Sometimes you can be proud of yourself. I am today. The counselor says I dont have to see him quite so often its no longer treatment, just an occasional check-in. This narrative has made the difference. And since my lover has read every word, I really have two counselors. One just gets more intimate than the one who gets paid.
On a hot, dusty day, Jonathan was laid to rest. The small cemetery was tidy, a green, irrigated spot on the edge of a gritty town. The whole town needed a coat of paint, but the cemetery was an oasis. Some teachers and a handful of classmates and restaurant customers came to the viewing the evening before. Jonathan was dressed in a crisp, white open-collar shirt. In his hands, laid across his belly, were the baseball cards of his favorite players His thin body lay in a simple pine coffin completely unadorned. The funeral director had made Jonathan look better in death than he had during the time I had known him.
It really shook me. Jonathan was only the second person I had made love to even if we didnt do everything. And now he was gone. The number of people on this earth who loved me like that was back to one, and I knew I couldnt see him again.
The restaurant was closed for the funeral, but Kevin and I opened it for dinner. People came by but it was a pretty quiet crowd, and not very big. A few people who didnt really know the Wilsons or were just passing through were loud, like normal, but when they all asked why everyone else was so quiet they quieted down too. In all it wasnt a very fun time to work.
I expected Kevin to be pretty broken up, but he wasnt. He was pretty sad, but not helpless.
"Hes in a lot better place, Justin," he said. Hell never hurt, hell never be tired again."
"Dont you miss him?"
"Yeah." He shrugged like it was an everyday question. "Yeah, I do. But I love him so much, I want him to be happy. Its like that old saying if you love something, let it go. If it comes back, its yours. If it goes away, it was never yours to begin with. I had to let him go so he could be happy. But I know well be together again. Sooner or later."
I thought about that. Danny and I had to let each other go. We didnt have a choice and we really didnt have a choice about getting back together. Except now I could make the choice. I could go back to him. If he left the new lover I knew he had, he was mine. I knew I would always be his, if he wanted me. I think the reason I wasnt sure about Danny was because of what he and Greg did when I was in the hospital. They had sex, and even though Danny said it was a mistake and he loved only me, I was always afraid he could be drawn easily away from me.
I did the same thing to Jonathan just before he died. But I rationalized that it wasnt really cheating. After all, Danny and I had moved on. Hadnt he? I mean, before I left home I hadnt got an email from him for several days. He ignored my emails. We had never done that after he moved. It was logical, wasnt it, to assume he had a new boyfriend and was too afraid to tell me? So he just started to ignore me and hoped I would go away. I knew that had to be the story.
And anyway, I was just helping out a friend. Jonathan would never had have anyone make love to him if I hadnt. I mean, I really did love him, but it was more. I wanted him to feel the most intimate kind of love. My whole thought was with him and his pleasure. When he got off, I was ecstatic. I didnt ask him to return the pleasure. I asked only for the sole of his tender foot. So it wasnt anything like Danny and Greg, who fell together in a moment of frenzied passion and weakness while I lay helplessly in a hospital. I had done it deliberately with Jonathan after a long period when Danny and I hadnt had any contact at all.
Wait. That didnt come out quite right. I mean, Greg and Danny were spontaneous, ignoring my feelings for Danny. I was deliberate. No. I mean, yes, but that makes it sound like I was more at fault than Danny. Thats not true. Is it? No. I chose to . . . I mean, it was more than passion. Jonathan and I . . . I was trying to comfort Jonathan. Danny and Greg were trying to, well, they didnt intend to have sex. They started out just trying to comfort each . . . oh, fuck. Dammit. Im not as guilty as Danny. I meant to. But, I mean, I meant to in a good way. I wasnt trying to hurt him. I knew he didnt love me anymore, didnt I? I mean, the ignored emails could only mean one thing, right? He knew when he and Greg did it. He was in tears over me. He was having nightmares because I was injured and Greg was comforting him. Danny was no more guilty than I am. No, I mean that the other way. I was just as guilty as Danny. No, thats not right, either. Is it?
Oh, god, I was getting so confused. I had run out of my medication not long after I left home. I couldnt think straight anymore. It all swirled together into a jumble I couldnt sort out. I stood at the sink and cried silently, and when I heard Kevin coming I quickly washed my face and started washing the dishes again.
The next morning I heard the alarm go off and as usual I ignored it. Kevin liked the time alone in the restaurant before I got there. But Kevin didnt get up. I waited awhile, then got up myself. I shook him gently and told him it was time to get up.
"I dont want to," he said.
"You have to."
"No I dont. It doesnt make any difference."
"It doesnt make any difference. I work, I love, I care and people just die. I cant do anything about it. It isnt my problem anymore. Im going to sleep in. Fuck the restaurant."
"Ok. Ill go."
"Someone has to."
"We cant just close."
"We need the money."
