So naturally, I freaked.
It was like he'd sneaked into my room to give me a final message and a warning and… and I wasn't sure what else it might be. I wasn't much of a social dynamo before all of this and Jack had pretty much been my only contact since coming to Canterbury. So I'm not what you'd call well experienced about love letters. Or whatever this was. Much less one that was delivered onto my bed without me knowing about it, while I'm still in that same bed.
I didn't think I was that deep a sleeper.
Took me several minutes to pull myself together. I just couldn't face the world yet. One more solid smack and the wedge driven between myself and Jack would be too deep in to get around, I felt. I just didn't know what to do. I really needed to talk to someone. I considered picking up the phone and calling Robby or Kenny. Not really sure why I didn't. My only guess now that I'm looking back on it was that I didn't want to admit that they were right about Jack being part flesh and blood and part microchips and software.
He was Jack, not some corny comic book cliché. He was the weirdest boy I'd ever met, but also the one person that I wanted to be with more than anyone else ever. He wasn't normal, sure, but he was still human. He was still awesome.
But now he's leaving me messages about how he can't even see me. Which, now that I think about it, was even weirder, he had come over to tell me he couldn't come over anymore. And he'd done so in a way that no one else knew what was going on. Typical Jack, path of least resistance, maximum efficiency, all that.
He was leaving me, but was still always just there, just beyond reach. And that's when it hit me. Jack was leaving me just like how my Pops left me. How he left Mom but was always just beyond her reach, reminded of him by every time she saw me. That's where Jack and I were headed, only in Mom's case she knew she could never see my father again, just a pale copy of him in me. I'd be taunted by the solidity of harsh reality, while Mom was drowning in memory and her own longing.
Funny how things seem to keep getting mirrored in my life like that. I guess growing up is a process of learning how to go where other people already are. I just never thought there'd be so many different ways to get to that place. Seems like all of the ways are rocky roads.
There was a gentle knock on the door and then it opened. I was still sitting there in my bathing suit and Sketchers, the note in my hand with a curled bit of Scotch tape hanging over the top end. I had no idea how my face and hair looked, couldn't have cared in that moment to be honest. I didn't know how to face my aunt. I was shaking a little I guess. Just half a tear from outright sobbing again.
It wasn't fair. The first thing that was going right for me since my father dies and now it's being taken away from me because someone else can't leave things well enough alone. But if Jack's father hadn't done the things he had to Jack's brain, there would be no Jack. I was so confused, so frustrated, so aware of how very fucked up everything had gotten. I just knew that my aunt was worried for me and that she wanted to help, I just didn't have the energy or courage or strength to look up to her, even as I felt her shadow fall across me as she entered the room.
"Paul?" I heard, in a quiet, soft voice. One that I hadn't heard so soft and calm in what seemed like a long time. I looked up suddenly, seeing my mother pause, halfway taking another step towards me. She looked to be in a state of confusion, and I realized that there were tears on my face. "Paul, what's wrong?"
"Mom," was all I managed to say. My voice was suddenly the one that was rough as razors in a bucket of rusty nails. She was at my side in an instant, hugging me fiercely. Took me completely by surprise, but I couldn't hold back the tears anymore. I just held onto her and cried. I felt her tears drip onto my bare shoulder as well, shushing me.
"It's okay, Baby," she said, holding looser, but her hand cradling my head against her chest. "I'm so sorry, I wont leave you again. I promise."
We held each other and cried like that for about ten minutes. So many memories flooded through me. Memories of times when she'd held me like this in the past. That time in third grade when I broke my leg trying to ollie my skateboard over a fireplug. Waking up in her arms after falling asleep in the stadium after that baseball game when I was only 5. When grandma had died and we were too far away overseas to get home in time for the funeral.
The most recent time had been at my dad's burial. There wasn't a whole lot left of him to bury, mostly the casket had only his dress uniform in it. I remember that was what shook me the most about the whole thing. We only buried parts of him, not all of him. I guess that's why Mom took it so hard. She lost a whole husband, but she only could lay part of him to rest.
