Joey used to be different. Very different, from the little guy I used to know. I say little because I think of him at a young age of around twelve or thirteen, the age I knew him best, while comparing him to his present day self – a sixteen year old teenager – and realizing how different the two people are. The age may be a little different for everybody, but in any case, I think I’ve discovered a fitting synonym for puberty. It’s a simple word actually: disaster. People change, some more than others.
It’s not the physical development I’m referring to here. I’m talking about personality, one’s way of thinking, of understanding themselves, others, and the world. Some eventually become mature, for others it takes some time, and the rest may grow up to be anything but mature. Now, am I mature, you may ask? I’m not sure if I can answer that question. I know I’m far from perfect. Perhaps it depends on perspective. But in any case, people can and do change – be it for good or for worse – and sometimes the change makes them unrecognizable. Now, of course, I am certain that there are a fair number of kids who may be considered mature for their age, even before puberty kicks in. Puberty isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. I merely said that tongue-in-cheek, that a synonym for puberty is disaster. In fact, it can be a terrifyingly wondrous experience. And with the experience, the physical, mental, and emotional transitions that one goes through, it can be awkward at times. And like I pointed out earlier, it can be a bit of an ugly mess.
So what does this all have to do with Joey? Since our first year in high school, I stopped knowing who Joey was anymore. Something was crushed inside my chest, a part of my mind broke away, when I found myself standing between him and another boy that first year; when my eyes diverted between a watery-eyed fourteen year old boy and a Joey with a smirk; when he opened his mouth to insult and taunt; when I looked at him dead in the eye with a furrowed brow and a face more distressed and saddened than perplexed; and when I asked him softly, “Why?”
It didn’t make sense. The Joey I knew was an overall nice guy, just a regular boy who was generally amiable, would sometimes get into trouble as kids tend to; a trustworthy guy, and a good friend. But I didn’t know him as a bully. And it tore down all that I knew and thought about him in my head, in my heart. I still remember those first few times I would stand up against him that year in grade 9. True, I did it because it felt wrong to stand by and watch him torment another person, but I often found myself at a loss of words whenever I did confront him. I felt as if I was the one who was driving a wedge between us, that I was pushing my luck with him. But I didn’t have it in me to argue and fight, to rebuke and criticize him. In fact, I felt so helpless in each and every one of those moments and confrontations that at most I just pleaded for him to stop. I pleaded for the Joey I once knew, the Joey everyone else knew, to come back.
But…eventually, I gave up. The Joey I knew died and another one had taken his place. Although I was never really close to him, I happened to get along and be, for the most part, friends with him and everyone else. He just struck me as a particularly unique individual, and it was a shame, if not devastating, that he had changed so much. I had hoped his closer friends would maybe help steer him back, but by the end of that year, they too had given up.
In grade 10 he suddenly stopped with the bullying and kept to himself so well that he was virtually invisible in the classroom. Every time I took notice of his silent, immobile, and lithe form that embodied a pale loneliness, I felt guilty that I had somehow failed, that I was doing exactly as everybody else was doing – leaving him alone, ignoring or forgetting about him, as if he was an outsider. Yet, many times I found myself walking over to try and make some small talk, and in response his silence spoke volumes, which I interpreted as his evident lack of desire to audibly talk to me or anyone else for that matter. I didn’t stop trying though. It didn’t hurt me to try. Well, not too much. I gave up hoping that the Joey I knew would come back, but I didn’t stop trying to let him know that he wasn’t invisible to me.
I sometimes wonder, through all of this time, if I had changed, and if so, in what way. When thinking about others, my thoughts usually turn around to assess their thinker – in this case, me. I think it would only make sense, in that I am trying to be fair in not leaving myself out of it. I put myself under the same scrutiny, if not more. I know I’ve done some growing and learning, that’s for sure. But at the same time, I’m still the same old Austin. A little older, a little taller, and maybe even a little wiser. Not perfect, but a little smarter, I think...
So smart that I’ve been trying to divert my current fixation of the filthy boy’s washroom to more intelligible things. Guess that didn’t work too well, now that my mind has stopped wandering. The boy’s washroom reeked of urine, flatulence, and adolescent sweat from three week old gym shirts that seriously needed to either be purged with heavy duty soap or otherwise be thrown out. The foul odour stung my nose, making my head throb as I fought against a reflexive response to gag. As I finished zipping up and washing my hands in the big round wash fountain, I noticed that there wasn’t any towel paper left. Frowning, I turned around and peaked into the stalls behind me. The washroom was empty. The first stall had some straw coloured urine that someone probably dispassionately sprayed into the white porcelain bowl. The roll of toilet paper had run out. Moving over to the next stall, I was disgusted to find that an entire roll of toilet paper had been thrown into the bowl amongst a whole swamp of other bodily wastes that I didn’t stick around to investigate. The third stall, however, was left untouched. Stepping in, I ripped myself a few thin squares of the translucent white paper and dried my hands with them. High school toilet paper was always cheap and thin. The paper soaked up the water on my hands, then ripped and flaked. That was when I heard the door burst open.
“You fucking with me, gay boy? Look at me one more time, and I’ll kill you!”
“Go to hell, man! Stop pushing me, jerk!”
I heard rapid movements, shuffling of feet and squeaking of shoes slipping for grip and balance on the cold wet floor. My eyes widened at what I suspected was the sound of somebody being thrown against the large circular wash fountain. Oh shit, I thought. This was definitely scaring me, big time. I wanted to get out of here, but then to get to the door I would have to pass them, which would probably end up getting me involved in the situation, a situation I wasn’t even sure I could do much about, and by not being out in the open with other people who could interfere and get help made me all the more terrified.
But…I didn’t suppose I had much of a choice. I had to intervene.
Despite the pounding in my chest, I was compelled to stick my head out and see what the matter was. From the sound of things, it seemed that the conflict would escalate. Somebody was probably going to get hurt. I knew I had to act fast and I didn’t have the time to think or plan my course of action.
Stepping out of the stall, what I saw made me draw in a sharp breath. It was Joey. But he wasn’t the attacker, he was the victim. I felt my face go pale as I watched Joey grimace, his lower back pushed hard against the edge of the basin with his hands gripping tightly on either side. The whites of his knuckles stood out against the brown tub as his teeth clenched. A larger guy had him pinned with his face merely inches away from Joey’s. The sight was terrifying, and before he had the chance to bark another threat, I acted upon instinct and pushed myself out of the stall, rushing him, throwing my shoulder into his side. Taken by surprise, he lost his balance and collapsed against the wall. Glaring at me in shock, he snarled and quickly attempted to regain his balance. Before he could get his opportunity, I stepped forward and slammed my forearm against his throat.
“Quit squirming, ass-wipe. If I were you I’d get the hell out of here before things get worse.”
“The fag was–”
“–I don’t care what he was doing. Whatever it was it doesn’t justify attacking him. Now, are you going to leave quietly, or do I have to crush your larynx to make myself clear?”
I held my steel gaze for several seconds before he quickly grabbed my arm with a single hand, throwing me back. I stumbled but quickly regained my balance in a sparring position. “Fine,” he glared at me, slowly walking out, diverting his eyes back and forth between me and Joey. His jaw tightened, his fists clenched, and he stormed out of the door. He was one heluva tough guy, both bigger and taller than either one of us, and I was sort of surprised at how quickly he had relented. Once he had left, I turned my head back to ask what the hell was going on, only to find myself stop at the sight of Joey’s twisted face as he breathed hard. He was trying to hold back the tears and was simultaneously grimacing at the pain in his lower back. My face softened and my shoulders relaxed. Crying? It’s been a really long time since I last saw someone cry, especially a boy. There must have be more to this than a simple dispute, and I couldn’t help but feel concern and worry, even disturbed, at the sight of someone trying to hold back their emotions, hold back the tears, and on the brink of failing; at the sight of someone hurt and vulnerable; at the sight of someone so broken before you that if you were reckless, you could utterly humiliate and destroy their dignity. And reckless, careless, I would not, could not, be.
“First things first,” I said, softening my voice as I crouched down onto one knee. “Are you hurt?”
“I-ahh…I’ll be fine.”
“You sure?” I moved to his side, putting my arm under and around his back to help support and lift him to an upright position.
“Yeah, I think so. Gah!”
I grabbed him as he lost his balance and slowly helped him stand. “Dude, you look miserable. Let’s get out of here.”
“I can walk out of here on my own.”
“I don’t think so–”
“Yes I can, just let go of me!” he hissed. I gave him a hard look. Maybe I did something wrong. Maybe I said something wrong. Damn.
“Fine…suit yourself,” I frowned. Removing my arms from him as I clenched my teeth in slight annoyance, he put one hand on his lower back and painfully limped a step or two before crying out and falling to the floor. I didn’t move to help him, sighing sadly to myself.
“Shit!” and that was when he couldn’t hold it in anymore, bursting into tears of frustration and humiliation.
Crossing my arms and looking away, I heard him cry a little harder, probably feeling further humiliated thinking that the reason I turned away was because I was too embarrassed to look at him. “I never thought I’d ever see you like this. First, you became a bully. Then, when you stopped and I thought that things were going to turn around, you instead kept to yourself and shut both everyone out and yourself in. Now, you’re being picked on. You won’t even accept my help. You can’t even help yourself.” All of this I spoke quietly, as he choked on his sobs. “Are you ready to let me in? Do you have the courage to do that, to let me help you, to help yourself?”
There was a pause, and when I thought he wasn’t going to reply, he spoke just as I opened my mouth, before I could speak. “Why? Why do you fucking care about some messed up nut-job like me?”
Why did I care? That was a good question. So many reasons, and this was one of them:
“Because I think, and I still believe, that you’re worth it; because I want the Joey that we both know to come back.”
“He died a long time ago,” Joey whispered. I turned my head to look at him as he lay crumpled against the wall, uncrossing my arms to hang limply at my sides.
“Do you really believe that, Joey? Is he really gone?” My questions were met with silence. “Why? Who took him away and locked him up? Because I can’t accept that he’s dead.”
He couldn’t meet my eyes, and he didn’t respond. I realized that I had asked rather accusatory questions. Questions starting with ‘why’ can have a sharp edge to them. I stood there, waiting for him to say something, just something. I sighed.
“Then I guess you’re hopeless. Maybe I should just make peace and say goodbye to that friendly boy everyone loved. I guess you’re just…an empty shell now.” There was a sharpness, a unsympathetic coldness to what I said. But I was also hurting. For him, and maybe even for myself. He opened his mouth to say something, but then held his tongue. Tears kept falling.
I turned to walk away, knowing that what I was doing was giving him one final chance. He had a choice to make. He could either find the strength or desperation to call me to come back. Or he could stay there…sinking into an abyss of thoughts. Thoughts that I feared would lead him to a dark place that he may never be able to come back from. I was scared and felt my hand tremble as I held onto the door handle, fighting against my desire to stay, readying myself to leave. I didn’t know if what I was doing was the right thing or not. I might end up regretting my words and actions, leaving him crumpled there. But he needed to make that choice. And a part of me needed him to make the right one.
I slowly pulled the door open. Still I heard nothing. He didn’t make a sound. My shoulders slumped as I now knew that Joey truly was dead. The only thing left was his body, and even I didn’t know if it would live for much longer. I knew that if he was gone for good, I would end up blaming myself. It might even drive me down a similar dark road. I wanted to help him, but I needed him to be desperate enough to reach out and accept my hand. Shit, it’s going to be all over soon. I can just feel it, a certain presence of doom. My heart sank as I stepped out of the door, and he still hadn’t spoken a word.
And from the pits of my stomach, my heart leapt to my throat as I hiccoughed and turned around, staring at him wide eyed. His scream had caught me off guard.
“Please…!” I stood there, frozen, stunned at the sudden energy that poured from his cries, cries I never expected he would vocalize.
“AUSTIN!!” And I finally snapped back and got a hold of myself.
“Joey…you fucking bastard!” And without caring about what he might think, without caring about whether or not someone would walk in on us, without caring about the fact that I don’t hug boys, I ran to him and enveloped him into my arms. Overwhelmed by the whole turnaround of the situation, tears of hope and joy slowly trickled down my cheeks as a trembling smile danced on my lips. My chest quivered with sense of hope, a sense of victory. I felt like laughing! Likewise, without restraint, Joey fell into me with his head on my chest, muffling his wails and whimpers as his body heaved and shuddered violently. I found myself, strangely, yet instinctively, stroking the back of his head as he held onto me tightly.
He had finally found the courage. The desperation had been too much for him. Maybe he had seen all what was left for him if he continued to shut people out. Maybe he had seen what I had seen, that if he refused help all of him would be gone. All of him would die. And maybe that scared him. With death comes no hope, no chance of anything more. No chance for joy, happiness, love, friendship. There is a time to grieve and have sorrow. And if we do not allow it to engulf us, we will find joy, and no one can take that joy, that happiness, that love, away from us.
Or maybe there were other reasons he finally found courage. Reasons I didn’t know.
We stayed together like that for a while, for how long I wasn’t sure. Soon, I found myself sweating a little from the heat of his warm body against mine. But it felt right, holding him close to me. It both stirred my heart and comforted me as I comforted him. Eventually I stopped stroking his head as his breathing relaxed, as his shudders subsided.
“Joey, I hate to do this, but we should get going soon to our next class.” I looked at my watch and noticed that I had been in the washroom for over twenty minutes. “Second period is going to start soon.”
“Crap, I’m sorry–”
“There’s nothing to be sorry about. I’m just here to help my friend.” As soon as I said that word – ‘friend’ – I felt an awkwardness drift between us as he pulled away, his eyes darting back and forth.
“Uhh…” he suddenly became nervous, perhaps even agitated. I realized what he must have been thinking, and finding humour in it, I grinned, reached out, and reassuringly clapped his shoulder a few times.
“You’re a good guy, Joey. You’re alright,” I smiled. He had trouble looking at me.
“Thanks. Thanks a lot. I…I’m sorry, for being a wreck looking like this.”
“Hey buddy, I said there was nothing to be sorry about. And I mean it.”
He took in a deep breath, and then let it out, shakily. He nodded.
“Alright then, let’s get out of here. By the way,” I had a thought, and looked at him to make sure he knew the words I would say next were genuine, “if you’re up for it, it would be really awesome if we could meet up together at lunch in the cafeteria today. Just me and my buddies. The usual. It’s up to you, but…what do you say?” I looked at him earnestly, my eyebrows rose with a sincere smile. “No pressure,” I winked.
“Heh…” he started. “It’s…been a while since I’ve eaten with anyone,” he said slowly, heavily.