"We? Since when did you become a fucking member of this fucking family? Who the fuck are you? You can leave whenever you fucking want. Dont give me any shit about not having anywhere to go. You didnt have anywhere to fucking go when you fucking puked in our lot. You can just leave. Someone else will fucking take you in. Me, I cant fucking leave. You can. You dont owe us anything. I have to stay for my mother." He was beet read and breathing heavily.
"Kevin, why dont you just take the whole day off? I know youre tired. Ill go."
His punch caught me in the chest as he shouted, "FUCK OFF." I staggered back. He glowered at me, then crawled back under the covers.
Kevin came to work at 11:30. He didnt say anything to me. In fact, we didnt speak at all except for orders. That was unusual. He left early. That night in our room it was the same. I unrolled the sleeping bag I used and bedded down. I couldnt bring myself to sleep in Jonathans bed, and I thought it might offend Kevin.
The next morning he didnt get up either, and he stayed in bed all day long. He insisted he wasnt sick, and Mama tried to get him to get him to get up, but he refused. He did the next day too.
"I dont know whats wrong with him," she said to me later.
"I think he just needs a break. He really misses Jonathan. Hell be okay, I think. Hes just got himself feeling bad."
Kevin did start coming to work, but now not until about 8:00 in the morning, and he was missing some school. He was graduating in a month, and I guess he didnt care.
The month crawled by. Kevin hardly did anything but at the end he went to a few parties. One Saturday night his friends brought him home. He was ripping drunk and miserable. I had to help him up the stairs and into bed, where he passed out. I struggled to get him undressed. Shoes and socks first, and I took a moment to stroke his feet and caress his toes. Shirt, looking at those beautiful nipples. I undid his pants and went back to his feet to pull his jeans off by the legs. His boxers came with them. There lay that gorgeous cock. I could suck him off and he would never know. I could satisfy both of us. I could hold it, nuzzle it and fondle it. I could stroke him till he blasted, and smear his cum over both of us.
But he was out. And this was wasnt right. It would be assault, no better than taking advantage of a girl who was passed out. It would be rape. And whatever else I am, I am not a rapist. I grabbed his boxers by the waist and jerked them back into place.
The day before graduation, I walked into the restaurant early. It smelled terrible. Like rotten food. I tried to see if anything had been left out the night before, but everything was put away. I opened the refrigerator door to get out the soup makings and the stench hit me full force. The fridge had stopped working. When Mama came in she knew it immediately.
"Oh, lord, how will we be able to afford a new refrigerator?" she said.
We raided the cash register and I went into town with a shopping list to keep the café open. We were a little late opening, and a few customers left before we could get to them. Id been here long enough to know each lost customer hurt.
In the three or four months Id been here I had never been paid. Hadnt asked to be. I was getting free room and board, and some clothes, and I knew it was hard on Mama to do that. So I never asked when Id get paid. I dont know how to express on you how poor these people were. I have no idea how Mama bought a cemetery plot for Jonathan. Or the cheap pine casket. Or paid for the service, for that matter. They had to plan out when they were going to fill the gas tanks on the cars.
One of the sheriffs deputies knew of a used fridge, and he and Mama went to look at it. They came back with it in the back of a pick-up. It cost $100. A huge amount for them, but not much really for a fridge. Mama carefully counted out the money, the last five dollars in one-dollar bills. The drawer was nearly empty.
Graduation day was a Saturday, and we were open. Kevin got off at 3:00. Mama and I worked until 6:00. Then we got tidied up, me in the best hand-me-down jeans I had, and the T-shirt with the fewest and most-hidden holes.
I had never been to a graduation before. It was dull. None of the speakers said anything worth remembering. I had trouble staying awake. But I did because I wanted to see Kevin walk across the state and get his diploma. I was hoping it would boost him a little. He had been so sad, so down since Jonathan died. I so admired him. He worked so hard without complaining. I hoped he would get a feeling of accomplishment and start to come out of his funk.
And you know what? He really seemed to. He smiled as he shook the principals hand. One of the teachers came up and said a few words and he nodded. When he got back to his seat he slapped hands with the guys on either side of him.
When the whole thing was (mercifully) over Kevin smiled as he posed for pictures. Mama had been snapping them with a disposable camera. She had me pose with Kevin for a couple and had some taken with him and some of his classmates. I took one of the two of them, and someone took one of the three of us. Kevin smiled in them all.
The next day Kevin was up before the alarm. As I started to get up he pushed me gently back down with his bare foot.
"Stay in bed awhile. Ill open up," he said as he rubbed my bare chest with his toes.
I stayed in bed for my customary hour. When I got to the restaurant everything was underway coffee, soup, grill, fryer everything. He and I chatted all through the morning crowd and clean-up. He was even better than the old Kevin. Graduating had really done it.