And somewhere inside, I knew exactly how that felt. Laying only part to rest had made me go from accepting things and moving totally on to trying to run from things. I ran, Mom raged, and between the two of us, we'd both forgotten that the other was wounded and needed love too.
I'm sorry Pop. I fucked up. I'll make it up to you and to Mom, I promise.
"I miss him too," I managed to croak out, feeling all this guilt and crap that had built up in me from Mom's temper tantrums just flush totally out of me, draining away. I melted in her arms a little more, wanting to be little again with her. Wanting for once to be Pauly and not Carver.
"I know, Baby," she replied. She sniffled some and sat back from me, holding me with her hands. "He'd be very proud of you, of how strong you've been." She smiled through the tears and rubbed at her nose, sniffing occasionally.
I was sort of stunned that she thought I was strong. After all, I'd basically been running away from her all this time. The summer had mostly passed and I'd been out of the house so much, out of touch with her. I wasn't sure what to make of that. But something inside me lightened a little, feeling a bit of that stronger. She had said that Pops would be proud of me. I couldn't help but smile, thinking of him grinning at me, that smile that was so much confidence and warmth. My Pops is proud of me . I don't know why, but just thinking about that made my whole body glow.
"Breakfast!" Aunt Sarah screamed up the stairs. "If you vultures want fresh meat, you'd better come and get it while it's hot!"
"We'll be right down," Mom called back, giving my shoulder a quick squeeze then getting off the edge of my bed. "Let's not keep her waiting."
"Okay. I'll be down in a sec."
"Okay." And she leaned over and kissed the top of my head and was out the door.
I threw back the sheet that covered my lap and instantly shot to my feet. Something light bumped against my right butt cheek and I realized that it was the tie string from my bathing suit, still on backwards. I quickly turned around and looked down at it and felt a moment of "duh" realizing I hadn't changed it around or just taken the things off last night. Usually I sleep with boxers or sleep pants on. You'd think that the mesh in the bathing suit would have chaffed after all night, irritated the hell out of me and forced a quick change, or at least down shifting to commando.
It was in that moment that I saw there was something else that Jack had left me. Something that only he could have built and left for me. Something that he knew I was sort of looking into getting but didn't have the money for.
Not just any skateboard, but a custom job. It had double kick tails, kinda retro style, deep trucks on the under deck, steel or aluminum rails, both side and bottom, and huge Snotty wheels in a brilliant day-glow yellow-green. The deck was undecorated and clear primed, made of birch, but there was a small package beside the board with peel and stick "shure-grip" strips and a can of polyurethane clear coat.
He knew. And somehow he'd done it all without letting me even know he knew. Don't get me wrong, I love my blades. But there's only so much you can do dragging sneaks everywhere to put on when you get someplace. And skates are kind of heavy and awkward to carry around all the time. A board just makes things easier for travel.
I knew what I had to do now.
But first, I needed to help Mom back to herself. Which meant I needed to put in an appearance at breakfast. Time for me to stop running away. If Mom could do it, I can damn well do it. I put thoughts of Jack aside for a moment. One disaster at a time.
Breakfast was actually kinda cool. Aunty had out done herself. Scrambled eggs, buttered toast triangles, crispy bacon, blueberry muffins, three types of jam and sweet apple juice in a clear decanter awaited as I came down the steps, two at a time. We were laughing and eating and Aunty even made goofy faces, which seemed to make Mom laugh even more.
"You'll never guess who we bumped into yesterday at Joe's," Aunt Sarah teased while we were all helping clear away the table. My gut was full and a little noisy. I ate like a pig and felt suddenly so much better for it.
"Who?" Mom asked over her shoulder, collecting the left overs, and nibbling.
"Really? I'd have thought he'd moved away. He should have a son about your age, Honey."
"Yeah, we met yesterday. Him and his buddy," I replied.
"Oh, cool. Friend material there?" she asked, and I realized that her local accent was coming back. I kind of like that. If she was coming home, she should at least come all the way home.
"Yeah, they're cool. Weird taste in music, but," and I shrugged, "I think we'll be hanging out. Once I figure out where they live and all."