“I know…” my smile slowly dropped. I suddenly felt sad, knowing that he must have felt lonely, whether or not people ignored him or that he had purposefully pushed others away.
“…Okay…thanks. I’ll join you,” he eventually managed.
My face practically split in two with a wide grin. “That’s great! Now come on, let me help you get up.” Slowly, he managed to stand up as he held onto me for support and as I held onto him to support. “How’s your back feeling?”
“Still hurts. I don’t think it’s anything too serious though. I hope it’ll be gone with a few nights’ rest.”
“Yeah, I know. Just be easy on yourself, okay?”
“Yeah, I think I should be able to manage. Thanks a lot…for your help.”
I turned my head to look him in the eye. He got a little nervous, but finally forced himself to meet my gaze. “And I’m glad you finally let me,” I said, rubbing his back to reassure him. He gave me a nervous wan smile.
“Hey Aust–” the door had flown open before we had gotten to it. In front of us stood a boy our age who shared most of our classes, Kenny. “–in. Um…s’up…Joey?” His eyebrows went up with surprise before lowering with a perplexed look. I felt Joey tense up in my arm as his face paled.
Kenny was the boy Joey picked on throughout his first year at high school. Life was already tough enough for a new kid in a new school, with new and different people, people he didn’t know. And before Kenny got the chance to make any friends, he had already found himself an enemy: Joey. I never could be certain what it was that Joey hated about Kenny. Was it the fact that he was shorter than most of us? That he was shy and timid? That he had a high voice? Kenny was absolutely harmless. And after two or three times of stepping in between the two of them when Joey was making fun of Kenny, simply trying to ruin his day, I started becoming friends with Kenny. He was a great guy if you got to know him – a very kind, loyal, caring, and intelligent individual. All of that and with his body…though I wouldn’t admit it to anyone, I thought he was adorable. I found myself many times wanting to just grab and squeeze him tightly in my arms until he would squeal like a three year old. But I knew I just couldn’t do that.
“Uhh…Kenny…” Joey started, and I gave Kenny a wistful smile. Kenny had always been wary around Joey, yet at this moment he had a sympathetic look. Confused, but concerned. I felt tension in the air between the three of us, but when I turned to Joey, I was able to tell from his body language – from his twitching lips as if he were stammering unspoken words, trying to find the right ones; from his open palms not entirely revealed as if expressing his shame, as if begging for a chance to speak; from his shoulders, packed together and slightly hunched forward with nervousness; and from his eyes, moist and sad, a shivering gloss that wished to convey something that his voice could not – that something important was going to happen. I kept quiet and looked back and forth between the two of them.
“What’s going on?” Kenny said slowly, treading ever so slightly, feeling as if he had intruded on something secret. His gaze fell on Joey’s and he knew, then and there, that he couldn’t just walk around us, ignore us. His attention was desperately needed, and he knew not what to do other than stand there with a questioning look. An innocent, wary, and confused questioning look.
“Kenny…I…we…can we talk? There are some…things I need to tell you. Things I should have said a long time ago…”
Things that he should have said a long time ago? What was this all about, I wondered.
“Yeah…sure. Er…where, here, or…?”
“Um, I dunno. Er…well, I should probably let you use the washroom first…Um…”
“We have next period together, we can talk then, maybe?”
“I…I dunno…people might…”
“If it’s important, we’ll figure something out. Um…do you wanna wait for me once I’m done here? I’ll only take a sec or two.”
“S-sure! Sure.” Joey stammered. “I’ll be right here. We can walk together to our next class.”
“Okay…great. Just a second and I’m all ears,” said Kenny as he walked around us and over to the urinals.
“You’re gonna be okay here?” I asked Joey.
“Y-yeah. Yeah, I’ll be fine.”
“Okay then. I’ll be heading off now. I’ll see you at lunch?”
“Yeah. And, um, thanks, Austin.”
I grinned at him. “It’s what friends are for, right?”
“…Right…” he responded with a small smile. I turned around and got out of the washroom. I guess being in there for all of that time must have gotten me desensitized to the odours. Still, it was a gross place for such personal and important matters. But it had to happen, then and there. There’s no time like the present, and I sighed in relief that we didn’t lose Joey.
Swiftly walking down the halls to my Chemistry class, I looked at my watch and realized that my first class was just a few seconds away from finishing. As I reached the classroom and turned the doorknob, I heard the class get up and begin heading towards the door. I slipped in before having to push myself through the swarm of students leaving in the opposite direction, and walked over to my bag and books. I packed up, swung my knapsack through my arms and onto my back, and headed out towards the door for my Biology class.
“Next time you should just drag me to the washroom with you. You took an awfully long time in there, probably enjoying yourself without me. I was so lonely,” said a girl who had quickly made her way beside me as we slipped back out through the doors.
“Lighten up Trish, I’m sure it wasn’t that bad!” I smirked weakly. The events of just moments ago were still playing in my head.
“You have no idea. There is no chemistry without you!” She wiggled her eyebrows seductively, and I busted out laughing. She was pretty good at cheering me up, I have to say.
“You’re one naughty, naughty girl, aren’t you?”
“Mmm hmm…” she purred dreamily, rubbing up against me as we made our way over to Biology class.
“Awww…looks like someone really needs it bad. Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it tonight,” I said.
“Pssh! All talk, that’s what you are! Last time you never showed up. You were supposed to carry me up the stairs and to my bedroom, but you chickened out and didn’t even show up! We were supposed to DO things!”
“Shush! You’re so damn loud! I was busy!”
“Oh you don’t know loud, or busy…not yet, that is” she said seductively, her eyes sly and mischievous.
We stepped through the door and took our seats in another science classroom. It had long black tables for two people, as was typical with most science classrooms. We set our things down and took our notebooks and pens out.
“What are we learning about today?” I wondered out loud.
“Oh, I don’t know. The human body…” she said huskily, throwing me what she thought was a sexy glance as she slowly took off her sweater.
“Don’t even think about it, Ugly. My hand is better.”
She roared with laughter, which made most of the students nearby look at us, bewildered. Most thought we were such a weird couple.
gorgeous girl. She had long luscious blonde hair and preferred not wearing
makeup. It just made life easier, she felt. Her body was slightly akin to the
body proportions commonly found in fashion sketches in that she had long slender
legs complemented by a nice fitting torso. She had a strong yet graceful
presence, and she sat there, right leg neatly crossed over her left, grinning
like the Cheshire cat.
“Oh, you’re a funny boy. No, we’re probably going to finish off with the phospholipid bilayer or something. I can smell a test looming in the air,” she said in a cantabile manner.
I frowned. “Never been one to like tests.”
“Me either. Anyway, mind if I asked what took you so long last class? ‘Cause I'm pretty sure you weren’t sitting there taking a dump,” she grinned.
I laughed. “How would you know? Maybe I was taking a dump.”
“You said you needed to take a leak,” she gave me a disbelieving look, her eyelids dropping halfway over her eyes in mock boredom.
“Oh. Yeah. Right. I…forgot,” I said sheepishly.
“And I know you weren’t really playing with yourself ‘cause the stink’s distracting–”
“–ah, c’mon Trish, gimme a break. You don’t need to–”
"Okay, okay, sorry, I’m sorry." She got herself settled as the teacher entered and quickly set up the projector. “Er…yeah, forget I asked,” she chewed on her lip, her face disheartened.
“Hey, don’t be so apologetic. You’re the only one who I kid around with,” I said honestly. A lot had just happened and I had to get things to cool down a bit to think it through. Joking and flirting with her is fun…but there were some serious things on my mind that I needed to muse on.
“I know, but sometimes I’m afraid I go too far–”
“Oh stop it, it’s nothing Trish. I’m just...thinking...”
Hmm...maybe I should stop squawking so much and do the same...think, think,
I respected the confidentiality of what had happened not too long ago with Joey, and I understood that what happened was quite private…maybe even a bit intimate. I couldn’t help but realize how…good it felt, holding him close, knowing how much he needed it, appreciated it, almost responding to it. The moment was a very personal one, and no one was going to know anything unless he wanted them to. Yet, there were a few things I felt Trish should be let in on. One of them was that, should Joey hang around with us during lunch, that we should be welcoming, not startled. I didn’t want Trish surprised to see him suddenly show up.
“Well, how about you think on this...”
I paused, and when she noticed that I didn’t finish my sentence, she turned to look at me questioningly.
“...Joey,” I finished.
“Hmm…” she began. “Okay...” She slowly leaned back into her chair. “What about him?”
“We spoke some last time. That’s why I took so long. It was all quite personal. Anyway, I invited him to hang out with us some. You know how he’s always alone, right?” Trish nodded. “Well, he might sit with us for a bit in the cafeteria today, if he feels like it. I hope so, anyway. It would be nice to see him not so…set apart.”
“I see...” She sat and thought. Our biology teacher was now going through her laptop, searching for the power point document.
“That’s...interesting. Is everything okay with him, aside from...the usual, I suppose?”
“I don’t know yet. He seems to be in a tough place, or rather, has been in one for a long time now. Maybe he’s finally ready to help himself, and maybe make some friends along the way?” I raised an eyebrow as I suggested the thought to her.
She frowned in contemplation, slowly nodding her head back and forth. “Yeah, of course. I’ve never been in eighth grade with you guys, so I’ve only known him since high school. Still don’t know too much about him either, and it sure looks long overdue for us to get acquainted.”
She straightened her posture and ran her fingers through her hair. "And he's cute, you know?"
I cleared my throat loudly and glared menacingly at her, pretending to be angry. "What did you just say?"
"What? Jealous much?" She teased.
"Maybe," I softened my features into a crooked grin.
“Y’all are here already!” I exclaimed.
“Yep, we beat ‘cha to it,” Kenny grinned.
“Hey Joey!” I beamed. “Glad you could make it.”
Joey smiled shyly, his eyes having some difficulty meeting mine. “Hi Austin.”
“What, no hellos for me?” said the girl next to Kenny. Her name was Steph and she has been Kenny’s girlfriend starting since last school year. She had her brown hair in a ponytail which swayed back and forth as she shook her head with a mock disappointed look. Kenny was lucky to have Steph. She was both charming and intelligent, kind and fun. They looked great together. Looking back, I would have to admit that I was quite surprised at how things had turned out for Kenny. He used to be at the end of Joey’s harsh jokes and had no one but myself as a companion. When Joey finally relented Kenny meshed well with the rest of us, so well that it wasn’t much later that I knew something was going on between him and Steph. I remembered being bored in math class one day, and when I looked over at Kenny, I noticed that he had eyes only for Steph and Steph alone. I had to stifle a laugh when I saw her turning back to look at him, only to blush and hesitantly jerk her head forward, as if trying to find a surreptitious way to disguise her reaction but couldn’t in her flustered state. It was cute watching the two of them stealing glances at each other in class, and I once found myself bursting into laughter during their little shy back-and-forth. That sure got the attention all on me.
And then, today, now, at this very hour, beside those two and directly in front of me was Joey. So many dramatic changes have happened to him. It was confusing to me, and I couldn’t quite figure out how he had gone from nice guy, to bully, to loner, and now shy. He smiled timidly at me. It sort of caught me off guard. Sure, that could all be explained from the awkward memory lingering over him from having me seen him in tears, having to embrace him, to hold him close to me protectively as if I was silently telling him that it would be alright. But still, it was one perplexing enigma that I couldn’t wrap my head around. This was all so weird, so strange. It left me feeling a little lost. I didn’t know what to make of it. How do you carry on somewhat normally after what had just happened in the washroom, after something so unexpectedly personal? And perhaps above all, I wondered what it was that has been shadowing Joey these past two years? These were questions to which I did not know how to go about finding the answers to.
“No, no hellos for you. I’m out. Sorry,” I smirked.
“You rotten kid,” she stuck her tongue out.
“You’re wrong on both counts. First of all, he’s a man, and secondly, he’s not rotten. He’s sexy. Very sexy…” We all turned at the direction of the voice, and saw none other than Trish herself.
“Shh! Dammit! Keep it down! You’re attracting attention again!” I said, incredulously.
“I’m soooo sorry Austin. But I just couldn’t help it. The timing was perfect!” Trish squealed in delight as she skipped over to my side of the table opposite of the other three. Slipping her arm to hook with mine, she stuck her lower lip out. “Please don’t be mad at me sweetie.”
“Ugh, you make me sick, lady,” Kenny snickered.
“Nah, you’re just jealous that Steph doesn’t give you that kind of treatment,” Trish shot back.
“Actually, we’re just a mature couple, you see,” challenged Steph.
“Hmm, really? Well, we could be “mature” too, whatever your definition of mature is,” Trish winked. She pulled away from me and calmed down some.
“Finally, I can breathe,” I mumbled. We couldn’t help but giggle at the silliness of it all. I looked at Joey and noticed that he was surprised at the witty banter, and I hoped it wasn’t too much to frighten him away.
“Gee, I’m sorry Joey, you must think I’m nuts,” Trish apologized. “Sometimes I can be a little out of it–”
“–You mean unstable,” I cut in.
“Shh! He’s not supposed to know that!” She grumbled through gritted teeth while elbowing my side. “Anyway, it’s good to see you here Joey. How’s it going?” she asked warmly.
“I’m okay I guess,” he gave her a wan smile.
“You’ve got something to eat?” I asked.
“Yeah I do.” He reached into his bag and pulled out a ham sandwich, a banana, and a bottle of juice. Kenny was busy eating his slice of pizza I assumed he bought from one of the stores around the school. Trish had a little thermos of pasta, and Steph had a chicken shawarma in pita bread. I took out a plastic container of last night’s lasagna.
“Mmm! I can smell your food Steph. That’s good stuff,” Trish remarked.
“Yeah, I got it from the new Arabian place that just opened down the street. It’s pretty good, but real messy once the juices start flowing and leaking down the bottom. It gets pretty wet and sticky too. Good thing I got myself a whole bunch of tissues to clean up.”
“Do you have to make everything sound so dirty?” Kenny wrinkled his face.
“Well, it is messy, I mean…” Steph looked at him in confusion. Trish and I started cracking up, and I could tell Joey was having a hard time holding it in as he tried to squeeze his lips together and look away. Kenny began chortling.
“Oh you sicko! You just have a dirty mind!” Steph pointedly turned away and tried, again, to discretely bite into the shawarma while holding it vertically, pointed up into her open mouth. “Oh god, this feels wrong…” she frowned, but was almost immediately overcome with giggles as the rest of us burst into laughter. Joey was trying hard to compose himself.
