"You talked to North? Amanda, you shouldn't have done that without talking to me first."
"We did talk about it."
"No, we agreed we wanted to go, and we agreed it would be cool if the school's only out, gay boy went, but we never agreed to involve North."
"Well, pardon me. I don't see what the problem is. North is important to getting Jason to agree to go. You know how shy that boy is."
"The problem is that I don't like North; he's too goddamned perfect. He has perfect parents and a perfect place to live and a perfect GPA and, if you like that sort of thing, a perfect body. He's all talent and very little work as far as I can see."
"Amy, he's a nice guy. He stuck up for Jason when no one else did. Hell, we sure didn't come screaming out of the closet to help Jason."
"I suppose. He just irritates the crap out of me."
"I think you're pissed because he never showed any interest in you."
"That's just sick."
"Oh, I don't know. I think you like to bother the boys."
The young woman rose from her desk in the classroom and greeted Tom. "Mr. Jansen, I appreciate you coming in. I know you're busy."
Tom had thought that she wanted to discuss North, who had mentioned almost at every opportunity how much he enjoyed Miss Martin's class. Tom was puzzled because North rarely was disruptive and then only with good reason — at least, from Tom's and Jim's perspective.
"I'm always happy to meet one of North's teachers, and North speaks well of you. Is he having problems?"
"Oh, no, not at all. When the school year began, North told me that you were a writer, but he didn't tell me that you were the James Jansen, who has published so much and is the author of the Gyres Chronicles."
"Miss Martin, we moved to Goldendale in part because publicity over those books was getting to be a problem. I hope you've kept this discovery to yourself."
"The internet shines its light everywhere, and with enough research, most information can be found. I haven't mentioned your celebrity to anyone but North, and he professed that he really didn't know anything about the books."
Tom smiled at that. "He's very protective of his family. Now, I don't think you asked me to see you because you want an autograph."
"No. I don't want to make things uncomfortable for you, but you must know that even in Goldendale kids who read are reading your books. But I'm more interested in poetry. North probably has a better understanding of poetry and poetics than I'll ever have, and Jason's not too far behind. I know you've been on the visiting faculty of the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop, and I was hoping you could be persuaded to visit my classes to read some of your work and talk about writing professionally."
"Have you read any of my work, other than the Chronicles?"
"I have, and I love some of your poems."
"Then you realize that I'm often labeled a gay poet and that much of my work has to do with being different?"
"But much of it has to do with how little the differences make."
"I see you have read my work," Tom said smiling.
"Would you consider visiting my classes?"
"I'm going to be frank with you. North is having enough of a hard time fitting in here, and I'm not going to complicate the situation for him. You can't be unaware of the pockets of homophobia in this community. I'm not going to give the jerks here any ammunition. Our family isn't here to make a point; we're here to live and work and, in North's case, to continue to grow up."
"I can't begin to claim real empathy for your situation, but I think once we dispose of the notion that you're a gay poet, you become just another poet, a well-known one at that, talking with students about poetry and writing."
"I'd need to talk with your principal and be sure that my visit wouldn't become political fodder for any local yahoo politicians."
"I haven't broached the subject with Mr. Henrickson yet because I wanted to talk with you first. If you're willing, I'll talk to him and arrange a meeting."
"When are you thinking I'd visit your classes?"
"I was hoping after the Homecoming Dance but before Christmas break."
Tom weighed the risks and benefits. "I'll have to talk with North and Jason, but if they don't have a problem with me coming in, I will suggest another possibility. I have a friend who was on the summer faculty at Iowa with me the year before last and who'll be visiting before Thanksgiving. He's a Viet Nam vet who has transmuted a really horrible war experience into some of the finest poetry of his generation. I suggest that he and I visit your classes together. You should understand, though, that he gets around in a wheelchair and that he's been labeled a gay poet, too."
"Once you talk with North and Jason, can we at least explore the possibility of both of you?"
On that ordinary Monday night in the living room with both his fathers, North thought about the sheer luck of landing where he had ended up.
North remembered little of his first year with his fathers, but he did remember his general state of mind. Having lived in foster care the whole of his first two and a half years, he had subsided into silence, the silence of children who had no fixed point in their lives. Many adults, including most of his foster parents, took his silence as developmental lag or worse.