"Mitch is teaching now," Aunty said as she dunked a glass into the sink water. It made a weird "gal-oup!" sound as the water rushed in. "He's apparently a big man up at the college across the river. And he runs a fencing program for kids at the Y."
"That's great. Oh, I was so sad for him when I found out that he had to drop out of the Olympics. He was so good, he was sure to get into the medal rounds."
"He, uh, asked if Paul would like to join," Aunty said, giving a smug smile my way. My ears perked up a bit at that. Aunt Sarah was crafty and I had the sudden feeling that there was something going on in the background here. Was she just trying to push me into a more social thing? Was she trying to get Mom a hot date? Was Mom even ready to date other guys yet? Was I ready for her to?
"Fencing program? Like with swords and all?" Mom asked, slitting the top of a muffin for some butter. "Sounds kinda dangerous."
"Well, you know what a stickler for the rules Mitch always was. Safety first and all that. He says they use wooden poles or something. Much safer than those Zorro style poker thingies. Said that Paul could sit in and watch any time he wanted."
"Wow. Very nice of him. What do you think, Pauly?" Mom asked, moving to put the apple juice into the fridge. I kind looked down at my own plate, fork playing with the remains of my food. This conversation suddenly had levels that I didn't completely understand, and half of them were in my own head.
See, like now I kinda saw Mitch, who I'd only like said two words to, as a threat to my Pops. Okay, Pops was gone in that not coming back sorta way, but, Aunty kinda spoke up like Mitch and Mom might be possible movie night date partners or something. Like old high school flames looking to re-spark or something. That kinda angered me.
Then again, the idea of being in the fencing class with Kenny and Robby sorta sounded like fun. Would be even more fun if I could somehow snag Jack into it, you know, without his weird father knowing that we were in the program together. A plot started forming for ways we could still hang out and talk without his father knowing.
Which brought my thoughts back to the skateboard. Jack knew me so well that he'd built the board without my knowing it and even had stuff ready to paint it however I liked. A thing he'd done and then left to me as a parting gift, going so far as to find a way to get into my house, into my bedroom no less, without me knowing.
Seems a lot was going on without me knowing. Something that I had to put an end to. Knowing is half the battle, but you can still lose the other half. It felt like I was about to miss my opportunities to at least take action.
Yet, another part of this was Aunty putting Mom in a position to act like a mom again. She'd subtly put Mitch on the radar, me in her sights and the idea of me doing things in the town that was going to be our home up front on the agenda. Very sneaky, that Aunt Sarah. She's as sharp as they come, and not above cheating at cards, either. You have to keep your wits about you with her. Oh, she'd not like evil or selfish, but she knows a few tricks to get things to drop in certain ways. Wise too.
"Uh," I said, all these thoughts ramming into each other like the bumper cars we'd ridden just yesterday. Mom closed the fridge and turned her full attention to me. I saw then that she was a lot closer to being herself again. She was getting back into control. That startled me. While I'd been out of the house, chasing my own tail and hiding from things at home by being with Jack, Mom had changed.
I suddenly realized that we'd been here for almost 2 months. Wow, time flies when you're a self-centered coward.
Aunt Sarah seemed to be the master of timing, again, as she came out and asked if I was done. All that was left on my plate was eggy bits and crumbs from the muffins. I snagged the last piece of bacon off my plate and she scooped it up, heading back to the kitchen area.
"Well, if you want to check it out, Paul, the Y is up on Winter Street, just a couple blocks from here. Over near the GAR park."
"Is that the park with the statue of the lady with the hatchet?"
"It's a tomahawk, and yes, it's near there. Can't miss it," she replied over her shoulder, that accent making "can't" sound like she'd said "caunt," which to my ears sounded close to obscene.
"We could check it out, if you like," Mom said, coming to sit back at the table beside me. I felt myself looking up at her under my bangs, considering the implications. She reached out and started messing with my hair, which irritated me more. I flinched a bit, which caused her smile to falter a bit.
"Could be cool," I said, realizing that I was being kinda a dick.