“You just need some practice, is all. You’ll eventually get the hang of it. Just, yes, close your lips around it better. Yeah, there we go, not too hard or you’ll send the filling shooting everywhere. Don’t let it all spill out,” Trish coached her without a single smile, doing her best to appear serious.
“You’re doing great baby,” I added.
Steph lost it and half choked, half laughed. The rest of us went wild and I was pretty sure that everyone in the school cafeteria was looking at us.
“That looks good. I’d like to try a shawarma sometime,” said Joey once we were all settled down. Steph had finally finished it and scrunched up the wrapping to throw out.
“What looks good? The shawarma, or the technique–”
“–Oh shut up Kenny! But yeah Joey, it’s pretty good. You should try one. It’s more expensive than pizza though,” said Steph.
“Or a hot dog,” Kenny suggested.
“Oh don’t you try starting it again mister,” Steph groaned, but couldn’t help cracking a smile in which she tried contorting into a smirk.
“Uh, sorry, who did you say had a dirty mind? ‘Cause I was just talking about hot dogs, plain and simple. What did you think I was talking about?”
Steph groaned while Kenny chuckled.
“You guys…” Joey cracked a lopsided grin, “…you guys are pretty funny. I didn’t know you could just joke around comfortably with each other like that.”
“Oh you have no idea,” Trish laughed. “But when it comes to the dirty things, it’s all talk…right, Austin?” she cocked an eyebrow at me, crossing her arms. I shook my head, chortling. Then I looked up at Joey, making eye contact. He quickly looked away, his eyes wandering to find something else to focus on. It made me feel uneasy, his inability to be relaxed around me.
“Anyway, all joking aside, I heard that soon we’re going to be getting some English project to do that’ll count for a lot of the upcoming English report card mark, right?” I asked nobody in general. Kenny gave me a dumbfounded look. “Huh? Wait, wha?” he babbled.
“Yeah, I think it’s a seminar thing. I think it’ll be on Hamlet or something,” said Joey. “I remember hearing that we would be partnered up in twos.”
“Right, I vaguely remember hearing her say that earlier a few weeks ago,” Trish said, referring to our English teacher.
“I hate analyzing literature and all of that mumbo jumbo. I suck at it,” Kenny groaned.
“Yep, hope we won’t end up being partners then,” I smirked. Kenny made a face.
Steph playfully leered at him. “I guess if we end up being partners I’ll just have you give you a hand,” she enthusiastically winked at Kenny. Trish rolled her eyes.
“I like English. It can be fun to study literature,” Joey said quietly.
“Hey, me too. Guess that makes the two of us,” I smiled.
“Ha?! The two of you? Once again Austin seems to enjoy leaving me out of it. First he doesn’t say hello, and now this,” Steph cocked an eyebrow, leaning back.
“What? Isn’t Kenny good enough for you? I’m sure he can keep you happy,” I teased. I turned my attention back to Joey, “Anyway, it would be cool for us to work together.”
“Yeah. Yeah it would,” he said softly, almost to himself.
And just at that moment, someone had the audacity to walk by and bump into Joey as he sat there, just innocently talking to me, finally have a good time with people who accept and respect him. And someone had the nerve to mutter a certain word directed towards him.
I looked up and noticed it was the same kid who hurt Joey in the washroom earlier today. I swiftly got out of my seat and angrily strode over to him. “What the hell was that for?” I demanded rather harshly.
“Pray, tell me,” his voice rolled like thunder, “why you are always defending him. What, is he that weak? Gay and weak? And for some reason you feel the obligation to be, what, his protector?” He rose to his full height, looking down at me. His voice was deep and unwavering. He was a lot taller, a lot bigger, and definitely a lot stronger. And, judging from his choice of words, I could tell that he wasn’t your typical teenage high school jock.
“Care to enlighten me why the first words out of your mouth are of a homophobic nature? If anything, I’d say you are weak. My friend is a hell lot stronger than you’ll ever realize. What, are you trying to make his life miserable because yours is? Don’t tell me you’re some self-loathing–”
“Shut up asshole. You don’t fuck with me like–”
“Whoa, guys, let’s calm ourselves down and just walk away, okay?” Trish had stood up and put her hand on the guy’s chest, pushing him away.
“Don’t touch me,” he snarled.
“Just who do you think you are? What did we ever do to you?” I hissed.
“Who do you think you are?!” He growled.
“Just another damn kid like you!” I glared at him. “I’m just another kid like you, just another kid trying to live his life in this messed up world. The only difference between us is that I strive to treat people with respect and dignity. Why can’t you do the same, huh?! What’s the world done to you to make you want to ruin other people’s lives? Nobody here hates you, so why do you have to go about hating others?” I locked my eyes on his as we stood there, rigid and poised in aggressive stances. I was angry, but soon felt it abate as his face slowly lost its tension and heat. We regained our composure almost as quickly as we had gotten angry. My words must have somehow reached through to him. But I still kept my eyes on him, wondering what had just happened, what I had said, what it had done to him, what he had heard, and what went through his mind.
“Keegan, I think you should leave,” Trish spoke.
His eyes broke contact as he looked over at Joey, sitting there, frightened, unsure of what to do. He clenched both his jaw and fists, taking a few steps backwards before turning and exiting through the door. I stood there, stunned, my chest heaving.
“His name’s Keegan?” I asked.
“Yeah. I’ve seen him around. I’ve even known him from a long time ago when we went to the same middle school. He’s new this year. Must have transferred from another high school.”
“Now that…was a close one,” said Kenny.
Slowly, I turned and sat myself down beside a stiff Joey. Putting my arm over his shoulders, I quietly asked him, “Hey, everything okay buddy?”
“Y-yeah. Just a little shook up I guess.”
“I’m sorry that had to happen,” I frowned, squeezing his shoulders.
“That guy’s one nasty piece of work. Wonder what the hell his problem is,” Steph said quietly. We sat there, each one to his and her own thoughts.
“You know what?” I began, looking at Joey, “You’re gonna be okay. We’re gonna be alright. We’ll all make sure of it.” I said.
He glanced into my eyes. “Thanks Austin,” he said just a little over a whisper. Turning to the rest of the group, he pulled up the corners of his mouth with a forced smile. “And thanks guys.”
Steph and Kenny nodded their heads. I noticed that Trish had a pensive look on her face. She was solemn, but thinking. Something else was bothering her.
“I’m assuming that you two had some kind of unpleasant run in with Keegan during first period. Am I right?” asked Trish as I spun my lock and pulled it free, unhooking it from the latch of my locker. Our last class had just finished for the day, and the halls were flowing and bustling with students at their lockers, either packing up to go home or hanging around in twos or groups, talking about their day or some interesting new piece of gossip. High school was, after all, a most unmistakably appropriate place for the manufacture and, in turn, mass production of rumour and gossip. Sighing, I looked up at the painted blue over the thin steel locker door as I swung it open, all the while without glancing at Trish to my right.
“Yeah,” I frowned. “How’d you figure?”
“From the way you quickly got up and confronted him in the cafeteria earlier. The way you two looked at each other, snapped at each other. It seemed like it wasn’t the first time. I just put two and two together and figured that there might have been some sort of connection with you telling me about talking some with Joey earlier on about personal matters.” I placed the textbooks I wouldn’t need for tonight onto the shelf and grabbed my jacket as she spoke. “I don’t mean to pry or anything. I just had a feeling,” she quickly continued.
“No, I get you. Yeah, Keegan, whatever his name is, was giving Joey a hard time and I had to break it up. The douche,” I muttered, shaking my head as I let my backpack drop to the floor to put my jacket on. “Dunno what the hell his problem is anyway. I was in the washroom. One moment it was quiet, and the next thing I knew this Keegan guy forced Joey into the washroom and hit him. It scares me to think what would have happened had I not been there.”
“God! How badly did Joey get hurt?”
“Oh, Joey got hurt alright,” I flicked my eyes to meet hers, “in more ways than one. And I sure as hell ain’t gonna let that happen again.”
Trish side stepped and planted an outstretched arm with her palm against her locker next to mine, resting some of her body weight against it. She sighed heavily. “You care a lot…” she muttered to herself.
“What?” my face twisted. “Of course I care. What do you mean, exactly?”
“Cool your jets, Austin. I mean no offense,” she raised her brows in an innocent gesture.
“Sorry. It’s just…ah, I don’t really know. Joey’s a nice guy. He shouldn’t have to deal with extra baggage coming from some scumbag who’s out to prove he’s tough by bullying others.”
I paused, thinking. “All I know is that Joey’s going through a rough time. I don’t know anything about it – just that he is.” I looped my arms through my backpack and zipped up my jacket. Trish still had that pensive look on her face. I could tell she wanted to ask more questions, but didn’t either because she didn’t know what to ask, how to ask them, or if she should refrain from asking just to be on the safe side, to not seem nosy.
“I’m assuming that you’re wondering why I’m…compelled…to suddenly be…I guess, a good friend to him…now?” I looked away. Thinking it over, it was a bit shameful to think that I wasn’t nearly as compelled before during last year when he was practically invisible, but that I was more so now. I couldn’t yet figure out why. There was probably more than one factor that contributed to my sudden desire to not only really care, but to actively do something about it. But I wasn’t sure what those reasons were. Another question I didn’t know the answer to. Another question for me to wrestle with.
“Yeah, I guess you could put it that way.” She lowered her eyes to the floor.
Sighing heavily, I shrugged. “I don’t really know. All I know is how I feel at the moment. Maybe that’s good enough for me.”
“Fair enough. I won’t bug you with any more questions,” she looked up to me and smiled. “Anyway, I’ve gotta meet up with Steph. I’ll catch you later?” she asked.
“Yeah. Yeah, I’ll see you tomorrow. Keep warm,” I gave her a wan smile.
“I will,” she winked. “But you know, nothing can replace the warmth of your body, lover.” And with that, she spun around and gracefully made her way down the hall. I shook my head and laughed.
Slowly, I walked down to the other end of the hall. Turning the corner, I came face to face with Joey and stumbled back in surprise as he did the same. Regaining my balance, I laughed and reached out for his shoulder to steady him. “Wow, hey Joey! Didn’t expect to see you bumping into me.”
“Uh, yeah! Sorry about that. I just got out of class and was heading to my locker.”
“Cool, mind if I tag along? I can walk you out afterwards,” I raised my eyebrows, asking him.
“Yeah, sure. I guess I wouldn’t mind the company,” he had a hint of a small smile on his lips, and I returned it with a wider one.
“Lead the way.”
I followed Joey to his locker. As he put away his books, I couldn’t help but study his face, his form. His hair consisted of chestnut brown curls with a deep and alluring healthy glow that moved gently against the breeze he made as he moved his head ever so slightly, grabbing and putting away his belongings. His skin appeared smooth with a few pink spots whispered over his rosy cheeks. Few teens were lucky enough to be completely free against acne. But it didn’t matter. Not to me. Why would it? I could never allow myself to be selfish in regards to expecting perfection in others when I knew that I was far from perfect, far from handsome, far from genius. I could be harsh on myself for my own flaws, but I couldn’t judge a person by their own. And some flaws, or rather what most would consider to be flaws, I thought, were unique in my eyes, perhaps even beautiful. And I think it beautiful when you allow someone special to see those physical imperfections, someone you trust, because it was in and of itself a trusting and vulnerable act. True, you risk the potential of rejection, but sometimes there is beauty to be found in either imperfection or the humility of the act of surrendering yourself to another, baring your soul. Except for things like mental imbalances that drives someone to become homicidal. Now that was something completely different.
Another thing I thought was unique in imperfections was that by having some and acknowledging them, it allows you to connect and relate to others, to understand others. It keeps you grounded, from becoming condescending, arrogant, and egotistical. And it can make it easier to love others who are just like you when you know you’re not entirely beautiful. Of course, this isn’t absolutely foolproof. Some people are still snobbish and unforgiving to others even when they themselves are far from perfect. It’s unfortunate…but it happens.
“Mm?” With a slight upright jerk of my head I suddenly realized Joey was peering up at me from his eyelashes, his lips pursed with the right corner slightly upturned. Just slightly. “Sorry, did you say something?”
“Oh, no! I just…kinda noticed that you looked a little bit…languid…looking at me there for a bit. It’s, heh…it’s nothing,” he seeming a little embarrassed.
“Languid?” I was confused.
“Um, yeah. Sort of, you know, dreamy.” He turned away from me and quickly closed his locker.
“Dreamy?! Oh, haha, sorry! I-I was just zoning out I guess. Just thinking things,” I sheepishly grinned. “Man, how long did you have to stare at me before I realized?”
“Stare?! Oh, I-I dunno. Not long.” Seeing that he had gotten his things together, I gave a little nod and the two of us walked side by side to exit the building. The cold chill signalling the nearing of winter crept over our skin as I pushed the blue school door aside. I winced as an icy breeze dashed across my face while Joey shrugged his shoulders upward as if trying to hug himself, while digging his hands deep into the pockets of his jacket. I zipped up my collar to the very top to keep my neck warm as we stiffly walked out of the school grounds and onto the sidewalk. The sky was quickly darkening, as was usual in the final months of the year. It was only three in the afternoon, but it looked to be dinner time. I felt like I was late getting home.
“Damn, it’s cold.”
“And the streets are white and dry,” he added. I nodded in agreement.
“Do you live nearby?” I asked, turning to him.
“Um, well, it’s a bit of a walk, I suppose. It’s just down Grove Avenue before the intersection with Taylor, near the flower shop.”
“Oh, I see. I’m heading in the same direction, just that I have to turn down Taylor to the right and keep heading down it for some ten minutes before I get to my house. I never knew we lived that close by.”
As we continued walking we busied ourselves with small talk about school. Just general stuff. Yet I felt a sense of awkwardness, as if we were trying to seem normal around each other, trying to avoid a certain line of conversation, a certain topic. And I felt as if we both knew it, but just kept pretending it wasn’t there. I would ask a simple question, and he would answer. He would ask an ordinary question, and I would reply. It felt stilted. I wanted to talk about what happened earlier today, two instances to be specific, but I was afraid of getting into something thorny, afraid that I might appear to be poking or probing at a wound he was trying to conceal. I didn’t want to embarrass him. I didn’t want to anger him. Most of all, I didn’t want to hurt him, to shatter the little dignity that he still had left in him, to possibly create some misunderstanding between the two of us on a sensitive subject. Then again, even if none of it mattered, I wouldn’t have known what to say. I had questions gnawing at me, but I didn’t quite know how to coherently formulate them into comprehensible sentences. I wondered if some of the same things that were going through my mind right now were going through his. No…probably more. Worries, anxieties, frustrations, confusions. Probably more.
