Benjamin sat at his table and stared down the arm of the mall, watching the people walking through it. He ran his fork through his meal, playing with it, unable to muster the interest in his salad to actually take a bite. Everyone goes through hard times in their lives, he knew that better than most, but this was beyond the pale. It hardly seemed fair, either. He'd been paying long enough for another man's sins, and the newest payment was more than he could bear alone. Yet this newest payment demanded it be paid alone, because it was going to sever him from the man he loved. And that, perhaps, was the crux of the problem, because he loved Josh, but was coming to understand he wasn't in love with Josh. That he couldn't be in love with any man, not really. After all, he wasn't really gay.
"It isn't fair," Ben whispered to himself, knowing how ridiculous that statement was but not able to care. Life wasn't fair, he knew it, but this was too much. Josh had been there for him from the beginning. They'd been next door neighbors since birth, and it was only pure luck that Josh's parents hadn't used that bastard as a babysitter too.
Ben's lips rose in a sneer as he thought of that bastard. It was all his fault. Literally. Still, he was getting his punishment. Josh hadn't known it as a ten year old boy, testifying in court against his rapist, but there was a special hell reserved for child-rapists, and it was called jail. Not even hardened criminals took pedophilia lightly, and Josh slept better at night since he'd grasped that fact.
He still remembered the trial, every moment of it etched into his memory indelibly. He wasn't allowed to be there for most of it, but they'd called him as a witness. The star witness, the one that put the nail in that bastard's coffin.
"Since the defense has so many objections to make about the initial encounters, let's move onto more recent events," the prosecutor didn't quite make it a joke, but he skirted dangerously close. "Benjamin, would you please describe the night of Tuesday, October 27th for us?"
Ben had licked his lips uncertainly. The prosecutor had gone over the intended testimony for hours, but he still had trouble remembering dates. Tuesday... oh, his parent's anniversary!
"My parent's dropped me off at his house-" Ben had begun.
"Objection Your Honor!" the defense had cried out, again.
"Counselor, I understand you are trying to do your best for your client," the judge had answered testily, before the defense could continue, "but there are limits to my patience. We've gone over this already. If the boy doesn't wish to speak the defendant's name, he doesn't have to. His therapist has explained why the boy insists on referring to your client as 'that bastard', and you won't attempt to brutalize the child further!"
The defense attorney had sat down slowly, chastened, and the judge nodded kindly at Ben to continue. Ben resumed describing the night, how that bastard had tried to start up the many, many games he'd wrapped around sex, but Ben refused to go along. His parent's had gotten around to talking about the 'birds and the bees' the other week, and Ben was still wrestling with the implications that talk had on that bastard's 'secret games'.
Finally, that bastard had gotten frustrated, the part of the night that changed everything.
"He grabbed my arm and dragged me upstairs," Ben described. "He threw me on the bed and ripped my pants off me. He said," Ben hesitated. "He said some very bad words when he saw the rip in them, but he didn't stop. He yanked my underwear off, and then..." Ben's throat had closed up, refusing to continue. "He wasn't slow. He was always slow before, no matter how much it hurt, but this time..."
Ben shook loose of the memory before he could be dragged even further back. It had happened before, when remembering the moment of his power -- the moment he'd 'raped the bastard back', as his therapist called it -- had led him to older, more dangerous memories. Times when he was back there, in that moment, and set him back to square one. The therapist called them 'throw-backs', and explained that they'd get less and less frequent with time, and that he'd learn to recover quicker from them, but that they'd never go away. Like an alcoholic who will, inevitably, fall off the wagon, sooner or later he'd find himself back at the beginning, forced to rebuild his life again. And if that happened now, while he was dealing with this... He'd tried once, and the treatment center they'd sent him to had helped him deal with his suicidal tendencies. But he'd also learned exactly how to do it.
Ben shook his head. Thankfully, his therapist was good -- an internationally acclaimed professional in rape trauma and it's treatment in children. It was pure luck he'd gotten her as a therapist, and that she'd chosen to remain his therapist.
