Behind The Silver Screen
By Jerry Miller
Eric and I packed up the stuff in my bedroom and took it out to the car. I had my record albums and phonograph, which I was sure Eric would be using soon. I couldn’t remember the last time I felt this excited. After loading the last of my belongings, I gave my mother the phone number at Eric’s. She and I had always stayed in touch before and I didn’t see any reason to change that. She hugged Eric and then me.
Out in the car I grabbed Eric’s hand and said, “Thanks for being a good sport in there.”
“I should kick your butt for that,” he said. “It was so weird meeting your mother.”
I laughed and said, “I have to admit it was weirder than meeting yours.”
I started the car and headed to his house.
“How did you meet my mother?”
“Didn’t she tell you?”
“No, and I really never asked.”
“It was at Mike’s viewing, the
night before the funeral. Ben and I tried to sneak in unnoticed. It didn’t work;
you’re mother was expecting me. Mike had told her about us.”
“I remember Mike’s last night when he and my mother had their conversation. I had gotten up to go to the bathroom and I saw Mike’s door open and the lights on downstairs. I snuck down the steps and heard them talking. When I heard Mike crying, I went back to bed. Although I was concerned, I respected their privacy.
“You didn’t hear any of the conversation?”
“No, I didn’t,” he said. “Earlier, I had heard Mike crying in his room and felt that he needed the time with Mom. She gave me some of the details of their conversation later.”
“Anyway, she had Ben and me come to the house afterwards. You were at your grandmother’s,” I said.
“Yeah. Mom sent me there so I wouldn’t be around when she kicked my father out.”
“Do you see your father at all now?”
“No, I haven’t seen him since the custody hearing.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I’m not,” he said. “I told him off at the hearing. I never wanted anything to do with him. I blamed him for Mike’s death. I told the judge I didn’t want to see him, and the judge ordered the child support and no visitation rights.”
“How did he respond to that?”
“He told me that I would never be the man my brother was.”
We carried all my things up to his room and realized that there wasn’t enough room.
“It’s okay. We can store some of it in Mike’s room,” Eric said.
“I can’t go in there, Eric.”
Eric put his arms around me and said, “Mike brought you here, didn’t he?”
“Yes, there are memories in that room.”
Eric took me by the hand and went to the closed door of the room.
“Relax. There’s nothing in there. Mom gave everything to Goodwill.”
He opened the door. I stepped in and looked around the room. The bed was gone. Other than a few boxes stacked against the wall, the room was empty. Only the paint was as it was before. The closet also was empty.
“Eric, I was here a lot.”
“I never knew.”
“I know. I never said anything to your mother, either.”
“Come on, let’s finish so I can hear some of your albums.”
“I thought you didn’t like
“If I am around you enough, I am sure I will.”
We finished up our room and Eric went through my albums. I think I had about two hundred. He found my Beatles collection and some of the other sixties bands, like Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Herman’s Hermits, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and Chad and Jeremy.
“What? No Rolling Stones?” he asked.
“Nope, never liked them.”
Eric shook his head in disbelief.
I was off from work that day, so we finished unpacking the things I would need until we left for Kent. We stored the rest in Mike’s now vacant room. Eric and I listened to music and talked about my job, our plans for the fall and our mothers.
At dinner, Betty told us that my mother had called and that they had a nice, long conversation. She liked my mother and thought they would stay in touch.
Eric went with me to work all week. On Sunday, I got a call to meet Mr. Gainer at the Ambassador Theatre. When we arrived, people were milling around in the lobby, rather then going into the auditorium. I found Mr. Gainer upstairs in the projection booth. The theater had been broken into. The projectors were damaged. The screen, the print of “The Sting”, the lenses and half the seats in the theatre had been destroyed. It was suspected that this was the work of the more powerful Chicago local, which had come down in support of the Cincinnati local. I recalled Ben’s conversation with me. Mr. Gainer wanted me to help with the repairs. I asked if the strike pay had been reinstated. He said no. I said no. I handed him my keys and told him that I quit and walked out.