It was one of the best days Id had there. Mama just beamed the whole day, happy that Kevin was finally happy. The next day was the same. When she closed the door at 8:00 she got her jacket on and then went to the cash register. She took out a ten-dollar bill and handed it to me.
"Kevin, you and Justin go into town for some ice cream or go to a movie. Stay out late if you want. Ill open up in the morning." Then she left.
We were done and out of there by 8:30. We laughed and joked the whole time.
"Ice cream?" he asked as we got into his old car.
"Sure. Sounds good," I said. "You know, Ive only been to town twice. Once for the funeral and Saturday for graduation."
"Well, youve probably seen it all. There aint much to see. But Ill show you around anyway."
We drove in and it was a hoppin place. As hoppin as a town less than half the size of my old hometown can be. People were hanging out downtown. Just hanging out. Parked cars lined both sides of the street, creating life along the dead business district. Most stores were boarded up, and those that werent were closed for the night. A breeze blew dust around. Most of us, boys and girls, wore blue jeans and denim shirts, as much for protection from the sand as for warmth against the falling night temperatures. Kevin introduced me to some of his classmates and I saw others who I knew already because they cam into the café a lot. I got to chat with a few of them. I guess they all figured I was a runaway of some sort because no one asked why I was with Kevin. A few girls came to talk to him and he asked one, Molly, if she wanted to go to the movie the next night. He sort of looked at me and raised his eyebrows, and I nodded yes, indicating I would open the next morning.
We goofed around with his friends for a while, and then a couple of girls joined us for a trip to the edge of town to the Dairy Sweet. We treated them to an ice cream cone. Kevin was really loose, joking and laughing. The girls were real cute and not ditsy at all. They were fun. We sat at a picnic table and they talked about school, the summer and their plans. Kevin was really quiet while they were talking about plans, but otherwise it was great.
We hung out with them quite a while. Eventually they wanted to know about me, so I told them a little bit just to pique their interest. I remember in some English class a teacher once told us to always leave your audience wanting more. So I didnt give everything away.
They asked if we were going to be around the next night, but Kevin said he had a date, and I said Id have to work. We drove them to their houses, which let me see a little bit more of the town. One girl lived in a mobile home, parked on a dry lot with a couple of cars parked next to it. The other lived in a small home that needed paint. Then we drove home a different way than how we got to town.
"This is sorta the back way," he said. "Its a lot more fun to drive because the roads all curvy. But its also more dangerous. Ive lost a couple of friends on this road. Theyd have a few beers and then drive too fast. Its easy to miss a curve, and there are some pretty steep plunges. Heres one here."
He slowed the car as we came to a sharp curve and he pulled off to the side. We crossed the road and looked down the ravine. It must have been 25 feet at least. "That dropll kill ya," he said. "I dont usually drive this way, but I wanted you to see a little bit more of the area. You should come out here in the day. Its really pretty. Sometimes after school if I dont have to get to the café right away I come out here and just sit. Its so beautiful in the daylight. Like heaven."
"Maybe sometime after the lunch crowd you could bring me out here," I said.
"Probably only one of us will be able to come out here. You should do it. Youd like it. You can just sit here and think. Theres not much traffic, and its pretty quiet. Do it soon, Justin. You really need to."
We got back about midnight. It had been, like, the perfect day. Wed had a great time. Almost like bonding. Kevin was practically giddy. We sat on the front step, not really wanting it all to end.
"Can I ask you something," he said.
"Whats out there?"
"No. Here. On Earth. Whats out there? Ive never been out of this place. Ive been here my whole life. I havent even been to Las Vegas to see Katherine. Whats it like?"
"I guess its different. Most of the way out here was pretty flat and boring until I got to the mountains. Where I come from its not real flat, but there arent many hills, either. Sort of rolling. And it gets cold there. I mean, not like it does here at night. I mean snow and freezing temperatures and ice and all. We get rain during the summer, and it an get real humid and hot. I know it gets hot here and it doesnt usually get that hot at home, but this is dry heat. Ours is wet heat and some days it just feel like you cant even move."
"Did you have grass and stuff?"
"Oh, yeah. We had a medium-sized lawn, green grass, flowers, trees. Thank god for grass. Last summer me and Kyle had jobs mowing lawns for people. I made a wad of money from it. Unfortunately, that asshole Frank and my mom stole it all."
"God, it sounds so nice. I hope I can see it when I leave here."
"Thats the second time youve mentioned leaving. When do you plan to leave?"
"Actually, pretty soon."
"Do you know where youre going?"
"I have an idea, but Im not at all positive. If youre asking me where, I cant tell. Can I ask you something else?"
"Are you gay?"
Shit. How about I dont answer that one? How about I lie? How about . . . how about I tell the truth?
"Does it matter?" How about I stall?
"No. But Im guessing you are."
"I dunno. I guess God just made you that way."
"No, I mean why would you guess that?"