"Rape reached deep inside you, and twists," she'd told him. "Especially given how young you were, it warped the fundamental matrix of your sexuality and sexual identity." Ben sighed. She'd been firm, and very, very clear. Puberty was a period of confusion and difficulty for everyone, and being a rape victim made it that much worse for him. It was hard enough for a normal person to sort through all that and realize they were gay, and she'd urged him to wait, to let his contradictory urges sort themselves out before he tried any label on for size. No matter how certain he thought he was, he could be wrong.
Her advice had been right, and had helped a lot. What hadn't helped was that neither of them understood how long he'd need to wait. By sixteen years of age, both he and she had been convinced that he really had settled out. Indeed, for a long time his sexual identity had clarified, but hadn't changed. He was gay, women were disgusting, at least in a sexual sense, and the person he loved most was his best friend, Josh.
Ben smiled at the memory of when he'd come out to Josh. Josh had stared at him for a few moments, a smile slowly spreading across his face. "I am too," he'd whispered, before leaning in to kiss Ben on the lips. Josh had been afraid to say anything to Ben. Josh, more than any others, knew about what Ben had gone through. When Ben ran out of that bastard's house, he'd run straight for home, only his parents were still out. He'd wound up shivering in the rain, waiting, until Josh saw him and brought him in out of the cold. Josh had held Ben as he sobbed helplessly, unable to explain what was wrong.
Josh had saved Ben's life by calling 911 when he saw the blood dripping from the seat of his pants, and started the long train of events that led to that bastard being in jail, where he belonged. Ben owed him so much, and loved him too.
Ben's gaze drifted to the jeweler's shop they'd been visiting two weeks ago. In the bag sitting on the table were two rings, the insides engraved with a message, a label. Josh's read 'The rock beneath my feet', and Ben could only hope Josh would still be that when Ben could no longer be 'the light of my soul'. Promise rings only, to make Josh's parents happy they'd agreed not to go further until after college. But rings, and a promise they'd meant to be binding. They'd ordered the rings, and then had lunch, sitting at this very table.
And that was when everything had fallen apart. Ben looked down the the northern arm of the mall, where he'd seen them. They weren't there this time, of course, but he could still see them. The boy was tall, with a gleaming copper skin that spoke of days under the harsh rays of the sun and a lifetime of exercise and fitness. His abs rippled as he walked, completely exposed by the shirt that he'd taken off and then tucked into the back of his pants. He was, quite simply, a young Adonis, the mere sight of which would cause any girl to drool. Or any self-respecting gay man, which was of course the problem for Ben.
But Ben's eyes weren't on him. His gaze had drifted, slowly and naturally, to the left, to rest on her. Her long, shapely legs lead up to broad flaring hips, which tightened into an impossibly narrow waist before blossoming into an ample bosom. Indeed, painfully ample; those twin blimps made Ben's back ache in sympathy. Her long, blonde hair gleamed like gold. Aphrodite to his Adonis, twin figures of beauty, male and female. And Ben's attention was firmly on her.
Which was the problem. God only knew how long it had been building, how long he'd failed -- or refused -- to see what was happening. His therapist had understood, had pointed out issues she'd brought up in the long ago days when he'd discussed the confused, uncertain longings puberty has brought out in him. They'd been wrestling with it for the last two weeks, while Ben drifted ever more slowly away from Josh.
Ben glanced at his watch. Time to start heading home. He still had no idea how to tell Josh, but he needed to. He'd decided a long time ago that he'd be damned before he would live a lie. And after tonight, that's exactly what he'd be stuck with if he didn't tell Josh. He would not live a lie.
Ben stared at the door for a long, long moment. The time had come, but he still couldn't do it. It was too much. He needed to leave. Turn around and go somewhere, anywhere.
Instead, his treacherous feet dragged him slowly, painfully onward, as his insubordinate hand reached reached for the knob. Two quick steps and he was inside the apartment they shared, much to the dismay of Ben's parent's. Bad enough he was gay, but sharing an apartment -- indeed, a room! -- with his 'so called-boyfriend' was beyond the pale.