North was anything but developmentally disabled. Perhaps the way he observed the adults around him signaled to Tom and Jim that the boy was special. The three-year-old's silence spoke to Tom especially, who saw in the child's eyes a hidden intelligence. Only gradually did it dawn on the child that this home high over Portland would be more than another waypoint. He saw the men's obvious affection for one another, and he felt their growing love for him, but the trust that they wouldn't send him on to another temporary home took a year to develop.
When he was nearly four and the men were seriously considering adoption, North began to talk to his fathers about his world, and it seemed to the men that years of pent-up words broke loose all at once. Names of objects, colors, and numbers all flowed out of the small, blond child. Other foster parents had read to the boy, but now he wanted to be read to almost constantly, surprising Tom by how quickly he learned to read. North, as they had named him once the adoption process was underway, began to cling to his fathers as if they might disappear if he let go. The boy reveled in physical contact, and here began the development of a life-long habit of expressing love with a hug or a touch.
North remembered a day in Delta Park when he was four and he and his family, including Annie, had met the five-year-old Jonathan. They had gone there with Bear, their Irish setter. North was fond of Bear, who had died in old age and was irreplaceable. These memories flashed through his mind.
He was once again with the men who always seemed to know instinctively when to be quiet with him and when to ask questions that helped the boy clarify any conflict he had, and this was the time for their questions. Now he wanted to hear from his fathers what they thought about the Homecoming Dance situation.
"Well, what do you think?" North asked.
"Okay, son, what's the end game here?"
"We end up with my friends going to a dance and having a good time."
"You sure the end isn't a grand statement about the cause?"
"Vi told Jason that she thought he should go. Someone has to take a chance or two gay kids dating are never going to be seen as normal here."
Jim said, "You know the meaning of normal, right? It doesn't mean good or correct. It means conforming to some standard."
"Dad Squared, stop being the statistician, all right. I want to change the norm in Goldendale. Jonathan and Jason are leaving for Seattle in a few months, but I have to live here another year."
"But, North," Tom said, "you and Annie going to the Homecoming Dance won't be seen as abnormal. Are you sure this is your fight? Do you know what Jason and Jonathan want?"
"They want to go and to be normal high-school kids at a dance. I think they're afraid, though, that if they do, they'll ignite another firestorm."
"What do you think of that fear?"
North was quiet for a moment. He didn't want his enthusiasm for helping his friends to have a high-school experience to overwhelm the small but nagging concern for any potential fallout.
"I suppose it could turn into a big deal."
"Well, then, shouldn't the decision be entirely theirs? If the girls are determined to go and you want to support them, we'll be right behind you, but be careful that you and Annie don't lose sight of Jason's concerns."
On Saturday, Jim and Tom had retired to their bedroom, leaving the entertainment room to the young people. Annie and North were keyed up to talk about the Homecoming Dance. Jason had mentioned that his mother assumed that he and Jonathan would be going, and North had told Annie about his conversation with Amanda. Now, Annie's skills as a planner were beginning to surface.
"So, you and Jon know about Amanda and Amy, right?"
Jonathan answered for them both, "Yes, Annie, we know."
"How are we going to approach this?"
Jason answered, "We are not going to approach anything. Assuming you want to, you and North are going to the dance. Jon and I will go to the dance because we want to go, not to give Amanda and Amy cover. This isn't going to be a big deal, Annie."
"Have you lost your mind? You do realize the significance of Homecoming?"
"Birds returning to a monastery, right?" Jason asked.
North intervened, "Annie is taking this very seriously. Don't give her a hard time, please."
"Sorry," Jason added, "I get the significance. It's all about football."
"Right," Annie plunged on, "the perfect event to open the eyes of this little burg."
Jon picked up the thread, "Annie, if we go, we'll go because we want to dance and because this is Jase's hometown, not because we want to make a statement."
"God, you guys are irritating. You've already made the statement by coming out. Now you're going to do what other kids in love do, go to a school dance."
North finally tried to end the conversation. "Annie, Jon and Jason will go if they want to go. They'll help Amanda and Amy if they can, but you don't have to live here for the rest of the year; Jason does."
"North Underhill, don't you lecture me. All I'm suggesting is that our friends shouldn't hide and deprive themselves of an experience to which they have every right. Besides, they are so cute when they dance together." The last came with one of Annie's remarkable smiles.