Eric and I spent the rest of the summer together. We would hang out with Ben and his family as much as he would allow. I knew I would miss him when I left with Eric. I got as many pictures of the three of them as I could. I felt I would miss Mikey the most.
We traveled across the state a couple of weeks before Eric had to return to school. In Kent we looked for a cheap apartment and found one. I found a job at a General Cinema theatre in Akron as an assistant manager. Eric was hired for a part time staff person. We never told them we were living together.
I saw my mother before we left. She told me that my father was informed of my living arrangements and his response to her was that he was ‘done with me’. That was fine with me since I thought we had been done with each a long time ago. Our mothers had become pretty good friends over the summer. I thought that was really good for both of them.
We managed to get time off to go home for Thanksgiving. Our Moms fixed dinner and Ben, Deb and, of course, my little Mikey were there. At Christmas, Ben and Deb announced that Mikey was going to get a brother or sister at the end of July. We were all thrilled for them.
In the following months, Eric and I made our lives together wonderful. We grew together as time went on. The bond between us grew continuously. When we returned to Betty’s for our vacation in June, she told us that the old Loew’s theater was scheduled to be demolished. Eric convinced me to see the theatre before it met its fate.
That morning, Eric and I visited with Mikey and his Mom and Dad. Deb was very obviously pregnant. Mikey was growing fast and when he put his little arms around my neck, I melted. I knew Mikey and I were bonded for life.
That afternoon I walked across the street from the parking garage. I gazed upon the old theatre with mixed emotions. As I got closer, gazing at the marquee, I knew in my heart that Eric was right about this.
Eric grabbed my hand and we walked quietly through the cemetery towards Mike’s grave. I thought of the last year and how much I loved my life with Eric. I never wanted it to change. I wanted to tell Mike how happy I was being with Eric.
Eric had me sit to his right on the concrete bench in front of Mike’s grave. The full moon provided enough light to illuminate the area.
Turning to me, he said, “Mike, I know we’re happy together. I see it everyday when I’m with you. We made promises…no, commitments to each other that first morning in Cincinnati. We agreed we would tell each other everything and share everything, too.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Mike, you haven’t followed through on that commitment,” he said.
I searched my mind, trying to recall anything, anything at all that would reflect what he just accused me of. I hated the thought that he believed that I failed him in this way.
“Eric, I have shared everything, I swear,” I said, pleading with him.
I watched Eric move his left arm. He brought out an object from his side and placed it between us. It was the black, metal box in which I kept Mike’s mementos. The idea of sharing its contents with Eric never occurred to me.
I leaned over and kissed his cheek and said, “I’m sorry. I never gave it a thought.”
“I sort of figured that. I forgive you. I know you didn’t mean anything by it, but I think we should rectify it tonight, here with Mike.”
“Eric, are you sure you want to do this?” I said, concerned about how I might react. “If we open that box, it’s going to affect me.”
“Yes, and that’s good. I want you and me to have as much closure over Mike as possible. I want that for both of us. We have each other, now. But Mike has been hanging over us since the beginning. Though we haven’t spoken about it much, I can still see the pain every now and then in your eyes.”
Eric’s hand closed over mine, “I understand,” he said. “His presence hasn’t necessarily been bad. But I know that he has been in our thoughts every day for the last five years. For you, I suspect, every waking moment until last year when we came together.”
I thought about what he was saying. He was right. I knew I lingered over Mike a long time. “You’re right. He has.”
“After my Mom told us that the theater was going to be torn down, I knew you had to go there, one last time.”
“You were quite insistent about it.”
“You were pretty stubborn about it.”
I looked over at Mike’s grave, “I was afraid.”
The pain started to well up inside me.
“I didn’t want to go back in there. The memories there hurt,” I said.
“The memories don’t always have to hurt. You taught me that,” he said.
“Yeah, but I didn’t always do a good job of convincing myself of that.”
“I knew if you didn’t go, you would never forgive yourself, knowing that you had the chance.”
I turned back to him. He was looking at me with eyes so intense, so loving.
