Triptychs – Chapter 14
I lost my bet with Cole – the one about Erik calling, I mean – I lost the bet, a little more than a week after that utterly shitty night.
Well, I guess I lost it; Erik didn’t exactly call me, he texted me, which is just a step above an email, after all. And it was pretty brief, even for a text message:
? call me ?
The two question marks on either side were a nice touch, though; they took a little extra effort, and made it a little plaintive, not like some kind of command, or something.
And he sent it in the middle of the morning, and I got it while I was hurrying to my English class; and as I was reading it, stopped dead, in the middle of the walkway going downhill towards Meiklejohn Hall, I just know I busted out with a grin, a huge grin, all over my face. People actually smiled at me, as they went by.
I didn’t call him back right then – duh.
I mean, there was that whole weird scene, at the end of our last date . . . and, the fact that it’d been almost three weeks since I’d heard anything from him, anything at all, even a single word; no, calling him right then, or even that morning, would have been seriously uncool.
But maybe, besides that – I didn’t call him back right then, because I wanted to savor it, for a few minutes; a few hours.
Savoring it is what kept me grinning, still, when I got to our Learning Group, a little late.
“Hi, Trev,” and “Hey,” from some of my group-mates; and I hey’d them back, and then I kind of clicked eyes and smiled with Noah, the way we’ve started doing. Then –
“Somebody looks cheerful today,” went Kat; smiling over at me.
“Yeah; I’ve got a date!” I said, happily. I put down my backpack, and dropped into my chair. “Well, I think I do, anyway. I will.” I looked around at the eight or nine of us, for a second; then I scanned the rest of the room. “No Jose?”
“Not yet, anyway,” went Kat; sounding just a little grim. Fuck, I thought to myself.
“So that boyfriend of yours finally called - ?” went Daniel, the blond guy, with an amused look. I’d been right about him, that first day of school; he was a little bit of a smartass, and I really liked him.
I amped up my grin again. “Sort of. He texted me. He said, ‘call me’. But he wouldn’t have texted me, if he didn’t want another date.” I smiled, for just a second. “And he’s not my boyfriend, I’m just dating him.”
I carefully kept my eyes away from Noah; I figured his own eyes would be way down, buried in his work. Poor kid; Cole and I really did need to give him a hand.
“Dude,” went Daniel, “if I went three weeks without calling Beth, I wouldn’t be her boyfriend, either. And I wouldn’t even be dating her, anymore. And I don’t think I’d still have my balls.”
Laughter, from around our little circle; a loud, surprised peal of it from Ron, the Not-Erik-Guy, Noah’s friend. I glanced over at them; yep, Noah was heads-down, hiding behind the bill of his cap.
“Yeah, well, it’s not exactly like that, for us,” I went, grinning. “We’re just sort-of dating.” I stopped for just a second, and I looked back at Kat. “So, nobody’s seen Jose, at all? Heard about him - ?” I looked around; head-shakes, or looking away.
It’s amazing, how the Learning Group thing has worked. Well, at least for our little piece of it; mostly, the same group of us that met, that first day of school; we seemed to just naturally group together, and talk, and get to know each other.
And Jose’d been the construction-worker guy, that first day; it turned out, he was from El Salvador, and he was really smart, he’d been a university student there before he’d been forced to leave, with his family; and only now, more than twenty years later, he was getting back to college.
Only, he’d been missing for three meetings, now, and it was looking more and more like maybe he’d dropped out. Which would be really, deeply sad, on so many levels.
“I’ll ask Cynthia,” went Kat. “She can’t really tell us about him, officially . . . but.”
“I hope he comes back,” went Daniel, a little – I don’t know. Wistfully, maybe? “He was going to help me with my Latin American Lit papers, this quarter. He actually knows what Gabriel Garcia Marquez is talking about, in his novels. I mean, he understands it, like a gringo like me never could.” He looked a little sad, as he said it.
Yeah – we actually were helping each other, with our homework.
Well, to be honest, it was about more than just homework; a lot of it was about helping each other navigate through school, manage the forms and the bureaucracy. Michelle, the quieter African-American girl – she, particularly, needed a lot of help with the school bureaucracy.
“I’ll ask Cynthia about Jose,” Kat went, again; a little firmly.
In a lot of ways, Kat was turning into a kind of group leader; she organized and took responsibility, Daniel and I took turns snarking and laughing, Michelle just spread her shy sweetness, and the rest just kind of listened, while they worked. It’s funny how groups of people can work out; you know?
Like it started working, right then. There was a kind of glum pause, for a second; then –
“Did you call him back yet?” from Michelle, to me; with a really nice smile. I was pretty sure I was her Very First Real Live Ho-Mo-Sexual, she’d been a little wary of me, at first, but she’d totally opened up to me, in the last couple of weeks.