Jason and Jon looked at each other and were silent.
The four huddled together on the couch, eating popcorn and watching old films directed by James Whale. Bride of Frankenstein was the jewel, and the four of them alternately laughed and sighed their ways through the story. They finished with the 1936 version of Showboat.
Jonathan, particularly, but Jason as well, had detected a subtle change in North's and Annie's relationship. The two blonds were still affectionate, but something was growing between them, and Jonathan was becoming worried. He had no reason to believe that any relationship would last forever, although he and Jason behaved as though theirs would, and his life had always had Annie and North, their names run together and never disconnected.
Spread across the floor, four sleeping bags created two small islands in the room, one for North and Annie and one for Jonathan and Jason. When the lights were out and the couples, adrift on their islands, settled into the place between consciousness and sleep, Jon finally said what he'd been trying not to say all night. Looking at Jason, he asked of the other two, "Are you two going to be all right when we go to Seattle?"
Jason rushed to add, "Jon, that's not a very tactful way of putting the question." He tried to say it differently, but couldn't come up with the words. "Well, shit, I guess there isn't a tactful way. We don't want to pry, but we're worried."
Worry hardly sufficed to describe Jonathan's concern. For him, North and Annie as a couple had always been a presence in his life. In the minutes of silence before North and Annie answered, Jon reflected on a day in Delta Park, a reflection that had been a part of his life since then.
Jonathan remembered that day eleven years earlier in a way he remembered nothing else of that year. His parents had taken him to Delta Park in North Portland, partly to exercise the dog and partly to get Jon out of the house. It was wet with off-and-on rain, causing smells of wet evergreens and wet dogs that would never leave Jon's memory. His father had been throwing a tennis ball from a little sling device, and the dog was wildly scampering after the fuzzy, battered thing. Jonathan's father urged Jon to throw the ball, but Jon declined, knowing he would only succeed in burying the ball in the ground ten feet in front of him.
At the age of five, Jonathan knew he was different from other boys. His father knew as well, but because he loved his son as he had never loved any other human other than his wife, he saw Jonathan as perfect just as he was. Both his parents knew that Jonathan was uncomfortable around other boys, some of whom had begun to tease him.
Jonathan had begun to isolate himself, mostly staying indoors and reading his little books or listening to music, and when he went out, he chose slightly flamboyant fashions. Jonathan had already begun to heed subtle messages about how he should move, how he should control his gestures, how he should carry himself. At first, his mother had tried to persuade her son to tone down his flamboyant style, but the young Jonathan was stubborn about expressing himself. His father admired him for that refusal to conform.
That fall day under clouds, on the soggy ground of the park, Jonathan had wandered away from his parents until they were figures in the distance. He danced a bit as he wandered alone. When he looked ahead, he saw two men, a small blond boy, and a slender blond girl playing with an Irish Setter. Even at five, his heart lurched when he regarded the boy.
In a moment, a fuzzy, gooey tennis ball was arcing in the air toward him followed by a large, wet dog. The blond boy, seeing Jonathan, the ball, and the dog and a possible collision, ran toward him, in the most graceful way Jonathan had seen anyone run. The boy arrived at Jonathan's side just after the dog had deftly torn past him to retrieve the ball and race back to the two men. Jonathan looked into clear, blue eyes and felt a rare instance of comfort in the presence of another boy.
"Hey. My name is North," the blond said, his breathing apparently unaffected by his run.
"My name is Jonathan. How old are you?"
"Four. Are you four?"
Looking back to the men and the girl, North said, "Annie's four, too."
Then the blond boy did the most unexpected thing that Jonathan had ever experienced. North hugged him. Jonathan didn't understand why then, but he sensed an inchoate sense of freedom in that moment. As the boys talked about where they lived and their dogs, the two men and the girl walked up, with the reddish setter now on a leash.
Jonathan looked at the three until one of the men said, "Hi. I see you've met North. I'm Tom, this is Jim, and this is Annie, North's best friend. We're North's fathers. I hope he didn't frighten you with the hug; he's big on hugs."
Jonathan replied, "I'm Jonathan Sumner. I liked the hug."
This chance meeting would begin an enduring friendship with a boy who, until they reached adolescence, held his hand when they walked together and embraced him whenever they met or parted and who never questioned the way Jonathan expressed his spirit. Even now, Jonathan could not remember much of his life before Annie and North.