“I waited outside, wondering if I had made the right decision. I sat on the street bench across the street and stared at the theatre, imagining the times you had there with Mike. Within those four walls, I knew you experienced the nature of love, loss, and death. I wanted to heal your heart, I wanted more than anything to give that to you,” he said.
My eyes began to water when I realized that Eric loved me then more than I could have ever imagined.
“I’m glad you made me go. Mike’s always been a part of us. But you and I have become as one through the memories we both have shared.”
“We haven’t shared everything, not yet.”
I nodded my head to him.
“Don’t worry about how it will affect you because we have to come to a stage in our lives, I believe, that we can do this without feeling the pain.”
“Are you sure you’re not taking psychology classes as well.”
“No, I am not,” he said, chuckling. “Today, you needed to be with Mike at the theater. Now, I need this time to be with you, here with this box.”
I looked at the box, at Mike’s headstone, and then at Eric. I knew we had to do this, if for no other reason than to bring Eric and me closer.
“Okay, I’m ready,” I said.
I reached for the lid and lifted it up. On top were all of the letters. I took them out, sorted through them, and handed Eric the ones that had already been opened, all but the one Mike left in the box. I held on to the others, the ones that remained sealed. I reached in and brought out the funeral program, the rose, Mike’s class ring and watch and showed them to Eric.
“I didn’t know until now you had his class ring. I never saw it with his things and wondered if it was in the box,” he said thoughtfully. “ I wondered where yours was. Did you give it to Mike before he left?”
“No,” I said. “Not then. Mike has it now.”
I listened to the wind as it swept suddenly through the trees, tossing the leaves against the branches, waiting for Eric to ask.
“The night of the viewing, your Mom, Ben and I opened the casket,” I said as I turned around to Eric. “I had to see him. I needed to see him one last time. I think to be sure he was really there. I was afraid to, afraid of what he might look like, but there was no physical evidence that he had been killed. I slipped the ring on his finger and put a rose in his hands. I held his hands in mine for a few minutes.”
I managed to tell Eric that without tearing up, but the lump was there in my throat.
Eric picked up Mike’s ring and held it in his palm. “Give me your hand, Mike.”
I lifted my left hand, and Eric took it and slid the ring onto my ring finger.
All I could do was just stare at it. I had never worn it before.
For the first time, Mike and I wore each other’s class ring. In a way it was another connection and suddenly I realized the importance of Eric’s gesture.
I looked at Eric and felt a single tear slide down from an eye onto my cheek. He wiped it off and kissed me.
Eric used the flashlight to check the postmarks and read the letters I was familiar with in order. He read them aloud and when he finished he laid them down on the bench next to the box. I had the four remaining letters in my hands. I knew he wanted to read them. It meant opening the three letters that I had never read and had decided last summer I didn’t need to.
I hadn’t reread any of his letters. The one from the box that Mike wrote the morning he left was the most painful of and I slowly handed it to him. Letting him read that letter only added to my despair this night. I remembered so clearly Ben’s reading it to me. Eric read this one in silence. I watched him closely. I could see the tears in his eyes. It got to me seeing his emotional reaction. Eric finished the letter. As he looked over at me, his eyes filled with sorrow.
“My brother loved you more deeply than I ever imagined,” he said. “No wonder you grieved so hard for him. He was so much in love with you.”
“He never said those words to me.”
“The words are there, Mike. Not directly, but every word and sentence screams out that he was in love with you.”
I just nodded as Eric took me in his arms. The warmth of his embrace only solidified my love for him.
“My brother never was one to speak his emotions,” Eric whispered in my ear, “even privately, away from my father. You changed him for the better. I wish I had known the ‘Mike’ he became because of you.”
When the wind picked up again, the fallen leaves brushed across the grass. Nature has a way of reminding us that life goes on, even when we want it to slow down.
I decided that I needed to be strong. That this would make me stronger. ‘I am strong', I thought, until Eric reached for the three sealed envelopes. I held on to them.
“No, I haven’t read these.”
“It’s time, Mike.”