"Maybe your buddy Jack would like to go as well," Aunty said, mirroring some of my thoughts. Damn, am I that easy to read? "He's such a nice boy, but I don't think he gets out much. What with his elderly father and all, I'm surprised the boy is allowed to do much."
"We could talk to his father about it, if you like," Mom said. "I think I'd like to meet this Jack I keep hearing of but never seem to meet. What's he like?"
"Jack?" Wow, that caught me off guard, Mom asking about Jack. What the hell was I going to say? How much could I get away with not saying?
"Oh, he's a nice boy, Carol. You'll love him. He's got a wicked green thumb. He's the one that left that basket of corn with me this morning."
"Jack was here?"
"Oh, yes, about 5:30 this morning. I got up to go get my paper and he was walking up the driveway with this large wicker basket full of long ears of corn, some cucumbers, string beans. Boy definitely knows his crops. A real urban farmer. He said he was delivering to that market over on White Street. Apparently he makes some extra money that way." Aunty came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on a dish towel.
"Wow. I never knew that. I mean, I knew about his garden. It's awesome, Mom. He like has it all set up so that one water source feeds it all, like downhill and all."
"Really?" she said, getting an interested look in her eyes. I suddenly felt like I was a little too enthusiastic about it. My mind immediately went into "tone it down" mode.
"Well, like, you don't see stuff like that everyday. Especially from guys my age. He's kinda a book nerd. I've been teaching him to skate."
Aunty wasn't about to let it go at that, though.
"Oh you are too modest, Pauly. Jack might be a big brain, but he's been more outgoing and social since he's been hanging around with you. He even told me that he'd felt depressed and lonely until you turned up and befriended him."
"He said that?" I blurted. Yeah, I actually blurted.
"Well, he sounds simply fascinating." Mom had a quirky smile on her face, again. Which meant she was closer to being fully Mom again. It also meant that she had re-activated the devious part of her mind.
I wonder if they would still find him so fascinating if they knew he had somehow gotten into the house and left a skateboard kit and a private note in my bedroom last night. Or that he'd enticed me to climb out on the roof in nothing but sneakers and a backwards bathing suit. Or that he's all can think of lately. Or that thinking about him makes my dick hard. Kinda like now.
Oh great, think about something else. Think about how veal is made. Think about what anchovies taste like on pizza. Think about anything but how you and Jack feel about each other and now how you can't talk to him because his evil prick father is a weirdo mad scientist who plays around with kids' brains.
That last one definitely helped deflate me. I must have suddenly gotten a sad look on my face because suddenly Mom was right beside me, an arm over my shoulder.
"Baby?" she asked, "What's wrong?"
You ever have a moment when you just completely lose it? Like any sense of cool and control just takes a vacation and all the stuff that's rolling around in your head just spills out in tears and nonsense? Second time in a week that's happened to me now. And no Jack to lean on. More importantly, it's all about Jack and wanting to lean on him.
To make a long story short, I bawled my eyes out to Mom and Aunt Sarah. I told them about how Jack's dad said "no mas" and how I really have strong feelings for Jack and how he used to help me when Mom was bitching me out and screaming like an insane person. I left out the bits about Jack being Frankenstein's teenager, about Robby and Kenny's personal bits, and about Jack's little note last night.
I think they pretty much got the gist of it all. Whatever I didn't say, they probably already filled in the blanks. When I had said it all, I felt strangely better. Like all the pressure of the stuff inside me had just shot out of me like those old train steam whistle thingies you hear on Roadrunner and Coyote cartoons. It was exhausting but I didn't feel the tension anymore. It's like the consequences no longer mattered. Just the feelings of not hiding it all inside me anymore, I think. I was exposed, likely outed, and definitely less cool, but better. Weird, huh?
"I see. That explains what Jack told me this morning. Paul, I am so proud of you," Aunty said. "You have real fortitude and compassion, and you're a true friend."
"Well, I'm not happy with this," Mom said, standing up from the table. "I don't understand what is going on. I don't. But that boy…"
"Mom, he's my friend!"
"Oh, he's more than that, Paul. I think we all know that he's more to you than just a friend. And I think it is perfectly wrong!"