Ben frowned at the thought of the 'hallelujah's that his parents would soon be shouting. He almost moaned at the thought of all the 'I told you so's his mom would give when she heard. After all, she'd insisted that it was all that bastard's fault Ben thought he was gay, and now she was proven right.
"Hey, you're home!" Josh shouted from the bedroom. "Did you get the rings?"
Ben's mouth worked, but he couldn't force himself to speak. The long pause stretched out, until Josh realized something was wrong. He walked out, still half-dressed after a shower. "What is it?" he asked, worried. Ben couldn't meet his eyes. "Come on," he dragged Ben to the kitchen by the elbow. "How's your stomach," he asked.
"Fine," Ben whispered. Josh stopped, a can of ice-cold ginger-ale in hand, frowning. The two of them always kept some on hand, not so much because Ben liked the drink as for emergencies. The last time Ben had had a throw-back, Josh had waited for hours through the sobs and rages until Ben managed to fall asleep. When Ben woke up, Josh had bought ten two-liter bottles of the stuff, which Ben quickly finished off over the next several days.
Something about the throw-backs always induced a deep, writhing nausea that prevented Ben from taking solace in hot chocolate or a pint of ice cream like others might, but ginger-ale served as a medicine for both body and soul.
Josh slowly put the can back, confused. His question had been a formality, nothing more. He knew Ben better than anyone, and Ben knew exactly what Josh was thinking. Ben's behavior fit a throw-back closer than Ben was comfortable with. There were far too many similarities, to be honest. His life was coming crashing down, and now he had to rebuild it. He was dealing with the rape all over again, and all the power it held over his life. He wasn't dealing with the most crushing aspects of a throw-back, the shame an inability to handle any form of physical closeness, but this new malady had an edge to it that he had no coping mechanisms for. But it wasn't inducing the deep, wrenching nausea that had accompanied every single one of his throw-backs.
"What's wrong?" Josh asked, confused. Walking past the fridge, he put the teakettle on the stove and prepared a few mugs with chocolate powder and milk. Ben stared down into the table, not sure how to start.
"That bad, huh," Josh said sympathetically as he popped the mugs into the microwave for a little while. Both he and Josh like their hot chocolate hot, and you couldn't heat milk too far without burning it, but you could at least warm it in the microwave before adding boiling water. And the warm, rich brew that resulted from using milk was an emotional balm as well as a physical comfort.
He placed the mug in front of Ben, and Ben stared morosely into it and he gripped it. The warmth was comforting, and he took a sip. Somehow, impossibly, it helped. Perhaps the sheer normalcy of it, perhaps just the proof that Josh really did love him.
It was time. Like someone flicking a light switch, deep inside him something snapped into place and Ben knew. It was, quite simply, time to tell Josh, and there was only one place to start.
"Josh, we need to talk," Ben said slowly, warming his hands with the mug in front of him. "You know I've been talking to my therapist lately."
"Yeah," Josh said softly. "I figured you'd tell me when you were ready."
"Saint," Ben snorted, only half in jest. Sure, Josh had a wicked sense of humor, and a rather adventurous approach to the more carnal side of life, but he was quick to forgive, and quicker to understand.
"You remember two weeks ago, when we got sized for our rings?" Ben starts.
"Yeah," Josh says, smiling. "They were in the bag, right?" Ben blinks, glancing around. He hadn't even noticed Josh taking the bag from him.
"Yeah," Ben nodded. "'The rock beneath my feet,' that's what I asked for, " Ben quoted. "You've been that for me, for so long." No, this was the wrong place to start.
"That bastard hurt me, you know that," Ben sidestepped. "He hurt me bad, in ways that have outlasted the physical injuries by years."
"I love you," Josh took my hand in his, offering up the only help he could. "I have always loved you, and will always love you."