“How were your classes after lunch?” I inquired.
“They were…they were alright. A bit rough.”
“Rough? In what way?”
“Gym class,” he frowned. I assumed it was rough in terms of physical exhaustion, but I didn’t pry for more.
After a while we quieted, running out of ideas to keep up the bland exchanges. He shivered and bit down on his lips. It was the kind of shiver that was reflexive and spontaneous, the one you get in the cold where a tingle rapidly zips through your body and your muscles instinctually twitch. And it was funny seeing him suddenly shiver like that. Kind of…cute. Seeing that I had clearly noticed, he gave a nervous giggle as his cheeks reddened. I couldn’t help but grin widely.
“Happens to me all the time. No worries bud,” I said, playfully throwing an arm over his shoulders. Finding humour and companionable acceptance, a mutual understanding, he leaned against me, broadly grinning. And almost too soon I realized we had reached his house when he slowed down and straightened up.
“This is my place,” he glanced at me as if searching for approval. “Thanks for the walk.”
“Bah, don’t mention it,” I waved it off. “Just keeping a friend company, right?”
It wasn’t a smile, but his lips upturned at the corners, a silent acknowledgment. His expression seemed wistful for a moment before he took a backward step, almost bowing as he lifted his hand to wave goodbye. “K’. I’ll see you later then. Bye Austin.”
I mirrored his hand waving. “Yeah! Yeah, I’ll see you–oh wait, hang on a sec,” I nearly yelped at the sudden thought. Taking a step toward him, I pulled out my phone. “Why don’t we exchange emails and numbers. You down for that?”
“Oh yeah, sure!” His eyes showed surprise as he quickly fumbled and dug his hand into his jean pocket. Pulling out his cell, we typed in each other’s contact info.
“You can call, text, or email me whenever, about whatever. I won’t mind, and…” I paused for a second, gathering my thoughts together, “…I guess, sometimes it’s easier to talk about certain things through email that could be a little hard to be comfortable and spontaneous with face to face, if you know what I’m saying.” I think he understood what I was trying to tell him, but I didn’t know, couldn’t know for certain. Realizing that we were still not on a wholly comfortable level to openly discuss some things in person, I could only hope, by opening this channel of communication, that we could start building some trust. I knew he was troubled, and I wanted to be his sound board, possibly more. Someone he wouldn’t be afraid talking to. Someone he could come to, with anything.
I walked away that evening feeling unsure that he would be brave enough to contact me, and I kept doubting myself. Perhaps he wasn’t interested. Perhaps I wasn’t the one he needed or wanted to talk to. As a matter of fact, I didn’t exactly know what he needed, what he wanted. But I was willing to be a friend. Then again, perhaps I wasn’t meant to do or be any more other than that. If that was the case, then I would be respectful and understanding of that fact. Though I could not deny that it made me feel a slight twinge of despondency, what concerned me greater than my own state was his.
That evening was just like every other evening. We had dinner together – Mom, Dad, and myself. Nothing new. But it was peaceful and warm, in more ways than one. Definitely warmer than outside. With homework done and out of the way for the night, I passed time surfing the internet. Sometimes watching Youtube videos. I popped onto Facebook for a bit, just to scroll through the news feed. There were some funny pictures people had liked. I had a few laughs.
By now I had believed that Joey wouldn’t be making use of my number or email. Maybe I was just being a little too expectant, not giving him some time to think some things through, to make his own decisions – if he wanted to confide in me or not. Oh well, it’s not like I’m not going to see him tomorrow, that I’m not going to talk to him, right? Sighing, I thought to myself and hoped that he wouldn’t pretend that nothing had happened and go on living his life in silent isolation again. If it was his choice…then I wasn’t sure there was anything more I could or should do. I sighed at that depressing possibility.
But…what if he needed just one more nudge? What if he just needed me to reach out and reassure him, just one more time? What if he was afraid and wanted to hear from me first to know that he was safe, that I wasn’t fooling him or putting him in a position to potentially appear foolish and vulnerable? Should I send him an email to get him to warm up to me? But if I did, it might be interpreted as me being intrusive, not valuing his sense of self, and in effect appearing to be nosy or clingy. I didn’t know the right course of action to take.
And I still didn’t know why I cared so much.
Very soon I found that I had logged into my email account and had been staring at my inbox for the last several minutes. Shaking my head, I minimized the screen, stood up, and went downstairs to get myself a glass of water. After gulping down the cool clear liquid, I decided to call it a night as I packed my books back into my knapsack for school tomorrow. Once that was all done, I headed up into my bedroom and reached to log out of my email and turn off my computer.
But I didn’t. I had a new message in my inbox and I clicked to see it. I read and reread the email address but I didn’t recognize it.
And then I did. It was an email from Joey. I blinked a few times. My heart sped up. And then I opened his email.
It’s Joey here. I hope I’m not bothering you or anything, but I just wanted to take you up on your offer and say thank you. I’m sorry about the trouble I must have given you today. Twice. You know, first in the washroom, then at lunch…
I feel bad about it all. I feel pretty ashamed. About everything. You’re probably wondering just what I mean when I say everything. That, I think, I will someday tell you. It’s just…hard to talk about, you know? I’m sorry if I seem to be withholding some things from you. I just…there are some things I need to work out in my head first. Sorry for being vague.
I spoke with Kenny after the first time you helped me out today. When he realized that what I had to say weren’t for other ears, we “excused” ourselves from class. I’m really grateful that he did that, sacrificing his time for me. You have a good friend, Austin. For some reason a part of me hurts knowing that Kenny was good to me, that he cared, that he was kind when he essentially had no reason to be. It hurts because I realized how awful I had been, that I wasn’t a good person. He forgave me. I didn’t deserve it at all. I wish I knew why you guys are so kind to me. But even more than that, I wish I hadn’t been such a horrible person before all of this. It’s a regret I’ll never live down.
Maybe I’ll find the courage to tell you about it all face to face some day. Maybe then I can tell you what ‘everything’ is. I don’t know when, maybe when I’ve gotten myself together. It isn’t fair for me to leave you lost and confused when you reached out to help me when I needed it most. I’m sorry I’m not ready yet. But I will tell you, if by then you are still willing to listen.
It was cool being with you guys today during lunch. Hope you’ll have me again. You guys are good people.
Thanks a lot. I really do mean it.
Oh…Joey. I sighed inwardly as I read and reread his email. There was a sadness I could sense, but his last few lines reassured me. I wanted to see him tomorrow.
I didn’t want him to feel the way he did. He felt bad. He was apologetic; probably had a whole bunch of self-hate festering inside of him. Kenny and I, the rest of us, just wanted to help him out, not indirectly hurt him. It was good to know that he and Kenny sorted some things out. Perhaps Kenny’s the one he’s comfortable with. Maybe I’ve done the most that I could do on my part. But I’ll still be here to listen. Joey’s email was elusive in certain areas – things he needed to figure out, the story behind it all, what’s really going through his mind, why he couldn’t tell me about it. I didn’t know if it was because he was uncomfortable talking about it or that it was something about me that made him uncomfortable, that with another person like Kenny he could talk it out with, but that there was something about me that he couldn’t. I really hoped that wasn’t the case. I liked him, I was worried and concerned. I cared. But I didn’t have to help if he didn’t want me to. As long as he had someone to lean on, someone to talk to, to walk with. And if it wasn’t me who was meant to do that, then I knew he would benefit greatly having Kenny as his buddy.
And then I smirked. I couldn’t help it. This entire notion of friendship was getting really mushy, a bit too affectionate.
But it wasn’t wrong. Being affectionate wasn’t wrong.
I responded to his email with one I struggled to write as friendly and caring as I could without being overly sympathetic, inquisitive, and I avoided using the simple word “you” in a condescending manner. Little things in how you speak or write can affect people in vast ways that may be wholly unintentional. That, I have come to realize, and I did my best to sound approachable, humble, and even, for good measure, trustworthy. I told him that he was a good person, and that I liked him – that my friends and I all liked and cared about him.
I lay in bed that night wondering if he had read my email yet, wondering how we would be like around each other tomorrow. I replayed the day’s events in my head, thinking about why I cared so much about him. I wondered what Joey was thinking about at this moment, what he was doing. Was he thinking through some of the same things I was? Was he also wondering about how we would be like around each other tomorrow, was he replaying the day’s events in his head, and thinking about why we – my friends and I – cared and accepted him?
But my final thoughts before I fell asleep that night was, oddly enough, about Keegan. What was his involvement in all of this, and why? And why was it that each time I confronted him, he seemed to relent far more easily than I had expected?
It was now December, and November had drifted by without incidence. Joey got along well with the rest of the group and we had the usual friendly banter at lunch. Joey and I shared some classes together, and I began noticing that slowly, he became less secluded and removed from the rest of the class. Things were started to look up. However, our email exchanges were few, and he never did tell me anymore than that night. I guessed I wasn’t meant to know.
Eventually with the little that I knew, I told Trish some of what happened on that day when I encountered Keegan and Joey in the washroom. I told her about Joey, how he evolved and changed throughout the years. Now that things were beginning to settle, with Joey fitting in comfortably amongst ourselves, I discerned that Joey was starting to put it all behind him. Though perhaps I may never know the answers, what was important was for him to heal, have his troubles dealt with, and to happily move on. However, I felt guilty for feeling melancholy in that he slowly stopped talking about it, for not confiding in me.
In today’s math class, by consensus we all wanted to do Secret Santa. I didn’t think anything when I pulled a slip of white paper out of the tin can. When I unfolded it, I was surprised to get Joey’s name. What were the chances of that?! I folded it up and avoided eye contact with anyone, especially him. I didn’t want to lead him on thinking I had gotten his name. That would ruin the entire purpose of the game.
I observed that whenever we ate in the cafeteria, off to the far side sat Keegan on his own, numbly eating his own lunch. He no longer caused Joey trouble, but that didn’t mean he didn’t stop paying attention to us all as we sat together. One time I saw Trish talking with him in the cafeteria at the table he occupied when I came in a little later than usual. We surreptitiously eyed her with curiosity.
“Is everything okay with Keegan,” asked Joey.
“Okay with him?” Steph asked incredulously, her eyes wide. “Since when did you care about him?”
“I’m just curious,” he stated innocently.
“Well in this particular case, curiosity would probably kill the cat,” Kenny smirked.
“Not if satisfaction brought him back,” I playfully sneered.
Trish didn’t say anything when she returned, so we asked her what was going on. Within a mere matter of seconds Keegan stood up and left the cafeteria.
“I was just chatting with him for a bit. We know each other, so he didn’t mind me coming up to him.”
“My dear Trish, please don’t tell us you’re interested in him,” Steph teased.
“Trish, this is no laughing matter,” I tightened my jaw, rising to my full height in a seated position. “Should I be worried?”
“Jealous much?” she purred, resting her head on my shoulder.
“Very. You belong only to me,” I whispered loudly. She laughed, as did the rest of us. Except for Joey. He was busy chewing his food as if he didn’t hear us.
That very same day Joey and I shared English for last period. The final assessment for the first semester was assigned and we were told to partner up in pairs. We had to examine a passage from Shakepeare’s play ‘Hamlet’ and conduct a seminar involving literary analysis of the selected passage for the class within a week – that was, starting next Friday and onto the following week. Lists of passages were handed around the class with suggestions to choose from.
When were told to get up and seat ourselves next to our partner, I stood up and turned to Joey. He did likewise.
“Partners?” I asked.
“Partners,” he said in agreement with a small smile, that innocent, bashful smile, with just a hint of an upturned right corner of his lip.
“I’ll come over,” I said, gathering my stuff. Joey pulled the neighbouring desk and seat to line up against his. He watched patiently as I made my way over.
Setting my stuff down, I sat and turned next to him with the play in hand. “Glad I got you all to myself before anyone else had the chance,” I said with a lopsided grin. He laughed nervously.
“No, I’m the one who’s glad,” he said firmly, his face decidedly lined with a sturdy smile.
“Oh, are you setting us up for the ‘who is or who isn’t’ game? As in ‘no, I’m glad. No, I’m glad’?” I poked him in the ribs. He suddenly jerked back and his mouth opened in surprise. “Ohhh, I see, we’ve got a ticklish one here, don’t we?” I teased.
“Passage 3 has already been taken. All of you better choose your passages and tell me them before the one you want gets taken by another group!” the teacher projected her voice as she made the announcement. Crap. Way to ruin the fun!
“Looks like it’s time to get to work! We can fool around later,” I winked at him.
“Hey! You’re the one who’s fooling around!” Joey shot back.
“Nuh-uh!” I grinned.
Eventually we refocused ourselves to the task at hand. We settled for the 6th passage, the confrontation between Laertes and King Claudius over Laertes’ father Polonius’ death, followed by his sister Ophelia’s entrance singing bawdy songs and giving out flowers. After reporting our selection to the teacher, we once again seated ourselves and discussed the passage. We came up with a lot of ideas and took down notes. We were on a roll, and it was just fascinating at how quick Joey was at identifying interesting points and literary devices. As I appreciated the contents of the passage, so I appreciated his natural skill and interest in the text, and I marvelled at him. I had no idea he was this good. It was fun, and I was in awe.
Our roll was halted when class was over, and it felt as if time had flown by in an instant. It was a shame. But then Joey looked up from the play in his hand and looked at me.
“Hey, um, I was wondering...would you be interested in sticking around at my place for a bit so we could sort out who will work on what for the weekend? We could also finish looking at the rest of the passage and figure out the important things to talk about, who will talk about what, and come up with our central assertions?” he looked at me hopefully. “It’s alright if you can’t or don’t want to. We can still call each other over the weekend, right?”
I smiled widely at him. “Dude, it’s a Friday evening and I have nothing planned other than homework. I think it would be a great idea to get some of this out of the way. I’ll come over if that’s an invitation I hear, for sure.” I had never stepped foot inside his house, and it had actually been a while since we were alone together. Though I couldn’t put my finger on it, I felt like there was also an underlying reason for his asking me to come over, judging from his time being so acquainted with independence and being alone that there must be some significant reason for him welcoming a school friend into his home. And it wasn’t just anyone. It was me.
Or maybe he just wanted company, or that he felt it convenient to get as much of our work done together as we could before we had to present to the class. It was ‘group’ work after all, and that required conversing, brainstorming, and discussion. Maybe I was just reading into things too much. Perhaps English class has influenced me in a way or two.
“Yeah, I’m inviting you,” he beamed nervously. “We can walk there together.”