And of course, I couldn’t help grinning back at her. “Are you kidding? He just sent it, like, a few minutes ago. He’s in class, right now; but even so, I won’t call him back ‘til tonight. Or,” I went on, thinking out loud, grinning to myself, now – “Maybe tomorrow night would better . . . Yeah; yeah. Tomorrow night would definitely be better.”
“Why?” asked Kat; and I could see, she was sincerely interested.
“Because he went three weeks without calling me!” I laughed. “It’s punishment! Maybe by tomorrow night, he’ll start wondering if I’m ever going to call him back . . . ”
“And you really want him to wonder that - ?” from Michelle; she sounded a little horrified. And that just made me grin a little wider; she was so lucky, and her boyfriend Darien was so lucky, I was really hoping I’d get to meet him, someday.
“No . . . No, not really. I was exaggerating; he knows I’ll call him back.” I shrugged a little. “We both know I’ll call him back. But I’d be pathetic if I called him back today, and still a little lame, maybe, if I called him tonight. Tomorrow night will be about right; just late enough to show I’m a little pissed at him, not late enough for him to start getting pissed off at me.” I grinned at her, again. “Yeah; tomorrow night is just about right.”
I heard a kind of muffled snigger from my right, from where Daniel was sitting; and then, a second later, he let it out, he just, laughed out loud.
“What - ?” I asked; grinning, and starting to crack up, myself, a little.
“You!” he said, still laughing, between breaths. He shook his head, smiling. “You should see yourself, dude; I mean, you’re so cold about it, you’re so calculating! And you admit it!” He shook his head again, still smiling. “I really admire that!”
“Hey!” I went, laughing back at him, a little. “So, of course I’m calculating! Who isn’t, when they’re dating? Didn’t you do stuff like that, with your girlfriend - ?”
“Well, yeah! But it all came from her side, I swear; it was always something new from her, I never really knew what was going on!” He paused a second, and looked sideways, a little. “Not that I always know what’s going on, these days, either . . . ”
“Oh, come on,” Kat broke in. Looking skeptical. “You are NOT going to give me that old, tired, war-between-the-sexes cra – excuse me, stuff. Are you? You don’t think boys play their little dating games, just like girls do?” She tilted her head to one side as she looked at Daniel; Daniel grinned back at her.
“Well – maybe we do. Maybe. But not the same way - !”
“Oh, yeah,” Kat broke in again. Smiling herself, now; ironically. “So, when a boy says, “I’ll call you, I promise I’ll call you,” and he’s oh, so sincere, and you never hear from him again – that’s not part of the whole dating game?”
Ouch, I thought to myself. That was a little close to home.
“Uh-huh,” unexpectedly, from Annie – one of the usually-quiet ones. With a huge grin on her face, and a light in her eyes. “And I love when they play all innocent; like, ‘I didn’t know I was supposed to call you! You never told me, I was supposed to call you!’ I get that a lot, from my boyfriend.”
“Well, do you tell him?” asked Daniel, still laughing.
“Oh, please. He knows when he’s screwed up, he knows when he’s supposed to call – ” Annie was Asian American, and maybe five foot two, and slender; and I SO would not want to cross her, I could just tell. I really sympathized with her boyfriend.
“So,” from Daniel. “He’s only supposed to call, when he’s screwed up - ?”
“That’s when he NEEDS to call,” from Annie; laughing, herself, now, laughing AT herself, actually. “His name is Antonio, and he knows when he deserves to get spanked. He calls me all the time, but he knows he has to call me when he does something wrong.” Her lips settled into a quirky smile. “And that’s when I spank him.”
“Hmmmmm . . . ” from Kat; speculating, maybe. With some appreciation all her own, from her expression; and I so totally had to grin.
“Boys,” I said; flicking my eyes to Daniel’s. “Can’t live with them; can’t live without them.” And I sighed, as he laughed.
* * *
“Ouch,” I went; I’d sat down on the parking lot curb, just a little too hard.
“Yeah,” from Noah, as he sat down beside me, a little more carefully.
Later that day; Noah and me with coffees, after work-study; settling down at that same, epic view spot, that I’d shown to Cole. I mean, how perverse it is; that CSUEB had this place with such an unbelievable view, and they’d built a parking lot on it - ?
We’d been shelving. Putting books on shelves, in the right sections, checking them off the same fucking inventory lists, using the same fucking SKU numbers.
Which worked different muscle groups, than Receiving. Which meant, being sore in new and exciting parts of our bodies.
“Ow,” I said again, grinning a little, as I stretched my back. Looking out at the incredible view; both of us drenched in the autumn sun, all of San Francisco Bay laid out below us. “Sometimes I think I need to start . . . I don’t know. Working out again, or something.” I twisted my upper body around, a little; it felt good.