"Oh. Well, you were really nice to those girls tonight, but you didnt seem all that interested."
"Maybe that was just because I know Im not going to stay here long. Not after youre gone."
"Then theres Danny."
"What about her?"
"Sorry, Justin. Youve slipped too many times. Youve said he about half a dozen times. The way you say it, the way you talk about him, Id say youre in love. Id say its him youre trying to get to."
I just looked out at the blackness across the parking lot.
"Slipped, huh? I thought I was better than that."
"You slipped like the second or third day you were here. Most of the time you got it right, but you slipped too many times. So, are you?"
"Yeah, I am."
"Are you?" I asked.
"No. Im true-blue heterosexual. Just got laid for the first time, you know."
"Yeah, I know."
"Did you and Jonathan fuck around?"
"Why would you even ask that?"
"Because I already know the answer."
"I know you did."
"How do you know that?"
"I know you did, and I know you did it only once, and Im glad you did it. He told me. But before you go getting mad," because I was "let me tell you the whole story. He and I made an agreement that we would both get laid before we died. That was more important to him than it was to me under the circumstances. When his leukemia went into remission last time, we thought hed have lots of time. You know, high school, dating, dances, sex. He was cute; he was going to get laid for sure.
"But when he got sick again, it looked pretty hopeless. I told him it was okay, but he refused to break his promise. Pure Jonathan. When he told me the night after you and he did he, he was so happy. He was really excited. He said you were gentle and loving and you made him feel the best hes ever felt. He said you were perfect, and that he could die happy. That was the same night I got laid, you know, although we didnt plan it that way. Well, I didnt plan it that way. Jonathan might have. He probably knew I was going to get some that night and plotted to seduce you. I wouldnt be surprised. Hed do something like that. Anyway, I hope youre not mad."
I sighed. "No. Im not mad at all. Hes only the second person Ive had sex with. He may be the last person I ever have sex with. I cant do it with anyone else but Danny."
"No, you and Danny will be back together."
I told him of my fears and suspicions.
"Youre an idiot," he said at last.
"Oh, thanks, Mr. Genius."
"Well, you are. Youre reading all these suspicions into a couple of missed e-mails. Why didnt you say something? I could have taken you into the school computer lab and let you send an email. But no. Instead you look for the very worst and let yourself be miserable."
"I cant. Hes moved on."
"You dont know that. Youre an idiot. You need to get out of here, Justin. You need to go find him. I just have a feeling. Hes waiting for you. Youre letting him down. If I had known all of this earlier Id have kicked you out myself. Justin, go find him. Just go."
I wasnt going to argue with him. I knew I was an idiot. We started for bed.
In the bedroom he said, "Why dont you sleep in Jonathans bed? Stop using the sleeping bag."
"I dont know. I just cant. I mean, it doesnt seem right."
"He wont mind."
"Yeah, I know, but I cant. I just I dont know. It was his bed. Id feel like I was invading it."
"Well then sleep in mine and Ill sleep in his. It doesnt matter to me." And that was it. He moved over to Jonathans bed and I moved to his. He started to strip to get ready for bed, getting naked before sliding on a pair of gym shorts as usual.
"Doesnt it bother you to get naked in front of a gay guy?" I asked.
"Nope. I figure I probably already have at some time, what with gym class and all. Besides, if you think my body is hot, Ill take it as a compliment."
"Well, I do think its hot. Whew!" I laughed. He laughed to, and we got into bed. Aaahhh. The smell of Kevin. I was asleep instantly.
I woke up the next morning about 8:30, way later than usual. I felt great. I looked over at Jonathans bed, and Kevin was still sound asleep, one bare foot outside the covers. I quietly got out of the bed and went across the hall to the bathroom. I showered, came back in and dressed, then went to the café for breakfast.
It was pretty quiet in there. Mama asked what we had done the night before and I told her. I said Kevin was still sleeping, and she said that was good. I said he had a date that night and that I would be working for him in the morning.
Kevin didnt come in until about noon, but he was in a great mood. We worked easily through lunch, then through the slack time in the afternoon, and into the dinner rush. Kevin left about 6:30, leaving Mama and me to finish up while he went on his date. When the alarm woke me the next morning, his bed, actually Jonathans, was still empty. Way to go, Kevin, I thought.
Kevin came in at noon and worked the rest of the day. He was in a good mood, but wasnt giddy like hed been. He was calm. Peaceful. The date and night with Molly had been good for him. I was really glad he was coping.
We closed about 7:30 that night since the place was empty, and by 8:00 we were done cleaning up. As we were walking back to the house, Kevin said he was going into town to get some things for the next morning. I said Id come along, but he said he wasnt going to stay, and he wanted a little time by himself. I said sure, that was fine, and I went inside. I watched some TV then went up to our room and read for a while. By 10:00 Kevin still wasnt home, and I was tired, so I set the alarm and went to sleep.