English was our last class, so after leaving we headed to our lockers to retrieve our jackets and other books for the weekend and left. We walked from the school to his house in pretty much the same manner as we had that first day, with our shoulders huddled up near our ears as the cold winter air wiped and lashed at our faces. When we got to his front door and had it opened, the first thing I noticed was that his house was vacant and dim with the lights off. The second was the burst of warmth I felt as we entered. Immediately my stiff body loosened and relaxed.
“Ahh…it feels good being out of the cold,” I sighed contentedly as I shut the door behind us.
“Hang on, let me get some light in here.” Joey took off his shoes on the rug and placed them neatly aside. I followed suit as he took a few steps forward and flicked on the light switch.
It was a small house, a warm house, a neat house. We walked through the living room on dark hardwood flooring. A TV was against a wall with two mahogany couches along the adjacent walls. An oval coffee table was situated between the two couches and family photos and paintings were hung on the soft sand-beige coloured walls. Through the living room we entered what I supposed was the family room with a bookshelf and some cushioned seats. In a corner stood a Christmas tree adorned with tinsel, baubles with fine decorations and various sizes, purple and beige ribbons, acorns, and lights. Atop the tree stood an angel in a white and pristine dress holding a small candle in each hand.
“Wow…” I stopped, admiring the tree. Joey smiled warmly at my admiration. “It’s pretty,” I said softly, “really pretty.”
“Thanks,” he smiled.
“Is it alright if I see it with the Christmas lights on?” I asked.
He laughed contentedly. “Sure, my pleasure,” he said, reaching down to the base of the tree to turn the switch on. Then he stepped away and turned the light in the room off to enhance the visual effect. The tree came to life with its bright white lights, reflecting off of the ornaments and icicle decorations. The bulbs on the candles of the angel lighted up, and a star with multiple rays I hadn’t noticed before lighted up in a bright warm yellow glow behind the angel’s wings.
“That’s…it’s…” I turned to Joey. “…it’s beautiful.”
He held my gaze in the dim room, the only source of light emanating brilliantly from the tree. “Thanks,” he whispered softly, afraid to break the soothing trance-like peace in the air.
A few silent moments passed by as we stood next to each other in companionable silence. The moment ended when he turned off the Christmas lights. “C’mon, let’s pick up where we left off last time, shall we?”
“Right,” I nodded. He led me into the kitchen to a smooth wooden table for four. Setting his backpack down, he took off his jacket and offered to take mine to hang them both up.
“Oh, thanks. Just a sec,” I responded as I too dropped my bag by my feet, taking my jacket off. He took them away and came back in less than five.
We got to work as if no time had passed since our English class. We discussed, made notes, and assigned who would address and elaborate on which topic. During the scene in Hamlet that we chose, Ophelia’s erratic behaviour included not only the songs she sings before the other characters, but also the flowers she hands out to those individuals. With an idea, Joey decided to do some research on the computer, and he timidly invited me up into his room on the second floor.
“Behold, my humble abode,” he said with a crooked grin. “Welcome.”
“I am honoured,” I jovially responded in kind. I swept my eyes across the room. Directly in front of me was a window with the blinds drawn up, giving view to the dark evening sky. To the left was a single bed against the wall with white and burgundy sheets and a disheveled blanket I imagined he must have thrown aside as he drowsily got out of bed this morning. At a distance from the foot of his bed stood a white closet with a vertical mirror and a white dresser. On the right of the room was a dark brown desk with a computer and next to it towards the window stood a bookshelf. On his desk sat a picture frame. The photo was of a much younger version of him standing between his mother and father. He had his father’s hair and smile, and the shape of his face was akin to his mother’s with her eyes and nose. On the wall above his computer hung a calendar, and on the opposite wall above his bed hung a painting of a young lone boy crouched in yellow rain boots with an umbrella over his head, a finger testing the pond water. At the head of his bed was a painting of what appeared to be by the same artist, a painting of two young boys, one in red overalls and another in blue overalls, each wearing flat caps. They had their faces close together, their noses touching. They were happy.
“Are these two by the same painter?” I asked.
“Yeah. Donald Zolan. He does a lot of paintings of children and childhood,” said Joey. I looked at him and noticed that he was very still, keeping his eyes on the floor. It was as if he was afraid of what I thought. I guess he was.
“They’re cute, makes me feel like wanting to be a kid again,” I said warmly.
“Yeah…I guess you can say that,” he said slowly. He looked up to read my face, and I was sure all he saw there was sincerity, because he then smiled sweetly at me before taking a seat in front of his computer, turning it on.
After we finished our research on the meaning of the types of flowers the character Ophelia had distributed, I walked to the window and saw that it was snowing. Joey was still on the computer, just surfing on the internet, not looking at anything in particular. His forehead was creased in thought. He seemed uneasy and I wondered what was bothering him.
“Something on your mind?” I asked him.
“It’s…it’s nothing,” he said softly. I kept my eyes on his lithe form for a while before returning my gaze to the soft falling snow, drifting to the ground and roofs of other houses in the distance. I slowly found myself humming a soft tune.
“Whatcha singing?” he asked.
“Nothing. I’m humming,” I grinned.
“Okay. What are you humming?” he asked, rising out of his seat to make his way beside me.
“Just a song from a movie I once saw. ‘La Nuit’ from ‘Les Choristes’. It’s a French movie. You’ve probably seen it in French class at some point.”
“Hmm…I don’t seem to remember. I don’t think I’ve seen it before.”
“It’s a nice movie, I think. The song’s just about the night, how sweet and mysterious it is, how it can change everything to a happy dream,” I said as I gazed out in the dark.
“I…” he sighed heavily, “…I wish that was true,” Joey said softly. His voice was sad, and I turned around to meet his eyes. He looked away.
“Joey…” I started, gently, “…talk to me. Tell me what’s really bothering you,” I soothed. Still he didn’t look at me, but from his voice, from his slumped shoulders, his body language and posture, I could tell that he wasn’t just sad, wasn’t just…lonely, hesitant. He was scared. Scared of something, something that he might say, of what I might think…but was he scared of me?
“I…I don’t know if I should,” he spoke just above a whisper.
“You don’t have to be afraid. What you say won’t change anything between us.” He hesitated, and I wrapped an arm almost protectively around his shoulders, pulling him close to my side, as close as that first day we walked home together, as close as that time I held him against me in that pungent and stifling room after having fought Keegan off.
“I hate the night,” he began, slowly, hesitantly, “because it’s the only time where the loneliness and self-hatred creeps up on me, the only time where I let my defences down so it can bind me. It’s not sweet…or, or mysterious. I don’t have happy dreams. All I have…are tears.” I felt him shudder against me. I felt him straining to control his voice, but I had to ask him…
“Can you tell me…why you hate yourself?” I asked softly.
He paused, gathering his thoughts together, trying to steady his breathing. I squeezed his shoulder both to comfort and encourage. He was scared, but he plowed on, as if it was something he needed to say, something he had to do. “…Because of who I am. I’m a bad person…and I desperately, selfishly, want something I don’t deserve. Something I’ll never have. Something I’ve always hated but now…it’s gotten to the point where I can no longer hate it because it’s something that feels right, something that can take away the pain, the loneliness…” He was visibly trembling now, and my heart ached as I held and watched this wonderful boy, hurting, yet fighting for the strength to be vulnerable to me, to open up and share his secrets with me. He was delicate, fragile, and it hurt me to see him hurt. He shouldn’t ever have to hurt. I didn’t want him to.
“And what exactly is that something. Or…” I paused, deciding to risk it, “…is it a someone?” I carefully ventured.
He didn’t answer for a long time, and I waited patiently, giving him all the time he needed as I held him by the window. The sky grew darker still and the snow peacefully drifted down, gently landing on whatever surface it could grace.
“It’s a someone…and I…I think…no…I thought,” he paused, taking in a shuddered breath, “…I thought I had found him,” his voice shook as did his shoulders. I held my breath. He said ‘him’. It was a boy he had feelings for.
Slowly, I rubbed my hand against his upper arm soothingly. I didn’t let go of him. “You said you thought you found him, I’m guessing, a boy to love you…but what did you mean when you said thought…as in past tense?” I asked.
“I-it…it doesn’t m-matter to you that I’m…that I’m,”
“Gay? Or, or that you have feelings for other guys?” I whispered. “That you like…that the person you would fall in love with is a boy?” I asked.
Joey tensed up in my arm. “Y-yeah…”
“Of course not, buddy…of course not,” my forehead creased with genuine understanding and acceptance. It was almost too much to hear his soft trembling voice tell me something so secret, so intimate. “I’m really glad you told me.” Truth was…I had already suspected for some time now, and I supposed it was only a matter of time before he told me himself. Nevertheless…I found my heart racing…
We stood there quietly, with him close to my side, my arm draped over his shoulders. “Thanks Austin…” Joey whispered.
I smiled at him. “Nothing changes between us. You’re still my friend. But…do you want to…um, answer my question? You said you thought you found him…what did you mean?”
“He’s…he’s with someone. I just know. A girl. And they’re happy together. But I love him,” a tear trickled down his cheek and he turned away from me, wiping it with the back of his hand. “And it’s selfish of me to want him. I shouldn’t.”
“Oh Joey…” I bit my lip. “I’m sorry things are like the way they are. It must suck…”
His lower lip trembled. I rubbed from his shoulder to his elbow. “Tell me about him,” I said.
Joey raised his head and widened his eyes a little, trying to keep the other tears at bay, from welling up. When he lowered his head he whispered to me, “H-he was there when I didn’t deserve him, but when I needed him the most. He…he cared for me. He befriended me. All the bad things I did just didn’t matter to him. He’s…” he paused, trying to calm himself, to keep his voice from cracking, “…he’s good to me, and he’s beautiful.” My heart trembled hearing his soft voice quiver as he made himself vulnerable to me, as he told me a most personal, private secret he must have kept hidden inside of him every day and night.
“May I ask you something?” I started. Slowly, he nodded. “Is it…are you talking about…Kenny?”
He shook his head. “No. I…I liked him when we were all fourteen in grade nine, and I…I picked on him because I saw myself in him, because I liked him, and hated it. I was scared of it…” Another tear trickled down, but he didn’t care to wipe it away this time. “I’m ashamed of what I did…he deserved far better than that. And I can never forgive myself,” he sniffled woefully. “I no longer have…those sort of feelings for him. We talked about all of this after the time Keegan…you know…” I nodded my head. “Kenny knows all about it now…but no, it’s not Kenny that I...that I...” he stuttered as his voice began to give away.
“That you love?” I suggested. He nodded silently.
“Then…” I bit my lower lip, unsure if I should be so bold as to ask him the identity of this special someone.
“He’s someone I wish I knew as well as…as well as Tr-Trish does…”
I felt a shiver run over me as I realized who that other person was. And I knew this other person very well. But before I could say anything Joey pulled away from me, biting his trembling lips together.
“I…Austin I’m so sorry. I…you should go…” he began. “It’s getting dark outside and the snow’s getting heavier. Your parents might be worried.” I glanced at the clock in his room I hadn’t noticed before and realized that it was almost six. I had to get going, but I…I couldn’t leave him like this. I didn’t know what to do. And at that moment, it really didn’t seem like time mattered anymore, because something else did. Joey’s heart.
“You should go, Austin,” he repeated, his voice firmer, with more force, his jaw clenched tightly to keep his face from crumpling. “I…I’ll walk you out.” He quickly turned on his heels and walked out of the room and down the stairs, and I ran after him. But I was at a loss of words, and I didn’t know what to do.
His parents still weren’t home for the evening, and I assumed that they come home late from work every day. I gathered my things together, put both my jacket and backpack on, and he walked me to the door, keeping his eyes on the ground.
After I had slipped my shoes on, I turned to look at him once more. “Joey,” I said, wanting to extend a hand…just to…just to…to touch him. “Look at me.” He bit his lower lip and slowly raised his eyes to meet mine.
“I want to ask you to do something for yourself, and if not, then for me.”
“W-What…what is it?” he asked.
“I’m asking you…to forgive yourself. To love yourself. And not to lose hope. You’ll find the right guy. I know you will.” And with that, I swung the door open and stepped out into the cold winter air, into the fast falling snow that crashed and flew about in a thick white flurry. “It’s cold outside, don’t stand too close to the door, you’ll catch a cold,” I said as I turned around and saw him place himself between the door and the door frame to sadly watch me leave.
Joey didn’t respond, but he looked at me with watery eyes, begging for me – struggling to keep his face from crumpling, not wanting me to leave him – asking for me to stay. Inside he was scared and told me I should leave, but I knew his heart cried differently. And at this moment, his eyes spoke for his heart. And I heard him.
“Joey…I’m sorry…I’m so sorry…” and I left. In that moment, I knew and could no longer deny why I cared so much about him; I knew that it wasn’t he who was underserving of love. I knew he wasn’t the only person who fell in love, and I knew that I had broken his heart in that very moment. Because I wanted someone better for him. Because I was scared. Because I was afraid of losing him should I ever do something wrong if we were together. It was too good to be true, too surreal – to accept that above all others, he loved me. Me. I was a hypocrite. He harboured self-hate, and I asked him to forgive himself, yet he was not alone in self-loathing.
All along I’ve known that I loved him too, but I kept denying it. All along I’ve known why I cared so much about him, but I kept denying it, trying to find other reasons. He deserved someone better, someone who could give him more than I ever could. Someone who’s heart was ready, someone endowed with maturity.
“Rough night?” Kenny asked me. It was the last day of school before the winter holidays. The 21st of December, to be exact. And it was a Friday.
“I guess you can say that,” I said quietly. Although classes hadn’t officially commenced yet that morning, our Math teacher opened up the classroom when I came early so that I might have a place to sit. Kenny came in within a few minutes, and our teacher left to take care of some things in the staff room. No one other than the two of us had arrived yet.
I stood out by the windows as the bright winter sun shone down upon the blinding, twinkling snow covered trees in the distance, wondering by what hand had given me the name I had gotten for today’s Secret Santa. And it boggled my mind as to how I had picked Joey’s name from the tin can we passed around. It took me a while, but eventually I managed to get a gift for him that I hoped he would like.
I knew Joey’s feelings for me hadn’t changed at all, and neither did mine. I was just conflicted. Two sides of me tugged at my heart in opposite directions. One wanted me to just surrender to our mutual affections, and the other firmly reminded me of my shortcomings, giving me reason to still my heart and go on pretending. Pretending I didn’t know love, pretending I didn’t want to hold Joey’s hand, pretending that I didn’t want to feel his heart beat against mine. After that night, every day I saw Joey, his eyes were downcast. His face was long and tired; the steps in his feet lost their skip. Even our friendship was threatening to dissipate. Somehow I knew Joey didn’t hate me. He was heartbroken, and maybe, maybe even a little bit scared at potentially losing me, scared that I might no longer look at him the same. Had my reassuring words to him when he came out to me been nothing more than just simply sounds uttered from my mouth? I knew I meant them…but by avoiding conversation with him…I knew my words were for naught, meaningless.