“You used to work out - ?” from Noah, at my side; and as I glanced over at him, sharp, I could see just a little hint of an ironic smile.
“Uh-huh,” I went, and I could feel my own mouth quirk up on one side. “Well, just swimming for a few hours every day wasn’t all that challenging; so we did some light weight training, too.” I looked back down at the glistening water of the Bay, and the slow-moving – from here – trail of jets, lining up to land at the airport.
“I was just kidding,” from Noah. “I had some friends, on our swim team.”
“I figured,” I said. Glad, that he’d relaxed enough to make another joke; wishing he hadn’t felt like he needed to explain it. It was only the fourth time we’d gone out for espresso, after work, but I figured we were getting to know each other; like he was opening up to me, a little.
Me, I’m pretty open to most people; it’s kind of my default setting.
“But,” I went on, “you know what I’m saying, right?” I slid my eyes sideways, to him. “Once you get used to training, once you get used to BEING in training – you miss it, when you’re not doing it. Right? You miss using your body, you miss how it feels – ”
“Yeah,” he said, with feeling; his eyes on the view, in front of us. “I know exactly what you mean.” And then his eyes came over, to meet mine. “But, did you really need to stop? DID you stop? I mean, you look like you’re in shape . . . ” His eyes ran over me, a second, and I looked away.
“Yeah; well. Work happened, I guess; my summer job happened, I worked a lot of hours.” And, I wasn’t exactly comfortable, leaving my mom alone, nights; I didn’t say. “And now there’s work-study.” I grinned, a little sardonically. “And the little thing about studying; that, too.”
“I know,” went Noah; putting his chin down in his hand. “I know. I try to run every day, just to keep myself in some kind of condition . . . but I missed out, today. I’ve been missing out a lot, lately.”
“Running - ?”
“Yeah,” from Noah; that slightly-ironic smile back, as he looked out over the Bay. “Yeah, our coach had us running, off-season, or any time we weren’t doing fielding or batting drills. Always running. We put in more mileage than our cross-country team.”
I had to laugh. “On my swim team, we figured we put in more mileage than the cross-country team, too. In the water.” I shook my head. “Poor guys; I wonder who THEY compared themselves to, when they were bitching about their training - ?” And Noah gave a quick, little laugh.
Quiet, then, between us; for a minute, then another. The two of us, just sipping our espressos.
The light was so different now, in October, than even a month; ago; more golden, more horizontal, casting deeper shadows, turning the whole Bay gold-blue. The sunlight glinted from the cars, specks on the roads far below; and from the windows of the buildings across the Bay, and the moving water. It was a completely breathtaking view, a totally magic place to be, and I already knew I had to film it all, get as much of the beauty of it all as I could, into my next project. Or some next project.
Noah’d been as blown away by the view as me; I’d dragged him here the first time we had coffee together after work, and now we just headed here automatically.
It was comfortable.
“Yeah,” I went; lazily. Still fascinated by the light, the colors, below us. “Yeah; my friend Cole’s started swimming again, with his boyfriend Jeremy. Just to stay in shape; like we were saying. Maybe I’ll try to go swimming with them; on weekends, anyway.” I had a moment’s brief vision of Cole and me, maybe ganging up to dunk Jeremy –
“Was Cole ever your boyfriend?” from Noah.
“What - ?!” It just came out of me, a little explosively; I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach.
“I’m sorry,” he went; then, “Sorry.” I glanced sideways at him, and saw him swallow. “It’s just that you’re always talking about him, about growing up with him . . . ” He was bright red under his baseball cap now; embarrassed.
“That’s okay,” I said. After a couple of beats. Trying to make my voice sound casual. I looked back out at the blue-gold water, and I curled up a corner of my mouth. “That’s cool . . . and, no, we were never boyfriends.” I took a slow breath. “We’re best friends. Well, maybe a little more . . . it’s hard to explain.”
It wasn’t really a lie; I told myself, as I launched into it. God, I hate lying, about me and Cole. Or my fucked-up part of us, anyway.
“Cole and I are only kids, both of us, no brothers or sisters. Not even any cousins, close to our age; his are too young, mine are a lot older.” I shrugged. “So, we kind of . . . adopted each other. We’re best friends, but over time, we sort of got closer. Like substitute brothers, maybe.”
Quiet for a couple of seconds, as I took a sip of my lukewarm espresso.
“That’s cool,” went Noah. Face inscrutable now, as he gazed out at the view. “That’s really good, actually. For both of you, I mean. I don’t know what it’d be like, growing up without my brother Isaac around.”