Later, North had promised Jonathan that he would never have to hide himself when they were together, and through his sometimes-painful childhood, even when he had fallen in love with North, Jonathan had relied on that always-fulfilled promise. Jonathan recalled that even at eleven he would walk in Pioneer Square downtown with North holding his hand on one side and Annie's on the other.
The men, the children, and Bear walked back to meet Jonathan's parents.
In the darkness, North said, "Annie and I love each other as much as we always have. Being apart when I'm here has been harder than we imagined, and we're trying to figure out how we'd do it if we go to different schools when we graduate."
Annie's voice continued in the darkness, "Jonathan, you'll always have both of us backing you no matter what happens."
Annie's statement sounded elegiac to Jonathan.
"You two need to clear your heads about this. If you don't try, you'll regret it forever." Jon's voice was quavering.
Annie, surprised at Jon's level of distress, tried to soothe him. "Jon, we haven't decided anything. I can't imagine life without Northy, but we have to talk about potential problems." Jon wasn't mollified, but he knew better than to press North and Annie.
He had seen Jason wounded at his father's death, and he wondered if the dread he felt now about North and Annie was anything like what Jason went through then with the loss of a major part of one's life.
After a while, the long day got to them and only the sounds of the quiet breathing of sleep hung in the air.
He was half-dressed, and inescapable dread filled him at his lack of preparation. Others were waiting as he looked desperately for his clothing, waiting to do something important. An overwhelming sense of deficiency gripped him as he wandered around the house searching for his clothing. As he moved to the door of the dark house, at once familiar and strange, its familiar identity masked by a strange layer of dishevelment — curtains torn, furniture tattered, floors peeling varnish — he felt the panic rise.
As he reached the open door, he heard his truck engine running, but he couldn't see the truck. The utter disappointment at his lack of preparation, of character, of worth, weighed on him, producing heart-pounding anxiety.
Then, he was moving from the light into the dark horse barn. Now he was naked. Ben and Martin were astride their mounts along with other farmhands, looking to Jason. Jason felt utterly perplexed as he looked around the barn for his clothing and his tack. He tried to ask for help.
From a distance, he heard a whispered voice calling to him. "Jase! Jase, wake up."
"Jase, you're having a nightmare."
He woke suddenly to find Jon's face over his. "Jon?"
Jon gently kissed Jason and, trying not to wake the other two, whispered, "You were whimpering, like you wanted to say something."
"Sorry to wake you up, Jon. Just a bad dream."
"Like the others?"
"Yeah. I'm okay."
"You don't seem as frightened."
"I'm more curious now about why this kind of dream comes to me so often. It's becoming like an old friend tapping me on the shoulder, trying to remind me of something."
"Was your father in this one?"
"No, I didn't feel him at all. I was alone."
"I'm sorry I can't climb into your dreams with you, Jase," Jon whispered before they fell asleep again.
Sunday morning the Js were awake first and snuggled while waiting for the other two to wake. When North and Annie finally opened their eyes, the first words out of Jason's mouth were, "We're going."
Annie smiled and hugged North and then hopped up, ran over, and hugged Jon and Jason. "Let's ask Amanda and Amy to come over later so we can talk about how you will do this."
"Yes, ma'am," Jon mocked Annie's mothering.
After breakfast, North called Amanda and invited her and Amy to drop by. Amanda knew that getting Amy to agree would be a test, but she was determined. "We'll come after lunch."
At North's place, the four spent the morning in North's room playing video games and listening to music. After a couple of hours of watching the boys killing monsters, Annie screamed, "Pause!"
The boys paused the game and looked at her with more than a little irritation. "All right. I want to see a preview of the dance. Jon and Jason, let's see your moves." From North's docked iPhone Stephin Merritt began to blare through the speakers.
Grand pianos crash together when my boy walks down the street
There are whole new kinds of weather when he walks with his new beat
Everyone sings hallelujah when my boy walks down the street
Life just kind of dances through ya from your smile down to your feet
Amazing he's a whole new form of life
Blue eyes blazing and he's going to be my wife
The world does the hula-hula when my boy walks down the street
Everyone thinks he's Petula so big and yet so petite
Butterflies turn into people when my boy walks down the street
Maybe he should be illegal he just makes life too complete…
Jason and Jon couldn't stop laughing as they attempted to dance the tango to the retro tune. Annie started calling Jason "Petula," and North insisted on taking Jon for a spin. For a few minutes Jon felt that Annie and North were as he had always known them.