I’m wasn’t sure if getting a gift for him would help rekindle that spark between us. I was afraid I might just end up hurting him even more should he think that I had ignored him, only to suddenly present him with a gift that could make him confused, make him angry – that I only cared to approach him again because I played a part in a game. I was scared, confused, and I felt guilty.
“Wanna talk about it?” Kenny asked.
“I dunno,” I shrugged. “Different day, same shit. Just a rough night, that’s all.”
Kenny murmured in agreement. “And we both know you’re not alone in having rough nights, now, don’t we?”
I stayed planted looked out the window at the morning sky. “What do you mean?”
Kenny dragged out a long sigh. “I’m guessing I’m not the only one who knows Joey has rough nights too. You should really talk to him. There’s something that’s been bothering him lately. Two weeks to be exact.”
I blinked several times before turning at him, my face grim.
“And I know it’s also been eating at you too, and that whatever ‘it’ is, is between the two of you,” Kenny persisted, standing up and walking over to me. “Look man…I’m not going to beat around the bush…but I know some of the details…just not from you, of course. I don’t know what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling. But I do know,” he paused as he stood beside me, turning to look outside the window, “that it’s only going to get worse if the two of you don’t sit down and shake hands on it, to resolve whatever’s been ebbing between both of you. You’re both my good friends, and I don’t wanna see you guys go out like this.
“Joey’s too scared to take that extra step to talk to you,” he continued, “and I know that with you, there’s nothing to be afraid of. You’re a nice guy, Austin. Maybe it’s you who has to be the brave one on this.”
I stood there quietly mulling on what he said. After gathering my thoughts together, I spoke. “Exactly how much do you know about all of this?”
“Just that he came out to you and hinted that he had feelings for you for quite some time now, and that you seemed to catch on but it was apparent to him that it was unrequited, and that you might have felt uncomfortable about him telling you how much he loves you.” My heart sank as did my face. Joey didn’t know. He didn’t know how much I felt the same for him, didn’t know how scared I was knowing that for the first time the person I loved also loved me back, and that I was afraid that it was all just a dream, that it couldn’t be true, and that if it was true, then I was too afraid of losing him and getting hurt if things didn’t work out, if I did something wrong.
But…maybe acceptance here isn’t the problem to our woes, but rather rejection is. By being in denial and rejecting these…these affections and not dealing with them, maybe that was the problem, maybe that was tearing us apart. Maybe the real enemy here is not acceptance, but rejection and fear. Maybe the only way to reconcile us…was to come to terms with what I felt for him, to tell him the truth, as he had so bravely done to me.
Now…now what do I do?
Joey clapped a hand on my shoulder. “I know you’ll figure something out,” he said, realizing that I was deep in thought, that at the moment I had no words. “I hear noise and people talking. Class is gonna start in fifteen. Oh, and try to cheer up a little, ‘cause you’ll be walking home today with some goody after we exchange gifts.” He walked away, and I turned to see him wave at a couple of other guys and girls before meeting Steph at her locker.
“Good morning gorgeous,” Trish popped out of nowhere. “How’s it going?”
“Dunno yet. The day’s just starting. We’ll see,” I mumbled. “Anyway. Morning to ya. Sorry I’m not as…exuberant as you are. I’m a little drained.”
“Mmm! Exuberant, eh? I like that word,” she grinned slyly. “But…is everything alright, or is my happiness too much for you?” A chuckle escaped, and she grinned again.
“I’m just…” I sighed, frowning. “I don’t know anymore,” I shook my head.
Trish’s face slowly fell, her smile replaced with a worried frown. “Anything you want to talk about?” she looked at me, concerned.
“Just…something I need to figure out between me and Joey,” I said.
She crossed her arms. “You know, there’s a lot I don’t know about him and why you’re all tangled in it. I can’t help but make a lot of assumptions and I’m sorry if it all seems very nosy of me, but…” she chewed on her lip slowly, “…I kind of wonder, you know, what’s going on with my two friends. I’d like to know. I’ve noticed that there seems to be an awkwardness between you two lately. Joey looks…sad. I tried approaching him about it but…he just brushed it off.” She raised her hands up to her sides. “I’m just being honest and…I’m sorry if I appear to be very intrusive. Maybe when things are back to normal and it’s not so, you know…immediate anymore, you might be able to tell me. But if it’s something that would be good to have an extra…brain…to work with, then then I’d like to offer mine while it can still be of service.”
I couldn’t help but grin, a weak laugh escaping my mouth. “I’m sorry to make you feel left of out the loop–” I began
“–No, no. I’m quite certain that whatever it is, it’s not something you can just simply start a conversation about. I’m the one who’s sorry. I always feel like I’m asking you or bugging you too much…”
I shook my head, both sighing and grinning. “Trish…we went over this before. There’s nothing for you to apologize.”
“Yeah, I know, but I can’t help it. The apologizing part, I mean,” she smiled.
Suddenly the school bell rang and we both jumped up, alerted. Then we both laughed at ourselves.
“Guess class is starting. You’ve got your gift for your person?” I asked.
“Yep. I left it at my desk over there,” she motioned with her chin. “You?”
“On mine as well. I wonder who has my name,” I said out loud.
“So do I…Hope my gift giver doesn’t give me something weird like a prank as a joke or something. But…well…actually I wouldn’t mind that. As long as it’s a funny one,” she mused. Walking away to get to her seat, I did the same and watched as our classmates bustle in gleefully, some with red cheeks and noses from recently coming in from the cold winter air, admiring each other’s gift wrapping and asking what they had gotten their person. No one, of course, revealed their gift.
Then I saw Joey walk in. He kept his eyes on the floor. It hurt that he didn’t look up at me and nervously smile like before. It hurt knowing that he no longer looked at me because of what I did, that I left him broken-hearted that night. It hurt knowing that he must be hurting. And I felt highly uneasy knowing that my gift was for him, that I would have to walk up to him and give it to him. I didn’t like this. I didn’t like this at all. What would he think? How would he react? Would he even care?
The national anthem played, followed by students making morning announcements on the PA system. It was reminded that there would be a pancake breakfast hosted by the teachers and staff this morning within 45 minutes, in which everyone would be invited down to the cafeteria to help themselves to the food. Right…I had forgotten all about that. It was a long standing tradition at my school.
“Okay class,” our teacher began. “Since we don’t have much time, and since you all appear to be busting to swap your…um…nicely wrapped…gifts…” he cocked an eyebrow at a kid with disheveled hair in our class. On his desk sat a box in a yellow No Frills grocery bag. The class chuckled and the kid grinned at the teacher. He pulled out the box from the bag, revealing red Christmas wrapping paper sloppily scrunched and taped around the item in question, topped with a lopsided star bow.
“A work of art, eh?” the kid cockily grinned, leaning back in his chair.
“It’s for me, isn’t it?!” Trish exclaimed in mock delight over his shoulder. “Oh you shouldn’t have Chewbacca…you really shouldn’t have,” she covered her mouth with her hand, her eyes wide. The class laughed and the teacher grinned, shaking his head.
“We can do the gift exchange now before heading down to the cafeteria. I’ve got to be down there too to serve you all. Anyway, you are now free to mingle,” he smiled, and we noisily got up from our chairs and hunted down whoever we had gotten our gifts for.
I slowly got up, took my gift in my hand, sighing heavily as I attempted to find the necessarily courage within me, and walked towards Joey. He got up and started walking too, and I started to hang back a little, allowing him to give his person his gift first. But he kept walking, and soon I realized that he was walking towards me. Confused, I took a few steps forward and met him halfway across the room.
“Hi Joey, I…” I started.
“Hey Austin…wait…what?” he stared at me, confused. He looked at the gift in my hand, and then flicked his eyes to look at the one in his – a square box – and then back up into my eyes. “You got my name?”
“Yeah, and I’m guessing you got mine as well,” I said, surprised. “Well this is…interesting. Huh…” my mouth was slightly opened. This was very weird…how did this happen?
“Oh, um anyway,” I shook myself awake and handed him his gift I had picked out. “I have a gift for you. Merry Christmas Joey.” It was flat and rectangular, and he smiled and placed his square gift in my hand.
“Here, I got you something too,” he said. “Open it,” he gently urged me on.
“Oh no, you open yours first,” I smiled. He shook his head.
“You go first. I want to see if you like it.”
“You don’t think I want the same? You open it first,” I grinned.
“Please Austin. Just open it,” he grinned. God, it felt as if the entire room lighted up with that one smile. It felt so good to see him smile at me again, and indeed, it was contagious. My face split in two as I shook my head like a five year old.
“Oh, are we playing this game again?” I wiggled my eyebrows. He giggled a light, warm, bright giggle. “How about we open it at the same time?”
“Alright then,” he nodded.
I took the ribbon off and carefully pulled at the little rectangular pieces of tape, admiring his handiwork and choice of wrapping paper – a dark blue with patterns of white feathers, snow, and mistletoe, nicely wrapped with a finishing touch of a golden ribbon he had tied on. I flicked my eyes to his hands and noticed that he was carefully unwrapping the gift I had given him as well. I had wrapped his with red Christmas wrapping paper with large elegant white snowflakes, while finishing it off with a white ribbon tied diagonally with the bow at a corner.
As I peeled the wrapping from my gift, I saw a white square box. I opened the lid and inside was a snow globe with a silvery white and blue Christmas tree, all held on a silver base with an engraving. I carefully took out the snow globe and cupped it in my hands. The elaborate designs and fake snow sparkled. Engraved on the base read “Angels are Real”.
I gasped and left my mouth hanging open as I gazed at not only its sheer elegant beauty, but at the three words engraved on the base. “Angels are real…” I read out loud. “Joey, wow…thank you…I…I don’t know what to…”
My voice trailed off when I looked up and noticed that he stared at his unwrapped present – the gift I got him – in silence, his brow furrowed.
“A-Austin, I’m speechless…” he finally looked at me, blinking several times. He turned his eyes back to the painting I had gotten him, one I found selling at a booth at one of the large malls in the city. It was a painting by Donald Zolan of two little boys sitting on brown train seats next to each other, each one with a drinking straw in his mouth, both drinking from the same pop can. “How…how did you know?”
“Your room,” I smiled. He looked at me again. He smiled, shaking his head in realization.
“Thank you, Austin. Thank you very much. I really…really like it,” he said softly.
“And I…I love what you got me too,” I said with the right corner of my lips pulling upwards into a smile. He looked into my eyes, and went pale when he picked up on the word I had emphasized. A word I stressed even though the other part of me – the part of rejection and denial – fought against it. A word I stressed because I knew no matter how hard I tried to fight against what I felt with thoughts of how undeserving, undesirable, and unattractive I was…I knew I could very well lose him back to an abyss I would constantly live knowing that it was my fault, if I kept up this fight. I knew I would lose, that all would be lost.
It wasn’t an unrequited love he had for me. It was a mutual love because I felt the same way for him as well. If it was only he who loved me, then things might be different. But it wasn’t…and I loved him, with all of his imperfections. Perhaps…perhaps he could look beyond mine as well. Maybe I had nothing to fear…
“But I’m no angel,” I whispered so that no one else around us could hear.
“Yes you are. To me,” he whispered back. His head tilted downwards in sadness when I had no words to speak, when I did not know what else to say.
The cafeteria was crowded, and our table had already been taken. As we looked around for seats, holding plates of pancakes, Trish spotted Keegan sitting off to a corner by himself as usual. There were seats available where he sat. When we all turned to look in his direction, she raised her eyebrows expectantly. Joey smiled weakly and nodded. Steph, Kenny, and I looked at them both, bewildered.
“You sure this dude won’t eat us alive?” Steph asked them, wide eyed.
“You of all people, Joey…” Kenny started, equally surprised. I gave Joey a questioning look.
“Three reasons. One: he isn’t as bad as we all thought he was,” Joey began. I furrowed my brow in confusion. There must be something here that I’m missing. I made a mental note to ask Joey about it later.
“Two: he’s always alone and it would be a kind gesture to have that changed, especially when it’s this time of the year. And three: we need seats anyway,” he finished.
“Oookay then…I guess that makes you a good example to the rest of us,” said Steph, frowning in thought. Kenny pursed his lips with a cocked eyebrow. I looked at Trish to see her smiling, looking back at me. She looped her arm through Steph’s.
“C’mon people, you heard the man,” she flicked her eyes to meet Kenny’s. “Chicken?” she teased.
“Clearly the rest of us don’t know something you two do,” he motioned to Trish and Joey. “Eh…what could happen?” he said, trying to sound nonchalance, to appear tough. “We can handle him.”
I tried to appear calm and collected, but truth be told I was apprehensive and more than just a little wary as we walked over to sit by Keegan. I kept close in front of Joey, feeling protective.
“Mind if we sit here?” Trish smiled at Keegan.
He looked up, his eyes unreadable, his face expressionless. “Sure,” he said, his voice hinting suspicion. He flicked his eyes over to Joey and the two made eye contact. I glanced between them both, weighing their expressions, trying to see what would happen.
Joey gave him a small smile, and Keegan gave him a little nod. Keegan then directed his attention to me and I looked back at him, holding his gaze, feeling threatened. I felt everybody’s eyes on the two of us, and I knew that if Joey had forgiven Keegan, if whatever between them was over and done with in some manner unbeknownst to me, then it would be wise for me to not be so vigilant, to let down my guard a little. But it wasn’t easy; not after hearing the hateful words he used against Joey, not after having to fight him off twice, not after witnessing him attack Joey and not be served his penalty. I wasn’t ready to let it go. I needed to talk to Joey and figure out what this was all about.
Unexpectedly, Keegan couldn’t hold his gaze on me anymore and he burst out laughing. It was a deep, guttural laugh. But it wasn’t menacing. On the contrary, it was mirthful. Trish and Joey took a seat opposite of him, setting their plates down. I slowly sat down next to Joey with a perplexed look on my face. What just happened?
Steph and Kenny glanced at each other, seeing as the only spots left were on Keegan’s side of the table, requiring them to sit beside him. She nudged him, and he looked at her incredulously. She rolled her eyes, shrugged, and moved over to plop herself beside Keegan. Kenny sat next to her.
