I'll only allow looking."
For the remainder of the intermission, Jason's anxiety dissipated as he learned more about Charlie and David and joked with the rest of their little group. As North watched his friend, he became convinced that he needed to talk some sense into Jason about moving back to Portland.
Maybe Jason's gaydar was improving, because he saw others in the crowd, pairs of men and women who seemed bound to each other in a special way. But what amazed Jason most was the way the obviously straight people in the audience related to the gay couples. He saw no judgment in the interactions, no distaste and no tension. He wasn't in Goldendale anymore.
When the second set started, Jonathan grabbed Jason and pulled him to the front of the theater to join a growing crowd in front of the stage. As Joan moved through a set of rocking tunes, the group clapped to the beat and danced. The singer played to the little group, and by the time the set ended people were dancing in the aisles. The last song was the melancholy When the Blue Hour Comes. Jon had his arm around Jason's shoulders, pulling him tight as the chorus ended.
And when your restless heart tears your world apart,
And everywhere you turn, it's coming down on you,
Will there be a light that shines for you?
When the blue hour comes for you
If there's anything you would have me do,
Just call on me and I'll be coming through,
I will always be there for you,
When the blue hour comes…
Jon felt Jason shudder as the words washed over them, and he could tell that Jason was trying not to cry. He quietly led Jason back to their seats. After they sat he whispered to Jason, "I'll always be there for you." Then, he kissed Jason on the cheek.
The drive home was a rollicking discussion of the show, as Jason tried to concentrate on the road. The last thing he needed was a ticket while driving the Tribeca.
Annie, North, Jonathan, and Jason made it back to the condo before midnight. Jonathan was aware that Jason was deeply fatigued. When they had all thanked the dads for helping them with the tickets and transportation, Jonathan suggested that Jason and he get to bed. Annie smiled and shook her head.
North asked, "Jon, would you go on up? I need to talk with Jason for just a few minutes, I promise."
"I'll warm up the bed. Don't be long, Jase."
Jason nodded as Annie and Jon disappeared down the hall. "You look really tired, Jason."
"I just wanted to give you a hug. You were so good at the game. I saw Steve give you a hug. That must have felt good."
"Oh, yeah. He told me I'd showed the assholes. Steve and I are going to talk when we get back. I think you're right. It's not them or us. Even if we can't change people like Jeremy, we can still change a lot of minds. We can win that way."
"Jason, you won a long time ago." North gave his friend a big hug. "You'd better get to bed. Someone's waiting for you."