“No, Eric,” I said shaking my head, determined that they not be opened.
Eric moved off the bench and kneeled in front of me placing his hands over mine, and the unopened letters. I looked down at him. His eyes were soft and comforting.
“Haven’t you always wondered what he wrote in these letters?” he asked, his voice gentle and caring.
“No,” I said. “Yes. Sometimes I guess.”
I was conflicted with the truth.
“Share these with me, please.”
“Because tonight, with you and me here, with him, I am learning about the brother I really didn’t know. I think we both need to know about him. Until we see everything, there won’t be closure. Especially not for you.”
As I unclenched my hands, he kissed my cheek and took the letters from me and sat down again.
I closed my eyes. I had dreaded this moment for too long. It’s come and I knew that facing it might either cleanse my heart or break it even more.
Eric followed the postmarks again. He read the first two letters out loud for me to hear. They were like the others, telling me how he was doing and that he loved me. I began to relax and felt relieved. He then read the last one. I listened closely as Eric read Mike’s words.
I don’t have much time before we head out again, so this letter will be short. I
can no longer hold a ‘brave face’ for you. It’s worse than I imagined. I am so scared;
I know in my heart that this won’t end well for me.”
“Oh Eric.” I said.
“I killed my first Viet Cong last week. It tore me up real bad. I don’t like the feeling
inside me. I’m so afraid that the next time I might hesitate. Mike, this is so wrong. I
don’t understand why we are even here. All I can do is think of you and how I
screwed up. I’m sorry, Mike, that we didn’t go to Canada now. I will carry that regret
as long as I live.”
I couldn’t hold it any longer.
I doubled over and started crying. “Oh Mike, oh Mike,” I
“I love my mother, my brother, my grandparents. I more than love you. I’ve
realized as each day passes without you that I am in love with you.”
Eric stopped reading, his voice cracking with grief, tears flowing from his eyes.
As Eric’s voice echoed in my ears I let Mike’s words fill me with joy. I turned from Eric and looked at the grave. My mind’s eye looked deeply into the ground, at an image of Mike lying there in his uniform. I could see him smiling; I had finally heard the words I had so longed to hear and never believed I would.
“I’m okay, Eric.”
I took the letter from Eric, silently reading it over and over again. I would cherish those five words for as long as I lived. I looked at the top of the letter and read the date.
“Mike wrote those words on the day he died,” Eric said. “I feel such anger towards my father right now.”
“Let it go, Eric. Let it go,” I said as I turned towards him. “Everything is okay now. Mike told me what I needed to hear. I have my closure.”
I took Eric in my arms and we held each other. Tears of happiness bathed my eyes, and I knew I had one more thing to share with him.
“You know, I have always told you that I was falling in love with you. I lied.” I said. “I’ve been in love with you since the first time we made love. Each day I’m with you, that feeling grows stronger. ”
Eric’s arms tightened around me. I knew as he cried into my shoulder, he shed tears of happiness.
“The greatest gift Mike could have given me was you,” I said.
“Oh, Mike. The greatest gift my brother gave us was each other. I love you so much,” he said kissing me.
We stood there in the moonlight, in such a romantic setting, with Mike; we felt love all around us.
The clouds moved in and closed off the moonlight. We gathered the contents of the box and put them inside.
“I’m ready to go home and make love you to,” I said.
“I thought you wanted to talk to Mike?”
“I don’t need to anymore. He knows everything, and I hope he is at rest now.”
I held my hand up. Eric slipped the ring off my finger and put in the box. I took Eric’s hand and we walked back towards the car.
“Thanks for today, Eric,” I said. “You’re the wisest person I know.”
“Smart ass,” I said.
“Do you ever get tired of saying that?” he asked.
“Do you ever get tired of hearing it?”
“No,” he said taking me in his arms at the car. “I always thought of it as a term of endearment.” Then he kissed me again.
That night we used up what was left in that old jar of Vaseline. As Eric held the lid open and looked into my eyes, I added the empty jar into the black metal box of memories.
The end of Chapter 18
The end of “Behind The Silver Screen”.