"Don't be so sure," Ben said sadly. "I've told you before, you've been to therapy sessions where counselors have told both of us, that rape reaches deep inside you and twists things. It's about power, not sex, and that's why it hurts so bad," Ben tap danced for time. Closing his eyes, he realized he was trying to avoid the subject and forced himself back onto topic. "You were there when I came out to my parents, remember?"
"Yeah," Josh nodded. "They told you that you couldn't possibly know, not at seventeen, and that you were just confused because of what Mr-" Josh cut himself off. He didn't care for casual profanity, or Ben's 'dehumanization' of that bastard, but he understood. "Because of what was done to you. They also tried to pull that silly book out at you."
Ben almost laughed. Josh was probably the only person who could call The Bible 'that silly book' in court and get away with it. The lawyers had had a fit, and the judge had almost been worse, but he'd gotten away with it all those years ago. And proven his wicked sense of humor when he insisted on using a copy of the US Constitution in it's place. The rift between their parents had started that day, when his parents had cheered him on.
"You remember what I told them. That I couldn't stand looking at girls, that they were disgusting, well, down there. That they didn't have the bits I wanted," Ben took a sip of his chocolate to buy a bit more time. "For years, all I've wanted to look at, to feel, to touch, was guys. There were things I couldn't do, activities..."
"I don't mind," Josh cut Ben off. "I like being a bottom anyway."
Ben shook his head. "Please, don't make this harder," he forced out, wiping tears from his eyes. "Let me finish."
"Sorry," Josh apologized, chastened. "I guess I kinda assumed..." he shook his head. "Sorry."
"Anyway, there are things I can't do, even for you. But there are other things I wanted, that I craved, that I -- I needed," Ben closed his eyes. "That's why I was so disturbed two weeks ago. You remember the couple you caught me staring at?"
Josh nodded, smiling. "He was hot, wasn't he?"
"I was jealous of him, having such a beautiful girl on his arm," Ben said slowly. "Not of her."
Josh's face went blank for a moment. His forehead crinkled in utter confusion, his mind spinning around, unable to parse the meaning of the sentence. The impossible, horrifying truth I'd been avoiding.
"That," Ben said slowly, "is why I've been talking to Jasmine so much lately. I've been wrestling around with something that I only noticed that day, that I didn't understand and needed help with." Ben started to rush, knowing he needed to finish quickly. "Josh, I need you to know I'll love you, always. You are my best friend in the world, more than that, but things have changed."
Ben swallowed. "I don't think I'm really gay, Josh. I don't know- I can't-" Ben broke down, unable to continue.
Josh's mug shattered, spilling boiling hot cocoa all over the table. Josh didn't say a word, simply picking the splinter that had imbedded into his hand out before running cold water over the injury.
"Please, Josh," Ben said, sobbing. "Please."
"I love you," Josh said slowly, painfully. "You understand that."
"Yes," Ben nodded. "Please, don't-"
"I. Love. You." Josh cut him off. "Nothing changes that. Ever."
"Josh-" Ben tried.
"Shut up," Josh snapped. "Let me finish."
"Alright," Ben concedes.
"I love you. I've loved you for years. We've had six long, wonderful years, and there isn't anything that can take that from me. From us," Josh insisted. "I was prepared to love you without anything in return, when you gave me the most glorious gift I could have dreamed of."
"I don't regret what I've given you, any of it," Josh said slowly. "If you need time, if you need space, tell me. If-" Josh's voice locked up for a moment. "I was prepared to love you from afar, never speaking. If you need that, I'll do it."
"If-" Josh couldn't seem to continue for a moment, and when he turned around Ben could see tears running down his face. "If it comes down to it, and you need me to leave so you can heal, tell me. Now, please, while I still-" Josh started sobbing, unable to continue.
"No," Ben shook his head, holding out a hand. "I don't know what the future holds, but I know it holds you. As friend, maybe, but you're there. I need you."
Josh smiled through the tears, and took the hand. "If all I can have is a friend, then that is enough."
Ben shook his head. "No, it isn't, but I'll try."
"No," Josh cut him off. "You have to be true to yourself."
Ben looked at him, and slowly began to smile past his tears.