He wasnt in bed the next morning when the alarm went off, so I got up and opened the café. By 9:00 we still hadnt seen him and I smiled to myself imagining he was getting a morning fuck in before he came back. But at 9:05 a squad car pulled up, and two deputies came inside. Mama asked them if theyd like coffee, but neither looked in the mood to sit down.
"Mama, wheres Kevin?"
"Kevin? I dont know. He went into town last night and didnt come back. I figure hes sleeping off something or other. Hes not here. Why? Is he in trouble?"
"No, hes not in any trouble. Theres been an accident. Mama, come with us, please."
Mama started shaking and she went real pale. "Where to?"
"The hospital. Youd better come right away."
"Justin, lock up," she said. "You come, too."
It was the first time Id ever ridden in police car, and we went with the siren screaming. We tore down the highway and through the town, then back into the desert. It was another 30 miles to a town large enough for a hospital. It took about 20 minutes to get there as the car flew down the highway. When we pulled up, a helicopter stood on the hospital grounds. We went into the hospital, and I got a real familiar feeling. Hospital emergency rooms all look alike, I guess. This was eerie.
I guess the cops had radioed ahead that we were coming. A doctor stood in the waiting room, just outside the doors to the emergency rooms. As we rushed in, he looked at the deputies. They helped Mama to a seat, and I sat next to her. The doctor came over and sat on the other side.
"Mrs. Wilson, Im Doctor Smith. Kevin was brought in about an hour and fifteen minutes ago by MedEvac helicopter. He was in a car wreck his car left the road and crashed into a ravine just outside of your town. It apparently happened sometime last night. He had massive head and internal injuries. He was not breathing when he came in, and we could find no pulse. Im sorry, Mrs. Wilson, there was nothing we could do. Im so sorry."
I cant describe the grief. I cant describe how we felt or what we did. I mean, I can. I know the words. I cant bring myself to write it, to relive it. But basically Mama fell apart. She screamed in grief and wailed. She had lost both sons. Both of her boys were gone. She cried and cried, and it lasted so long the doctor took her to an emergency room bed and gave her a sedative. He told the deputies he would check her into the hospital to watch her. Her blood pressure was dangerously high.
Me, I just sat there numb. Tears rolled silently down my cheeks. One of the deputies, Sam, helped me to my feet. "Lets go back home, Justin. Mama will be okay here. Theyre going to put her to sleep for a while so she wont miss you. Ill bring you back tomorrow."
I withdrew completely. I curled up in a ball in the back of the squad car and didnt say a word all the way home. That trip took 45 minutes, and the tears rolled the whole time. When we got to the house, Sam said, "Will you be okay here alone?"
"I guess. Ill have to get the café ready for tomorrow. Nothings cleaned up."
"Justin, forget about the restaurant. Dont go in there. Dont open it up tomorrow. Were going to come get you and take you back to the hospital. Youre going to have to help Kate through this. Get some rest."
I started to walk up the steps, stumbled and fell to the ground. Sam was out of the car in a flash.
"No, you cant stay here. Cmon. Lets go to my house. You can stay there tonight."
I have no idea how we got there. I waited in the car while he went in for a few moments, then he came out with his wife, who Id seen the restaurant before. I was nothing more than a zombie. Sam had a cute 15-year-old daughter and a cute 17-year-old son. He and his son led me into a bedroom, where his son, Chad, got me out of my clothes, down to my boxers, and helped me into bed. He left and closed the door.
Sam came in a few minutes later.
"Justin, we found this in the car," he said. He had an envelope in his hand and it had my name on it. I looked at him questioningly.
"I havent read it. Its sealed. I guess he had something to say." And he left.
I opened the envelope and found a hand-written letter inside:
If you get this letter, it means Im dead. Dont worry. I meant to. It wasnt an accident, although thats what I want everyone to think. Please dont give it away. Dont tell anyone, especially Ma. It would kill her to know I did this. Please, Justin, just keep this to yourself. Dont ever tell.
I had to get out, Justin. I couldnt go on. There was no life at all for me. Ill never go to college because my grades aint good enough. We could never be able to afford college anyway. I would be stuck at the restaurant my whole life. Ive already worked there 12 years, and I cant do it any more. But I would have to because I have to take care of Ma. But I cant, Justin, I just cant. And when Jonathan died, that was the end. I cant bear the thought of him being gone. I know hes in heaven, and I dont know if Ill go to heaven, but if I do, well be able to hang out again and he wont be sick and we can be pals. Theres no other way. Im afraid if I grow up Ill be like my dad drunk and mean and hateful. I couldnt stand that. I accomplished everything I wanted to I graduated, and I got laid. Twice, in fact.