Keegan scanned his eyes at us around the table, clearing his throat. “Umm…we got off on the wrong foot. And…” Keegan paused, not sure how to continue. “…there are two things I want…need you guys to know, that I need to say,” he turned his head to look at Steph and Kenny, and then he set his eyes on me. “I want to apologize to you all.”
I felt the instinctual need to cut him off and say that he needed to apologize first and foremost to Joey for treating him cruelly, but he quickly continued.
“And to you, Joey,” he made eye contact, “for my…behaviour,” his face reddened, and suddenly, this figure who seemed so menacing, so vicious, powerful, and aggressive, suddenly looked embarrassed, ashamed, fragile, timid, and dare I say…gentle. But…why this sudden change in heart? How did this come about? No kid I knew would have the courage to admit his faults to, practically, an audience. An audience who could very well be his enemy, an audience that would tear him apart given the right opportunity.
“And secondly, I should thank you, Austin,” he nodded at me. How did he know my name? “For saying what you said about treating people with respect and dignity. You made me realize how and where I went wrong. I did a lot of thinking about it. You know, I wasn’t always like this…” he frowned, and his erect posture slacked. He looked drained.
“I…I don’t get it…” I started. “Roughly a month ago you were…” I didn’t feel it was necessary to point out just what he was then, seeing that he had already essentially condemned and publicly punished himself by taking a brave step to admit his guilt and shame in front of the rest of us like that. No more would be necessary. I wasn’t here to hurt people, to remind them of their faults. It just wasn’t in me.
“…and now…you’re different. You’ve…you’ve changed.” This was definitely confusing. All of these changes, all of these…
…Just like Joey…the changes. This was all so…so weird.
“Maybe one day I’ll enlighten you. But not today,” he picked up his fork. “Pancake?”
And during that one hour, the strangest things happened. We laughed, we joked, and Keegan seemed to fit in with the rest of us well. As we got up to leave, I went over to him, and although it might have seemed a little too much, I stuck out my hand to him. He looked at me, looked down at my hand, and shook it firmly.
“None of this seems to make sense to me, but if Joey forgives you, then I forgive you,” I said with honesty.
He nodded slowly and paused for a moment. “Joey’s a good guy,” he smiled sadly. “You mean a lot to him.”
“What are you saying,” I furrowed my brow.
“That’s something for you to figure out,” he simply replied, and I was left there at a loss of what he was trying to say, what he knew or did not know.
“So, are you going to tell me?” I asked Joey as we stood by his locker, taking our things and getting ready to go home for the winter break.
“Right, I’m sorry it was all so sudden and unexpected for you, Steph, and Kenny back there. Remember that day when we first walked home together and you asked me how my classes went after lunch?”
“Umm, yeah, sort of. I don’t remember what you said though.”
“Well, I didn’t really tell you much. All I said was that gym class was rough.”
“Oh, right. I assumed it was rough because it was just physically exhausting or something. I was afraid to pry.”
He smiled knowingly at me. “It’s alright, really. Anyway, Keegan was in my gym class, but he left me alone even though he…was less than friendly twice on the same day.” Joey paused, putting on his jacket. “Keegan has never bothered me before until that day. I’ve seen him look at me before, but that day he was annoyed because I kept looking at him. I think he might have also seen me look at other…other…” Joey looked around to make sure no one could be potentially eavesdropping or within an audible range, “…guys…and that, coupled with me looking at him and being the quiet, more or less recluse I was before…before you…” he dropped his eyes to the floor. I slowly lifted my hand and brushed it against his, touching it just long enough for him to look back at me. His face reddened and his voice went hoarse. “…before you came to me…it must have set him off somehow. I don’t know how or why. But I do know that your words affected him somehow when you confronted him that second time, and he seemed subdued because of what you said…making him deep in thought, you know?” I gazed into his eyes, nodding.
“Anyway, I was in the changing room as the other guys changed into t-shirts and gym shorts. Once we were all set and ready, the phys ed. teacher would come in and take attendance, then we would all head over to the gym. But before that, the other guys noticed I wasn’t changing, that I was just sitting there. It was hard not staring at them…changing and whatnot.” He looked away guiltily. Instinctively I reached out and touched his chin, and it felt electrifying. I tilted his head back to meet me.
“I understand. You don’t have to turn away from me,” I said softly.
He looked into my eyes, nervous, yet entranced. But this was not the place, not the time. “Keep going,” I encouraged him to continue talking.
“Oh, right…” his face reddened. He was embarrassed, and I tried to supress a grin. It was…cute.
“…Um…right,” he said to himself, remembering where he had left off. “The other boys starting poking fun at me, and I didn’t say anything. I was going to sit out that day ‘cause my lower back was still hurting a bit. Anyway…those guys said some…they said some hateful words. When I looked at Keegan, I noticed that he was watching it all happen, but then he looked away when he saw that I had caught him watching me.
“Once gym was over, I went back to the changing room to grab my bag, and this other kid went up to me and starting pushing me, asking me if I was…you know.”
I shook my head with a deep frown, not because I didn’t understand, but because I did, and it made me angry. I felt myself heat up, feeling angry at how nasty kids could be, and feeling angry knowing that I was not there to do anything about it, to stop it from happening. Especially to Joey…I could never let anybody hurt such a sweet boy as he was…
“And then Keegan rushed him, told him to leave me alone, except his words weren’t as nice. Keegan was the toughest and strongest of the kids in our gym class, so the others quickly backed down. Keegan didn’t say anything to me that day, and I was confused. I didn’t know why he did that, why he defended me. Not until several classes later. When we were the last ones in the changing room, he came up to me. He regretted what he did, said he wasn’t always like this. He asked if we could start over. What he didn’t tell me though was ‘why’. I knew he was honest. But there are things that I don’t know, and I have the same questions you have as well.”
I opened my mouth to respond to what he had just told me, but before I could even get a word out, Trish stepped from behind me, grabbing my hand.
“What are you two love birds talking about, huh?” she looked at me, accusingly as she tried to suppress a smile. Joey’s face went pale and my eyes widened.
“Love birds?!” I said incredulously.
“What?” she shrugged, giving me a wry smile. My chest dropped as I sighed. Joey turned back to his locker and busied himself. But he looked distracted, his thoughts far away.
“Uh oh…Austin, I was just kidding. I didn’t mean anything by it–”
“I know,” I held up a hand. “I just didn’t expect it. You sort of caught us off guard is all.”
She chewed on her lip as Joey shut and locked his locker. “Umm…I guess I’ll be heading off then,” Joey looked back and forth between the two of us. “Have a, umm…a good holiday. I’ll see you after the New Years,” Joey fumbled over his words, blinking quickly as he hastily swung his bag over his shoulders, taking a few steps backward.
“Not so fast mister,” Trish closed the distance between her and him, wrapping her arms warmly around him in an embrace. Hesitantly, he raised his arms to return the gesture. Pulling back, she looked at him. “Have yourself a good one Joey. I’ll see later,” she said.
“Joey,” I started, making eye contact. He held my gaze as I tried to find the right words, feeling as if I was going to say goodbye, a goodbye carrying weight as if it was a farewell. It didn’t feel right. Trish stepped from him, standing to the side. “We’ll…we’ll talk soon. Okay?”
Joey paused. “Will we?”
“Yeah. We will.”
“Okay then,” he nodded slowly as he began to turn away. “Goodbye Austin.”
Trish and I stood there, not moving, not speaking, and not looking at each other. We both watched Joey walk away.
“What,” Trish turned to meet my eyes, questioningly, “was that all about?”
“I don’t know. I mean I do know. But I don’t.”
“You’re speaking in riddles, and they sound less than intelligent,” she shook her head. “Are you going to tell me the answer?”
I sighed, frowning. “Let’s walk. I need some fresh air.”
“I don’t know about fresh. It’s pretty frosty outside,” she said as we made our way to the exit, pushing the doors aside. The ground was covered in white as snow slowly drifted in still, frigid air. After a few moments of walking Trish cautiously asked me again, being wary of getting an unpleasant reaction from me.
“I don’t really know anymore. Why don’t you start asking me smaller questions? Maybe then you might get your ultimate question answered.”
“Hmm, alright then, but I hope you really don’t mind. You can tell me to stop if my I’m getting too nosy or irritating,” she said. She walked next to me, thinking for a bit. “What did Joey give you this morning?”
“A snow globe. It was really cool. Had a Christmas tree in it, and…um, yeah.”
“And…?” she ventured.
“Umm,” I paused, not sure if I should continue. If I did, I knew I would ultimately out Joey, and I didn’t think it would be very loyal and trustworthy if I did that…
“We’ll get back to that then,” she said, sensing hesitation. “What did you give him?”
“Wow, cool! What was it a painting of?”
“Some artist named Donald Zolan. It was a picture of these two boys sitting together on a train or something, sipping out of a pop can.”
“Oh, haha, that’s cute! But why’d you get him that?”
“He has two pictures by the same artist in his bedroom. I thought he might like it, to have a third one to add amongst the other two.”
“Really? I had no idea. What were the other two paintings of?” her interest spiked.
“I think…one was a little boy with an umbrella, poking at the water, and another was two little guys smiling at each other with their noses touching, if I remember correctly.”
“Oh, that’s adorable. And interesting. Joey must be a gentle soul.”
“Yeah…I guess you can say that…” I mumbled, huddling up my shoulders. It was getting colder.
We walked for a minute or so in silence. Trish thought quietly to herself.
“Austin, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but do you know why Joey seems to distract himself and look away whenever I’m ‘flirting’ with you?” she tried suppressing a grin.
“You know what…I have noticed. I think it’s because he thinks we’re a couple. You know, boyfriend-girlfriend,” I gave her a sly grin. She laughed.
“But then, why would it matter to him? Unless he was jealous or something…”
Oh crap…I realized I had made a mistake…a fatal one. Now it was only a mere matter of seconds before Trish pieced it all together.
“Jealous? What do you mean?” I asked, uneasy of where this was going.
“Well, it sure seems to me like you would know. I know he’s not jealous of me ‘cause he doesn’t pay me special attention, or get nervous around me, or play the ole goo-goo eyes like Kenny and Steph did back when they were, what, grade ten or something,” she chuckled.
“I think…” she continued, “Our friend Joey’s gotten himself attached to you. You were, after all, his hero.”
“You saved him. You protected him. You cared about him. You became his friend,” she looked at me, raising her eyebrows to emphasize her words. “None of us took that step. But I’m glad you did ‘cause I like Joey, a lot. But probably not more than you do him, or vice versa.”
“I didn’t save him. That’s putting it a bit too high I think. He just…ahh…he just really needed someone. He was lonely.”
“Precisely, and now he loves you but lately he’s been sad. More than sad, I’d say.”
“L–” I wiped my head to face her. “Love? I think you’re stretching it a bit too far.”
“Please tell me you’re not in denial, Austin.” She placed her hand on my forearm. “I’m sure we both know he has feelings for you. And I’m talking about romantic feelings. I’ve seen the way he looks at you, how his eyes linger on you, how he gets nervous when you’re around, how he wants to touch you but always pulls his hand back. I notice things.”
Too late now. She knows Joey loves me…
I kept walking, keeping quiet with my head down.
“And it bothers you for some reason. Look, if you don’t feel the same way then that shouldn’t change anything between the two of you, right? He’s still the same Joey. And I know you’re not anti-gay or disgusted by the fact that another guy likes you, because you’re beyond that. You’re a good person. But why does it bother you to the point that Joey looks…empty and drained everyday now?”
“Because,” I gritted my teeth, stopping in my tracks as I felt an internal anger burn within me. She too stopped, looking at me. I saw fright in her eyes, knowing that she was thinking that she must have touched a sensitive nerve. I softened my features and quickly plowed on with what I was going to say.
“…the snow globe he gave me…on the base was engraved with the words, ‘Angels are Real,’ and when I read that, I told him I wasn’t one. It was a special gift…but I shouldn’t be the person to get it.”
I swallowed hard, blinking quickly as I pulled my eyes from her. We kept walking, leaving behind footprints in the snow. Five minutes passed in silence when we finally reached her house.
Trish turned around to face me once more. “So…what you’re trying to tell me…is that what Joey feels for you has been bothering you because you don’t think you’re…good enough for him?”
“He deserves someone else. Someone better.”
“Better than you? Austin…tell me something,” she looked off to the side, searching for the right words. Having found them, she slowly turned back and peered into my eyes with a gentle gaze.
“I already know the answer to this question, but I’m going to ask it anyway. For you to love someone, would it matter to you…would they fall short judging from their past mistakes, or, or that they’re not the smartest person, or the most athletic, or the most beautiful person?”
“No, of course not. I would love my…significant other unconditionally. Sometimes there is beauty in imperfection. I have imperfections too…I would never expect more of someone. And past faults can be forgiven.”
“Just like you loved and forgave Joey. But do you love yourself?”
“I’m pretty sure I do…most days anyway.”
“And don’t you think, say, Joey, would love you, just the way you have and would love him?”
I looked away, feeling somewhat ashamed. She knew I loved him too.
“I don’t know…that’s…that’s what I’m afraid of, that he wouldn’t feel the same if he really got to know me, if he saw who I really was. There are a lot of things about myself that I don’t like. I don’t want to talk about what those things are. I’m afraid that if I…move forward with him…I might lose him if…if I do something wrong or if he no longer feels the same way about me, that I’m not good enough for him.”
Trish nodded sadly in understanding. “What…when you told him you weren’t an angel, what did he say?”
“He said…that to him, I was…I am,” I said softly.
Trish smiled. “Give him a chance, Austin. And give your heart a chance too. Trust him. Trust yourself,” she said, placing the palm of her hand on the approximate position of my chest underneath the layers of winter clothing and jacket. Slowly, she pulled away from me, taking a step back.
Maybe…maybe she was right…maybe it was time I stopped running…maybe it was time to accept…to hope, to trust…to find courage.
Seeing that it was time to say goodbye, she smiled at me with a twinkle in her eye. “Have a merry Christmas, Austin.”
“You too Trish. You too,” I smiled weakly. She closed the distance between us once again and we hugged. When she pulled away and started making her way up to her front door, I suddenly remembered something I had wanted to ask her and stopped her.
“Trish, there’s a question I have for you as well.” Nodding, she turned around.
“Fair enough,” she smirked. “I’ve asked you loads already, so go ahead and ask away,” she winked at me.
“In the cafeteria, what was that all about with Keegan?”
I raised an eyebrow. “Did you just call him a stud?”
“Jealous much?” she teased playfully.
“Maybe…” I crossed my arms. She laughed, shaking her head.
“Keegan, he’s…he has his own story…one I know very little about, but I can probably very well assume…and deduce, just like I did with you and Joey,” she winked. I rolled my eyes, grinning.