“Yeah,” I said. Remembering a lot of things, Cole and me. “Yeah, well, we didn’t completely grow up with each other, but we’re really close.” I paused, a long pause. “Maybe a little too close.”
Oh, fuck-me, I thought, immediately. Fuck me, where did THAT come from - ?
I held my breath; but, nothing from Noah, just silence, as he took a sip from his own iced-latte drink, not looking at me.
And then I realized – well.
I guess I realized, that Noah was a really good listener. And maybe, that his own shy, in-the-closet vulnerability, made me . . . want to be honest with him. As honest as I could get away with, anyway.
And maybe I realized how hard it was, how hard it’s been, keeping my fucked-up feelings for Cole a secret, for year after year after year . . .
Maybe that was getting harder to do, all the time.
“Yeah,” I said; wanting to fill in the dangerous silence. “Yeah; so, I tell Cole everything about my dates. And he tells me everything about him and his boyfriend.” I felt myself starting to grin. “Sometimes, we try to top each other, with what we tell; it’s fun.” I glanced sideways again at him, in the golden light –
Uh-oh. His head was back down, now, and he was sort-of looking away . . . his whole body just read, I’m uncomfortable, talking like this.
Silence, then, for a stretch of seconds. The two of us, sipping our drinks, just absorbing the view, the bridges and the light and the enormous expanse of the Bay, below us. The momentary awkwardness, fading, slowly.
And then, because –
Well, I don’t know why I had to ask it; actually; except, maybe, it’s part of who I am, always putting my foot in it. Or maybe, just maybe, because I wanted to help him get a little more comfortable with himself . . .
“How about you?” I asked. Gently. Carefully looking down at the bridge, below us, not at him. “Are you dating anybody, right now?”
I could just feel him freeze, beside me.
More silence, for beat after beat after beat, and I wondered if he was going to say anything at all; then –
“No. Not right now . . . ”
For once in my life, I knew to keep my mouth shut; I just waited.
“It’s kind of complicated,” Noah went on, at last.
Another stretch of silence. The glint of light off the cars on the freeway, below, crawling along.
“I was kind-of involved with somebody for a really long time, for most of high school . . . and after that, I dated somebody else, for the last part of Senior year.” Another pause; and I could feel him shrug, beside me. “And that didn’t really work out. They wanted to go into the military, the Air Force, instead of going to college . . . which is cool, of course. But they also didn’t want to go on dating.” Another pause, and another shrug, I saw it out of the corner of my eye. “So, I’m not dating anybody, right now.”
Ouch. I could read a lot, between the lines. “I’m sorry – ”
“Don’t be.” He turned his self-aware, little sideways-smile at me. “The first person I was involved with . . . well, it was, like, impossible. We weren’t a couple, ever.” He turned back to look at the view. “And then, the person I was actually dating . . . . it was never really right. You know? It was never real, between us . . . ”
I let the silence build, for a second. Then –
“Yeah; yeah. But it’s hard to tell at the time, isn’t it?”
“Yeah.” I saw him turn a surprised look at me, out of the corner of my eye, but I just kept looking out, and down.
Thinking, on one level, about his obvious, careful avoiding of ‘he’ or ‘she’, in his story; it really was obvious, he wasn’t fooling either of us, and he knew it. But that was okay, whatever made him comfortable, or less-uncomfortable, was okay . . .
But on a whole different level, just quickly – I was thinking about me and Erik; of course. Wondering about – well, dating him. Was THAT real - ?
And, fuck-me, did I really want it to be?
I shook my head a little. Back to focusing on Noah; this shy kid sitting next to me, who probably just came closer to coming out, than he ever had, before.
“Well,” I started; still looking out in front of us. “You know – college is the place to meet people. That’s what everybody says; it’s the right place to explore around a little, meet new people, try new things . . . Lots of new dating opportunities, here.”
“I know,” from Noah. Softly. A short pause; then – “That’s part of the reason why I’m here. Instead of Sacramento State, or something, I mean; some place where I’d still be living at home . . . ”
I blinked at that, a second; then I felt the grin just slowly, spreading all over my face. “Cool,” I said; then, “Cool.” I reached over and I squeezed his shoulder, really briefly, and I felt him give a little start. “Maybe, sometime, me and Erik can go out on a double date with you and – somebody new. Right - ?”
“Maybe.” He was looking away again, blushing; and that body language was back, that, I’m-uncomfortable-talking-about-this, tension. But that didn’t keep me from grinning at him. Oh, YAY; I figured this shy boy was maybe going to turn out all right after all.
“Well,” I went on, thoughtfully. But still grinning. “That’s assuming Erik and I go on dating. Assuming he didn’t text me, to break up with me, or something . . . ”
I didn’t think it was why he texted me.