I want to apologize to you. I used you. I took you out on that winding road the other night to check out exactly where I wanted to do it. And I told you I was going into town for some things. But I did tell you I was going away, didnt I? I just didnt say where. I still dont know heaven, hell, somewhere in between. But the main thing is Im out of there.
Good-bye, Justin. Im glad you puked in our shed, and Im glad you stayed. Youre the best friend I ever had. If I hadnt died, it would have been okay having you for a friend. But I know you are going to leave and find Danny. So I had to leave, too. Thanks for all you did for me and for Jonathan. And dont worry about me. Im at peace. Please remember me.
Sam was still there as I read it. I was in a daze.
"Whats in the letter, Justin?"
"Anything I should know?"
Of course there was stuff he should know. Of course I had to tell him.
"Are you sure?"
"Can I see it?"
"Just get out."
"Justin . . ."
"Justin, let me see the letter."
"Why? Its written to me. This aint your letter. If he had wanted to tell you something he would have written you one."
"Why did he write it."
"To tell me something he couldnt tell me to my face."
"Why didnt he mail it?"
Damn. He had me there. I couldnt think. I was exhausted, my head hurt and I felt like I was drowning. Then it came to me.
"I guess he was going to leave it in our room. Maybe he was never going to mail it."
"Justin, does it have anything to do with the accident that killed him?"
"N-no," I lied badly.
Sam sat on the bed next to me. "I need to ask you some questions, Justin, and I know you are hurting right now, but I need to know. Justin, how was Kevin after Jonathan died?"
"Sad. We all were."
"Yes, I know. Did he seem sadder than usual?"
"You mean like depressed?"
"Yeah, did he seem depressed?"
"For a while he did. I mean, he was really broke up after Jonathan died, but I can understand that."
"Did his behavior change?"
"Yeah. He stopped getting up to open the restaurant. It was like he couldnt get out of bed. He just lay there until, like, noon. He didnt do much of anything until graduation, I guess."
"Why? What happened?"
"Well, it was like the old Kevin back. He was happy, friendly, he got up to open the restaurant. It was great."
"When did that happen?"
"Right after graduation."
"Why? Does it mean something?"
"It might. Justin, I have to ask you something, and I want you to know that, damn, how do I say this? Okay, no matter what, you are not to blame."
"Blame? Blame for what?"
"For anything. You arent to blame for anything. Okay? I mean, I dont even want to . . . I didnt even want to bring it up that way. But heres the thing: when a person has been real depressed, and then all of a sudden brightens up and seems to become happy, like hes over the depression, sometimes its because that person has decided to kill himself, and all of the pressure of life is relieved because hes made a decision. Do you understand that?"
"Well, its like, this person is depressed because of all the bad things he thinks is going on around him. All the bad stuff that is, all the pressure he feels hes under. And then when he finally decides to kill himself, its like a freedom. He knows hes going to free from all that shit, and hes happy. Theres no more pressure because its almost over. Hes found a way out, even if it is death. I know Im not explaining this very well."
"No, I think I understand. I should have seen it. It all makes sense. Thats exactly what happened. I should have known hed decided to do something like that. Damn. Why didnt I see it?"
"Stop it, Justin. Thats exactly what I meant. Its not your fault. You didnt know. No one noticed it. If anyone should have, I or one of the other deputies should have. Its very hard to recognize even if you know it, and you had no idea. You are not to blame for this, Justin. Remember that."
Yeah. Right. The fact was, Kevin was dead, and I didnt do anything about it.
"Now, is there anything in that letter I should know?" Sam asked again.
"I dont know."
"He asked me not to tell anyone whats in it."
"Sam, if you know, what will you do about it? It would kill Mama to know he committed suicide. It would bring shame on a kid who doesnt deserve any shame at all. Kevin was the coolest kid I know. Ive never seen anyone braver. And I know he was braver than I even thought. He lived with fears I didnt even know about. Why would you destroy that image? What does it matter if missed a curve or ran off on purpose? Hes dead. Thats the worst part; hes dead. And nothing will bring him back. I cant resurrect him, but I can protect him still. No, Sam, theres nothing in that letter you need to know."
"Did Kevin kill himself?"
"Kevin had a feeling he was going to die, and was scared enough that he wrote me a letter about it. Thats all, Sam. Thats all Im going to say. And you cant say any more than that, either. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Justin, I do."
He left, and it was finally my time to collapse. I did. It was my time to cry. I didnt. I was numb. I was stunned by the letter, by the completely hopeless tone of it. I was emotionally exhausted. Rob, came in.
"Can I get you anything?" he asked.
"No. I just want to sleep. I cant . . . I dont know what to do."
"Dont worry about that right now. Just sleep. Someone will be here the whole time, so if you need anything, just holler."