Finally, Tom called up, "Are you guys all right?"
North called back, "Yeah, Dad. We're fine." And, for a few minutes, they all were. They shut down the PlayStation and tromped downstairs to wait for their visitors.
"What was that?" Tom asked.
"When My Boy Walks Down the Street," Annie laughed.
"The Magnetic Fields," Tom said. The teenagers stared at him. "What? I can't like them?"
Jon said for them all, "Tom, for an old guy, you are an alternative-music god."
A bit later, a knock on the door announced Amanda's and Amy's arrival. Tom opened the door and waved to the mother who had dropped them off. The girls came in, and North introduced them to Jonathan and Annie. Amanda was warm, almost effusive, as she greeted the others. By contrast, Amy was reserved and almost surly to North. North sensed her rancor immediately and would spend the afternoon trying to figure out what he had done to piss her off.
"I'll leave you to your planning," Tom said, moving into his office and shutting the door.
"Your father is hot, North," Amanda said. Amy rolled her eyes.
"Thanks. Hot, I don't know, but he's the best. Both of them are."
Annie suggested, "Let's sit and talk about how we want this to go."
Amy immediately said, "We? I think you and North pretty much know how things will go for you."
Amanda gave Amy a sharp look, but Annie didn't rise to the bait. "You're right, Amy. This is about you and Amanda and Jon and Jason, but North and I do want to help."
Amy warmed a bit to Annie but continued to ignore North. In an hour, the plan was set. The Goldendale kids would request approval to bring Jonathan and Annie to the dance, creating a group of three boys and three girls. They figured that those requests wouldn't arouse any suspicions. They would all go to the dance together, arriving after a crowd was already in the gym, and then they would let the chips fall. They thought the worst that would happen was that they'd be kicked out. Annie would ask Tom to stand by to rescue them in that eventuality.
Over the hour, North tried to be helpful, hoping that Amy would stop behaving so coldly, but he got nowhere. By the time the guests left, he had decided that she wasn't worth a concerted effort to cultivate a friendship.
Friday-night football was good to the Timberwolves. They beat Naches Valley, giving the home crowd what had become a rare treat this season.
Homecoming, however, was an inaccurate description of the weekend. Few graduates of GHS returned from distant homes for the festivities, which left the celebrating to the few diehards that had remained in Goldendale during the economic hard times after the aluminum smelter closed, taking away hundreds of jobs. The local, former high-school athletes who were still there seemed determined to wallow in nostalgia for an imagined glorious past. For them the weekend was about football, not dancing.
The dance on Saturday featured the current crop of football players, especially those graduating in June. Jason, Jeremy, and Steve were part of that class.
As they had planned, North had secured permission for Annie to attend the dance with him, and Amanda had done the same for Jonathan. Some of their classmates deduced the ruse, and Facebook and Twitter lit up, but the adults responsible for the dance seemed oblivious. Even Jeremy, perhaps still chastened by his conversation with Martin, didn't roil the water.
During the week before the game and dance, the Homecoming King and Queen were crowned, and the students lamely tried to revive the tradition of a downtown parade to whip up football fervor.
Jason was more and more ambivalent about his decision, but after the dream on the previous Saturday night, the decision seemed right, although he couldn't entirely see why. Something about his situation in the dream suggested the need to go into and then emerge from a dark place like the barn. Maybe, he thought, I don't need to find clothing I've lost; maybe I need to shed all the clothing and march back out into the light.
Both he and Jon were deeply puzzled by Amy's clear dislike of North, and they saw that North was disappointed that he couldn't make a connection with the girl. But they had agreed to the plan, and now they would see whether Goldendale would convulse as a result.
The dance began in the gym at seven, and Tom dropped them off fifteen minutes after seven so that they could lose themselves in the crowd. His four musketeers, with their friends Amy and Amanda, had instructions to call Tom if any difficulties arose. Tom honestly had no idea what would develop, but if the kids were asked to leave the dance, Tom would be sure that nothing else punitive would come their way. He admired them for the decision to test the acknowledged limits of the community, and he especially admired the bravery of Jason, who had lived here all his life.