My face must have faded to that whiter shade of pale. I know I felt my tears stop flowing and almost suck back into my eyes. I know I felt my jaw slam into the table top like a dropped brick.
"Carol!" Aunty said, coming to stand behind me. Her hands rested on my shoulders, protectively. The chair under me felt like it was the only stable point in a radically twisting world.
"It is wrong! Jack's father is completely wrong in keeping these kids apart. They are friends. They might be more, but no matter what, them being together is clearly good for both of them. No, it is ridiculously wrong. And I wont stand for it."
"Well, that settles it. Carol, I think you and I need to have a talk with Dr. Thomas."
"Wait, what just happened?" I asked.
"Your Mom and I are about to engage in an ancient Yankee tradition called the parent's conference."
"But, uh, you can't make his father let Jack and me see each other. Can you?"
"Not in a legal sort of way," Aunty said. "But we can at least talk to him and see what his actual reservations are."
"And we can see if he wants to be reasonable about things. You lose nothing by trying to talk sensibly. And if he has a problem with you, we can try to at least settle his mind about it."
I blinked, shook my head and then kept switching my eyes back and forth between them.
"You… you know that I have… feelings for Jack, right?"
"My son, I don't care if you have the dirtiest of thoughts about him while alone in the shower. I don't care if you and he have already had carnal relations…"
"We haven't!" I blurted again. My face suddenly felt hotter than the sun.
"Paul, I don't care. What I do care about is that you and this boy are good for each other. You yourself said he's become more social. He admitted as much to Sarah this morning. Keeping him all locked up is no good for him. Keeping you two apart is apparently no good for you either."
She sat down and pulled the chair around to face me, took my hands in hers and took a moment before continuing. I felt so small all of a sudden. I wanted to run, I wanted to just grab the skateboard and just get the wind in my hair so I could un-think, un-feel. And as crazy as that sounds, I wasn't even sure why.
"Pauly, when I met your father, we both knew we were right for each other. And while we did date other people, we kept coming back to each other. My parents saw it too. Your father's parents even told my parents that they saw it. Love is hard to define. But what your father and I had, by any definition you could dream up, was love.
"Now, I've not seen this boy yet, but I'm betting the farm that when you look at him and he looks at you, anyone else seeing it with half a brain in their skulls will see what your grandparents saw with your father and me."
I felt the tears rolling again. Softly, this time. No hurry, no anger, no worry, no pain. Just silent understanding. I sniffed, looking deep into my mother's eyes, as if for the first time.
"Love, son, isn't bound by gender, or age, or even the distances of the earth or the ocean's depth or the sky… or the places our loved ones travel to ahead of us when it's their time. Love is love. And it can hurt sometimes. It can drive you crazy. Crazy enough that you forget what's important. Or who else is hurting with you. For that, I'm sorry.
"But love is worth fighting for, son. From everything you've said, Jack and you are good medicine. I love you, Pauly. And I'll do whatever I have to do for you to be happy. And if that means we try to convince Dr. Thomas that letting you and Jack still be friends, even if you and Jack don't work out… baby, that's what I'll do. Your Pop would do the same."
"I don't know if I'm gay, Mom," I said, lowly. Not sure why that came out at that moment, but, saying it made me feel weak.
"Pauly, if you are gay, it will never change how I feel about you. Nor will it change me wanting you to be happy."
"Besides, you're young," Aunty said. "Not like you have to decide today. And ya know, Jack might have something to say about that. Takes two to tango and right now, no one's wearing dancing shoes."
"But what if…"
"Paul, the 'what if's' of life should be starting points, not stop signs," Mom said sternly. "Why don't you go down to the Y and talk to your buddies in the class, see if you like it. You're wily Aunt and me need to scheme." They both busted out in big grins.
"Why am I suddenly afraid of what you two can do when you put your minds to it?"
"Because you are your father's son. Now go get dressed." I got up and was immediately engulfed in a from behind hug from Aunty and then a face-on hug from Mom. The weight of the world slid away and for a long moment, I just held on, still feeling small.