Sleep. Ha. Like that was going to happen. I lay there trying to sleep, but the whole world was crumbling beneath me. My life passed before my eyes. I mean, it really did. I had such a happy childhood. Now I had nothing. It had all evaporated. Gone. Every friend I had I had thrown away or abandoned. Two of them had died. I had no money and no place to go. What was I going to do? Why did Kevin do that? Why didnt I see what was happening? What could I have done to make him feel better? Why didnt he tell me?
Then I cried. It came up from my belly. It tried to burst out of my chest. I squeezed the pillow to myself to try to keep everything in. I soaked the pillow case with my tears. Rob came in and I cried on his shoulder more. He just rubbed my naked back and let me cry. I exhausted myself, and as the sobs quieted, I fell asleep on his shoulder.
When I woke up I looked at the clock. I had been asleep for three hours. I lay there thinking. Rob stuck his head in the door once and I pretended to still be asleep, but now I was feeling hungry. And yet I was soo tired to do anything about it. So I just lay there. I deserved to be hungry.
Rob came in after an hour of that. This time I said I was hungry, and I followed him to the kitchen where he made me a grilled cheese sandwich, heated some soup and set out the chips. I wolfed them down and he fixed me another sandwich. I had two glasses of milk.
The sun was setting. Rob sat at the table across from me.
"Rob, I know I dont know you very well, but can I ask you a question? I mean, first, thanks for taking care of me, but I need a favor."
"What is it?"
"Would you take me out there? To where the accident was?"
"Justin, I dont know if . . ."
"Rob, I need to do this. I have to see it. Please. Now, before it gets dark."
He stood up, slipped some flip-flops on his bare feet and grabbed the keys. I carried my sneakers out to his pickup and we were gone. It took about 15 minutes to get there, and as we came around a bend, I knew exactly where he had done it.
"This is it, isnt it?" I said.
"Yeah. I came out this morning when my dad got the call. Right here." He stopped the truck and we got out. I walked to the edge of the road and looked down. I could make out the tire tracks. There were no skid marks he just shot off the edge of the cliff and plunged down a good 30 feet or so. But it was so steep I couldnt get down there. And even if I did, Id never get back up without help.
I looked around. The huge orange sun cast long shadows over the area. Kevin was right, it was beautiful. I sat down with my legs dangling over the edge. The rough hills werent high, but they were painted with fading sunlight. It was quiet here. Kevin died in a peaceful spot. I let the tears trickle down my cheeks as I sat there. Rob stood by quietly, almost as if he were grieving, too. And maybe he was. I knew nothing about him. Maybe he thought Kevin had found the best way to get out of this place. I knew he hadnt, and I knew I had to find a better way out. I didnt know what way that was. Kevin had told me to come out soon, to sit and think. Its just what I did.
The next day I met Mama at the funeral home. She had picked out the same pine coffin as Jonathan had been buried in. The service was to be simple. She had purchased a gravesite next to Jonathans. It was all very stark and bare. Mama was just going through the emotions. We went back out to the house. Katherine was with us. The restaurant had been closed two whole days by now, and I knew no money was coming in. The next day Katherine drove into Las Vegas and came back with a woman.
"Justin," Mama said to me as we gathered in the threadbare living room, "this is my sister, Louise." She wasnt as heavy as Mama, who wasnt really fat but was plump, but she looked just like her. "Louise is five years younger than me."
"Its nice to meet you," I said as I shook her hand. "Where do you live?"
"Columbus, Ohio," she said. "Its where we all grew up. Kate moved out here after she got married, and we just havent seen much of each other since then. I wanted to come out for Jonathans funeral, but it was impossible. But now this. I had to be here for my sister."
We chatted a little, but it was strained. Katherine seemed especially quiet. I went to bed about midnight and set the alarm clock. I unrolled my sleeping bag and crawled in. I couldnt sleep in either bed now.
The funeral was the next day. The third day in a row the café was closed. It was a very sad funeral. When I got there, some of the people I had met in town with Kevin came over and had me stand with them. A few put their hands on my shoulder. It was a hot and dusty day again, and all the life had been sucked out of me.
At the house we all changed back into our regular clothes. Mama asked me to come out to the porch. A dry wind blew up little dust devils in the gravel. It brought no relief from the heat.
We sat in a couple of chairs on the porch. She looked over the parking lot at the rundown restaurant, the sagging power lines attached at the corner, the peeling sign, the dirty windows, the torn screen door.
"Justin, Im closing the restaurant. Do you have any place to go?" she asked.
"I dont know. Thats the truth. I might, but Im a little scared to find out."
"I hate to kick you out. Youre a good boy. You were a good friend to my sons. I know you made their last days on earth so much better. Kevin always told me how fun you were to be around. And Jonathan, too. You made him laugh, and he loved talking baseball with you. I dont know how Ill repay you."
"I didnt do it for pay. Besides, you took me in. How can I ever repay that?"
"It was good for us. I know youre not happy, and yet you brought so much joy into the house. You never complained about work. You helped the boys so much. Didnt you ever wonder about getting paid?"