“What’s his story then?” I asked.
“Well, from what I can tell…although I don’t know his backstory, or where he’s coming from…” she paused for a moment, gathering her thoughts together. “You know why Joey picked on Kenny in the ninth grade?”
“Joey? Yeah. He told me it was because he saw himself in Kenny, mistaking Kenny to be…to be like he is.”
“And do you know why Joey eventually stopped, isolated himself from the rest of the ‘world’ that is high school?”
“Probably because he realized all of that hate was not earning him any points when people starting leaving him. He finally accepted his differences and then internalized his self-hatred for both treating Kenny cruelly and for the feelings he had towards other boys.”
“And do you know why Joey suddenly…found the light, or happiness?”
I kept quiet, and realizing that I wasn’t sure as to how I should answer her question, Trish answered it for the both of us.
“Because of something you did. Something you said that struck a chord in him. Something that hit home, and when you’ve got something so awe striking in front of you, you probably let go of every heavy burden on you and surrender. You’re overcome with an epiphany and your life is turned around.”
“Okay…” I nodded slowly. This seemed to all make sense. But she was still missing something here. I didn’t know where she was going with all of this. “But that’s all to do with Joey. What does this have anything to do with Keegan?”
“We all know Keegan sure looks to be this buff n’ tough guy…but in ways, his life sort of parallels Joey’s. Though they come from different places – I’m willing to bet Keegan’s from a pretty dark one – similar events occur between the two. It’s sort of like a mirror image, the two of them. Not entirely the same, but you can draw similarities. The way I see it…I think Keegan plays for your team, yours and Joey’s that is.”
I jerked my head back, my eyes wide with surprise. That couldn’t be true, could it? No way! That’s…that’s just bizarre, just surreal! That’s crazy!
“You can’t be serious!” I exclaimed. She shrugged.
“Maybe I’m right, maybe I’m wrong. I have spoken to him some, like that time I went over to his table during lunch and you guys were all wondering what the heck was going on. I watched him too, so that’s where this is all coming from. But in any case, he has his own story, and as fascinating as it may be, I think what you should be primarily focussed on before it’s too late,” she walked up to me once again, patting my upper arm, “is too keep that certain promise you made only minutes ago.”
“What promise?” I furrowed my brow in confusion.
“You didn’t say goodbye to Joey, but you did say that the two of you would talk soon. You’d better get on that. And soon.”
She leaned forward and gave my forehead a gentle peck with her lips. I instinctively jerked my head and looked at her wide eyed, nervously laughing. I hadn’t expected that, and she giggled at my reaction, shaking her head knowingly.
“I’ll see you later, Austin. Go get him.”
That night I sent Joey an email. I tried to write one that would encourage him to talk about his feelings. But I didn’t think I did such a good job. I was still scared, and I found myself writing about ‘safer’ topics, sticking to more ‘normal’ bits. I found myself tippy-toeing around the important subject. I didn’t tell him anything about how I felt about him. Maybe I should have. However, I ended the email writing about how special and meaningful his gift to me was, and that was the closest I got to hinting that my feelings for him may transcend beyond friendship. That was all I was brave enough to write, to say to him. But then…what the heck. I went back and deleted everything else, only sending him the important parts.
I didn’t hear back from him until the next night. Sunday night, that is.
I still haven’t gotten over my astonishment that we got each other’s name for the gift exchange. I was quite stunned when I picked out your name, but when I realized you got me a gift I was overwhelmed! I hadn’t expected it, not at all! I don’t know how it happened.
Thank you again for you gift. It was really…really nice of you. And observant too, having noted the things in my room. I really appreciate it, Austin. It means a lot to me. I’ve already hung it up in my room, right above my desk. When I’m lying in bed, I can see it with just a little turn of my head.
I’m glad you liked the gift I got you. And…I really meant what I said. I still do. Of course I would think of you as one. You’ve been a really good…friend. It’s me who’s messed up, but it just didn’t matter to you. You took me the way I was and made me better.
You know, I listened to that song you hummed several weeks ago. Do you still remember it? It was beautiful. I loved it, really. Maybe someday the lyrics, the words, will ring true to me. Heh…I’m sorry for sounding so…depressing…?
Austin, I don’t think I can keep it in anymore. It’s eating me up inside, and I’m really sorry if you don’t like what I’m going to say, but at least you’ll have the rest of the winter break to think on it and then maybe the shock will wear off. I was scared before, and though I’m still scared now, I’m going to be straightforward with it, okay? Austin…I…I think I love you. I’m not talking about love between friends or brothers. I love you, like…like how a boy would love a girl…only that we’re both boys. I love you because…because of your smile, your laugh, the way you’re so comfortable and kind around people. I love you because you saved me, because you cared. If you hadn’t been there for me, I probably would have ended my pain as soon as I got home, as soon as I got the chance. Do you still remember that day you pushed Keegan off of me? How you held me up? How you helped me, comforted me, how you held me close to you when I was such an ugly mess, crying and looking miserable, wetting your shirt, but it just didn’t matter to you? Do you remember calling me a friend, telling me that I was a good person, that I was good enough? I went home that day, crying because I was finally happy, because you gave me hope. I stood in the mirror, not knowing why you would even touch someone like me. But then I would picture you next to my reflection, with your arm slung comfortably over my shoulders. With that special smile. I would picture you squeezing my shoulder as I tried reliving the feel of it, the feel of your warmth against me, the feel of your hand on my shoulder.
You’re my angel, Austin. You’re beautiful, you’re perfect to me.
But…I know…I knew you didn’t feel the same way for me. I told myself everyday waking day and every night that you already had someone. I see you happy with Trish, and I see her happy with you. And…I love you enough to be happy that you have her. Really, I am. It’s beautiful seeing the two of you happy together, but it…it’s hard for me to watch. It…it hurts, because I love you too, because you’re special to me too.
When you didn’t bring the subject up after you left my house that day, when you became quiet when it was just the two of us, when that spark in you dimmed whenever you saw me, I knew you didn’t have the same feelings I had for you. And…it’s okay. I understand. You’ve been such a great friend to me, how can I ask more of you? How can I be so selfish so as to ask for that which you cannot give?
All I ask, is that you please don’t leave me. Please don’t stop being my friend. But if you do…then I will do my best to understand. I will move on.
I’m sorry if all of what I had written above makes you uncomfortable, if it changed everything you had thought about me. But I had to tell you. I couldn’t hold it all bottled up in me anymore. It hurts too much. I’m sorry.
I wish you a Merry Christmas. And I hope, that even after you’ve finished reading this, that the night would still be beautiful to you. That you would sleep well.
Yours in Eternity,
I sat there in silence, staring at the computer screen. A tear escaped from the corner of my eye. He had it wrong. He had it all wrong. Trish and I were just good friends. Really good friends. But my heart was for someone else. It was for him, only for him, and he didn’t even know.
This was all of my fault. If only I hadn’t been in denial I could have spared him more pain, saved him from more tearful nights. He did love me. He truly did, and now I knew for certain. How could someone so undeserving as I be loved as he loved me?
My eyes brimmed with tears. I clenched my teeth together in anguish, tightening my fists, squeezing my eyes. Three tears fell onto my lap as I bowed my head, and that night I promised myself that tonight would be the last night he would cry before falling asleep.
Immediately after running errands for my mother the next afternoon, I told her I would be out for a bit. After slipping on my winter boots while she told me to come back before dinner time, I ran down the street to the flower shop by the intersection near Joey’s house. As cheesy and mushy as it may be, I knew what I wanted to tell him, and how I wanted to tell him to make him believe me. Thankfully, the store was still open today on Christmas Eve, and I made it within the hour of closing time.
For the first time, I made use of Joey’s number and called him. He picked up on the third ring.
“Hey, it’s me, Austin. Do you have some time to spare? It won’t be long,” I said breathlessly, running down to his house; trying to breathe in the frigid air, to not slip and fall on the snow.
“Uh, y-yeah. Yeah, I do. What is it? Is everything okay, you sound…?”
“Everything’s great. Say, would you be able to step outside of your house for a little bit? I’m almost there. I’ll meet you at your door.”
“Wait, w-what?? What’s going on?”
“Just trust me, Joey. Please, could you meet me as soon as you’re able to step outside of your house? I’ll…” I slowed down as I got to his front porch, trying to catch my breath. I couldn’t help but smile, my face splitting in two. I was nervous, but excited as well.
“…I’ll meet you there. It’s…it’s important.” I finished.
“Y-Yeah, I’ll be there. Is everything alright though? You’re…you’re frightening me,” he said, worried.
“Everything’s alright. No, it’s more than that. Just come down here and you’ll know. I’m already here. Just,” I panted, “…do you trust me Joey?”
“Of course I do. Wait…you’re already here? I’ll…okay, hang on. Just give me a second, okay?”
“Okay!” I laughed. “I’ll hang up now.”
“See you in a bit,” he responded.
I hung up and stood rocking back and forth in the cold, my hands behind my back. I didn’t wait long, and soon the door opened. He had on his winter jacket and sweatpants. He looked at me, slightly confounded, trying to catch his own breath. He smiled nervously, biting on his lower lip.
“Joey, I’m really sorry for rushing you, for coming here unexpectedly. But I, I felt it was important.” I took a step toward him, closing the distance between the two of us.
“No, no, it’s alright. I…I wasn’t busy with anything. I’m just surprised you would come here. I…” his voice trailed off. He didn’t know what to say. “But…why…why are you here, Austin?”
I locked my eyes on his. And I started to speak, gently, nervously, my voice quivering slightly.
“I-I got your email last night, and…”
Joey’s face fell. I saw fear and sadness in his eyes. He thought I was here to end it all, to tell him to forget about it, that I didn’t share his feelings, that it was only wishful thinking on his part. Today…I would prove him wrong.
“It’s okay Austin…I understand–”
“No…no, I’m not here to tell you that you’re alone in how you feel about us. I’m here to tell you…to tell you a promise I made to myself last night.”
He looked into my eyes, confused. “W-what…what are you saying?”
“I promised myself…after having read your email…” I took in a shuddered breath, “…that that night – last night, that is – would be your last lonely one. Would be your last tearful one. I want to show you that it can be sweet, that it can be happy…” Slowly, I took my hands from my back, holding a rose in the palm of my right hand. I held it to him, between us.
“A-Austin…what…what are you saying? You don’t mean…?” his voice trailed off, his hands shaking as they hesitantly came up to meet mine.
“You’re the one who did all of that research on the language of flowers, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out, to know that roses stand for…for love.”
He gazed back at me with glassy eyes. “Oh…Austin…”
“Joey…I want you to know…that Trish and I, we’re just friends. Close friends, that’s all. I want you to know, that I’ve never stopped caring about you. I want you to know that I…fell in love with you that first day you finally came to me, broken and vulnerable, when you finally let me in, when I held you in my arms. I didn’t realize I had fallen in love with you then, but when I came to realize it, I was in denial. Because I didn’t think you could accept me, because I knew I didn’t deserve someone so…so special, so smart, so beautiful as you…”
Joey’s cheeks flushed a deep red. He tightened his hands around mine, around the rose between us.
“…and I want you to know,” I swallowed hard, continuing, “that I wasn’t brave enough that night you were trying to tell me you loved me. I was scared, and I’m so sorry for hurting you.”
He shook his head. “No, you just made me love you even more,” his lips trembled.
“But…above all,” I took in a shuddered breath before continuing, “what I really want to say, is that I…I love you. I love you, Joey. I’m sorry for…for being in denial, for rejecting it, for rejecting you. But now I know that you really do love me…”
“I’ve always loved you. I’ve already told you how special you are to me, that you’re perfect to me, and I’ll keep telling you that every day if I have to, to remind you just how precious you are to me,” Joey said, his voice hoarse and thick.
Slowly, instinctively yet cautiously, taking care to see if the other would pull away, we leaned forward, and when our foreheads rested against each other, I once again confessed my heart to him.
“Joey, I love you,” I whispered.
“I love you too, Austin. I love you too…”
Slowly carefully, our lips met – my cold ones against his firm, but soft ones, his warm lips. And an indescribable feeling swept over me, over us. I felt light, as if I was floating. My heart raced, and when I surreptitiously peeked through my eyelashes, I saw a tear streak down his cheek. Gently, I pulled my lips from our tender kiss and tilted my head to kiss the tear that trailed on his flushed cheek. He clutched the rose in his left hand between us, and with his right hand he reached up to me, putting it behind my head, oh so slowly stroking my hair.
“Like you did to me that day…” he whispered, his voice thick and husky. I looked into the deep hazel pools in his eyes, seeing only love and beauty.
“You’re so…so beautiful, Joey,” I said, my voice cracking, nearly croaking from the overwhelming strain of emotions, the overwhelming strain of sensations. I felt whole, complete. I felt warm, safe. I felt free, and in total and absolute bliss. I was in love, and my love loved me.
Joey shook his head. “Maybe, but you’re an angel. You’re my angel,” his voice trembled. Another tear streaked from his eyes, and I lift my hand to wipe it gently away. His cheek was soft, supple. It was warm, and it felt electric to touch. I smiled with happiness. He was beautiful.
“You’re the prettier one,” I grinned, full of joy.
“No, you are.” Joey couldn’t help but giggle.
“Nuh-uh…” I wined softly.
“Shh…” he giggled again. We quietly looked into each other’s eyes, out faces merely inches away from each other. “Kiss me again,” he whispered.
“You don’t have to ask me twice,” I said, and I leaned forward and our puckered lips met once again. We tenderly wrapped our arms around each other, keeping close and warm in the winter air. I felt my loins stir as we experimentally moved our lips over one another’s, as our lips slowly caressed and slid over each other. I moved my hand up, lovingly stroking his cheek oh so gently, as if I was afraid he would shatter, and as he moved the hand that cupped the back of my head down to rest on my neck. I wrapped my other arm tightly around his waist, pulling him close to me as he responded with a stronger and more passionate kiss, and I whimpered, feeling my knees slackening, feeling them shake in awe at the sensations. I felt his own loins stir against mine even though we were separated by layers of warm clothing, and when I ran my hand down to press and stroke his chest, my wrist slowly easing down his jacket zipper, he whimpered and moaned in sweet, nervous delight. And there, I felt his warm heart beating quick and hard against his chest, as if his heart were beating for me.
When we finally pulled our lips apart, I held him tightly against me; he rested his rosy cheek against mine. And just like that first day, I gently laced my fingers into his hair, stroking the back of his head.
“Merry Christmas Joey.”
He titled his head to gently kiss my earlobe.
“Merry Christmas Austin.”