Tom drove down Simcoe Drive, turned left onto the school grounds and then right to join others in line dropping kids off. He watched his charges walk in a loose group toward the gym. To an observer, the relationships among the six would have been impossible to determine. Much as he wanted to hang around, he realized that this was their show and drove back toward Roosevelt Blvd. and then home.
Over the past few weeks, more of his fellow students, led by Brent and Steve, were talking to Jason again. A live-and-let-live attitude had emerged after Jeremy's campaign of harassment had abated. As the friends walked into the gym, people either greeted or ignored them, but none of the other kids did anything to cause a problem. In a way, the presence of Amanda and Amy only confirmed rumors.
Jason wasn't anxious at all, but Jonathan's stomach was churning. Jon didn't give a crap about how people treated him, but he was damned if he was going to let anyone give Jason shit. He'd been through these trials on and off his entire life and thought that the time had come for no one else to have to run a gauntlet for being gay.
A local band was playing when they entered the gym. About fifty kids were on the gym floor. The faculty chaperones seemed to have been trained at the same school that has trained chaperones since the 1940s, circulating mainly around the edges of the floor ready to swoop in and disconnect any inappropriate PDAs.
The North group began dancing in boy-girl couples — no sense in frightening the horses just yet. As they danced, Steve and his girl edged close to Jason, and Steve indicated to Jason that he needed to say something to him. Jason moved away from Amy, curious as to what was coming.
"Let me know when you want to dance with Jonathan. Some of us will have you covered."
"Don't be an idiot, Jason. Some of the guys and I are going to screen you from the dance police."
Jason saw no moral judgment left in his old friend's eyes. "Thanks, Steve," Jason said, smiling.
Jonathan had observed the conversation at first with anxiety and then, when he saw Jason smile, with interest. As the gym filled until perhaps a hundred kids were now dancing, Jason told Jonathan what Steve had said. From one to another in the little group, the message passed. Fast dancing wasn't a problem because the adults couldn't be clear on who was dancing with whom. The two gay couples managed to dance together without being terribly obvious. When a slow song started, Jason nodded to Steve.
Within thirty seconds, ten football players and their dates formed a loose circle, leaving the six in the center. North and Annie worked their way into the outer circle. Jason and Jonathan and the girls in the center formed their partnerships and began to dance slowly.
At that same moment, people were gathered at the Goldendale Observatory a mile to the north to begin a night of stargazing. They observed no planets deviate from their orbits, and the moon did not plunge earthward.
For Jason and Jonathan, the dance took them back to their first dance in Portland. For Amy and Amanda, the dance was a first experience in living authentically in public. The chaperones didn't see the two couples in the center of the protective circle, or if they did, ignored them. Jonathan and Jason and Amy and Amanda simply enjoyed being teenagers in love. At one point, Jonathan looked at Steve and nodded his thanks. He knew that a friendship had been recovered.
North and Annie melted into their own world as well, relieved of sole responsibility for guarding the others. Annie felt the same as she had with North for the three years they had been more than best friends. She couldn't see a way clear to being apart from him and couldn't see a way of being anything but his soul mate.
The dance progressed in this way, the protective circle breaking apart during the fast dances and reforming during the slow dances. After an hour and a half, the plan called for the six to leave, and they walked out of the gym to the smiles and thumbs-up of many of the students, who even if they couldn't understand the gay thing, could certainly enjoy putting something over on the chaperones. Outside, North called Tom.
"No problems, Dad, but we're ready."
Tom was there in ten minutes in the Tribeca and scooped the six happy teenagers up. He dropped Amy and Amanda off at Amy's home. As she was leaving the car, Amy finally had a civil word for North. The others went back to North's, where Jason called his mother to let her know how things had gone, and then the four kids debriefed the experience with Jim and Tom, who marveled at the way some of the other football players had supported Jason and Jon.
North and Annie quietly listened to the boys, who obviously found much greater comfort in the action of their friends than they did in going to a dance. Tom thought that Jason's journey was, in fact, a classical hero's journey. He recalled his first encounter with Jason when he realized how much potential the boy had and how difficult his immediate path would be. He remembered their discussion of William Carlos Williams and his surprise at the depth of the boy whom he now thought of as North's older brother.
Take the small victories where you can, Tom thought.