"Not really. I had pretty much what I needed. I figured I was working for room and board. I couldnt ask for much more than that."
"Youve figured out were not wealthy. Im going back to Ohio with my sister. She wants to get to know me all over again. She says my other sister and my two brothers want the same thing. Im leaving, Justin. And youll have to leave, too."
"What will happen to the restaurant?"
"Itll decay crumble into the ground. No one wants it. Its a money loser. No one can make money with it. I dont know if I can sell the land. Ill try. Tisnt worth much, though."
"I know. Not a lot of reason for people to be out here."
"Nope. I want to give you something." She reached into her pocket. "Here." She handed me a small roll of money. "Its not much. Only fifty dollars. Use it to help you get where youre going. Like, home."
"I dont have a home anymore."
"Sure you do. Somewhere is home. Somewhere your heart is happy. Mine isnt happy here anymore. Itll be nice to see the rest of my family."
The next morning there was a "For Sale" sign on the restaurant. We ran it for a week, and the land was sold. I dont know who bought it or what he planned to do with it, but it was the end.
On a Tuesday morning in June, Louise was closing the trailer on the U-Haul and closing the trunk of her car. Mama had packed up clothes, a few personal items and not much else. The trailer was really only half-full. All of the furniture was left behind. It was virtually worthless.
I stood in the parking lot, a little away from her. I had a backpack stuffed with a change of clothes, toothbrush, and some toiletries. Mama came over and put her arm around me.
"Have you decided where youre going?" she asked.
I hadnt, really, until that moment. "California," I said.
"To find your friend?"
"Yeah. If he wants to see me."
"I dont see how he cant. Youre a good kid, Justin. All of your friends will want to see you. You need to find them." With that she hugged me tight. "Thanks for everything, Justin. Youre a special kid. I hope you find the happiness my boys could never seem to find."
She handed me a piece of paper. "Heres my new address. Please, write me now and then." Folded in the paper were three photos: one of me and Jonathan, one of me and Kevin, and one of Mama, me and Kevin.
She kissed me on the cheek and wiped the tears from my eyes, then hers. She climbed into the car, and with a wave, they were off. I sat down on a rickety old chair to wait for the bus.
While I was sitting there, just looking at the surroundings, the ramshackle café, the tired house, the bleak gravel parking lot, and, finally, inevitably, my own feelings, something happened. I thought about the journey, and then I thought about the start of the journey. And then I thought about why I had to make the journey. It was for me and for Danny. I had been leaving Danny out of the equation. Why did I have to see Danny? Because I loved him, and because I needed him. I didnt know for sure he had a boyfriend or a girlfriend, for that matter. I didnt know if he had moved on from me. I couldnt begin to guess what was going on Dannys mind. I had insulated myself from him, made up a story in my mind that he was no longer interested in me. Maybe it was to protect myself and my own feelings all this time. Maybe it was to convince myself that my separation from Danny didnt matter any more because he had moved on.
But I couldnt know that for sure.
It was my way of protecting myself from more hurt. Even with all that shit with Frank and my mom and my dad, it hurt to leave home. Its devastating to leave when youre 16. It hurts beyond words. It tears at your heart and the real thing to do is cry. I had stopped crying because I had built a callus around my heart, at least as far as my former life was concerned. I cried over Jonathan and over Kevin, but not for anything else.
It was time to break through that callus. It was time to find my heart again. And in the searing Nevada desert heat, I started to do that. And what I found there was Danny.
It was like clouds had lifted from me. Sitting in that sweltering sun, my heart had been cold. Now it was warming. I honestly mean I could feel it in my chest. As I thought about Danny, I felt a glow. I loved him. I cherished his touch, his laugh, his body. I loved him, his family and the whole air that surrounded them.
I wanted Danny. I needed to be near him. If he had moved on, fine. I could live with that, but I would have to do it in close proximity to him. If he hadnt moved on, I was ready to stand by him, to sleep with him, to be with him, if thats what he wanted. I drew life from Danny. I had been deprived of that life for nearly a year, and it was slowly ebbing away. My batteries were dying.
Now I fidgeted for the bus. I wanted to get on my way. I knew the town he was in. I knew the place. I still had his address in my wallet. Time couldnt move swiftly enough now. Danny was my goal. He was the thing that mattered now. He was at the end of the journey. There was no other goal to it. There was one final stop. The journey ended with Danny. This was nothing else than a journey of love.
Ive been having some really bad headaches lately. My lover and his family took me to a specialist, who said there were some complications from my baseball injury. So Ive had some surgery to relieve pressure on my brain, and presto! No more headaches! Well, except for the scar. And for the second time Im completely bald on one side. But hell, Ive been through that. I feel great. Life is good. Really, really good right now. Im going to bed. No fucking for a couple of weeks, the doc says, but snuggling is on the prescription list!