We dressed together in the camper, unashamed of our nakedness and with no sense of sexual tension. Perhaps we all realized that, for Kelly and me at least, a terrible and wonderful time, a time that seemed to have lasted forever but was in fact only a few days, was coming to an end. The mood was not quite sad, but was certainly sober.
We took care of our morning needs in the nearby common bathroom. Bowels and bladders emptied, teeth brushed, hair combed, we were now looking forward to breakfast. It was Monday morning, so there was no more breakfast to be had in the Thousand Trails kitchen, but I had enough eggs, milk and pancake mix to get us all started for the day. I made a fake mocha for myself as usual, which of course elicited a demand for hot chocolate from two hungry boys.
When Freddie took his first bite of pancakes his eyes opened wide in surprise. He didn't even bother to swallow before exclaiming, "These are really good!"
"No one wants to see your half-chewed food, Freddie," I said.
He swallowed before speaking again. "Sorry. But why are these so good?"
"That's real maple syrup, Freddie, not that stuff from Mrs. Butterball or whoever."
Freddie liked that little joke but wanted to know what the deal was about maple syrup. So I told him and Kelly the little bit I remembered from when I was teaching in New England about sugar maples and how the trees were tapped and how the sap was boiled down into syrup. "The imitation stuff you buy in the store is cheaper, but not nearly as good," I said.
We continued eating in companionable near-silence for a few minutes, but finally I had to address the elephant in the room. "OK, guys, I have to ask a question. What was all that about last night?"
Kelly and Freddie dropped their forks and looked at each other. Then they both began to giggle, and Freddie began to blush. "We talked a lot last night," Kelly said.
"I know," I replied, "I could hear you giggling together until I dropped off to sleep."
"Well, we talked about you," Kelly said.
"Yeah. That's when we stopped giggling because we were getting real serious. I told him everything."
"Everything?" I could feel a sense of panic rising up within me.
"He told me everything," Freddie said. "And I don't care if Jason raped him. I mean, of course I care, and I wish he hadn't had to go through that, but I still love him."
Kelly picked up from there. "I told him about how you rescued me and how I loved you too but not the same way I loved him and how I didn't want to just say I loved you but I wanted to show you and so I -- what's that word, Freddie?"
"You mean seduced?"
"Yeah, how I kinda seduced you and I'm not sorry." Those last three words he spoke almost defiantly, as if he was expecting to be scolded. It was Freddie who broke the silence that followed.
"So I started asking him what it was like and he told me how you really loved him and I said I almost envied him because he had learned the difference between love and sex from you and I said maybe you could teach me too and at first it was a joke and then I started thinking about it and then Kelly said --"
"I said that I might never see you again after today," Kelly said, picking up where Freddie left off. "That made me sad and I said I wanted to show you one last time how much I love you and Freddie said he wanted to thank you in a big way and maybe learn something too and we started giggling again and said it would probably be fun and then we came in here and climbed in bed with you and, well..."
There was a long silence before Freddie finally spoke up. "Can I call you Uncle Art, the way Kelly does?" he asked. "Because Kelly loves you and I love you too already because you rescued Kelly and brought him back to me."
"I'd be honored to have you call me that," I replied.
"Uncle Art," he said, and then he stopped and a big grin let up his face. "That felt good. Uncle Art, thank you for letting us do what we did last night. We wanted to share you together so we would both be able to thank you and say we love you and both have the same kinds of memories of you. And no one else will ever know."
"This is private between you and Freddie and me," Kelly said. "I'll never forget you, no matter what happens next, and neither will Freddie. I'll never love you again the way I did this week, and neither will Freddie, because we belong to each other now, but I'll always love you."
At this point I was glad I always kept a box of Kleenex nearby. I couldn't stop the tears that slowly trickled down my cheeks. These boys had given me a gift that was beyond any way of measuring. They had given their whole selves, body and soul, and had given me memories that would never fade.
By noon we were unhooked and ready to go. On the way down the long slope toward Issaquah it was fun to let Freddie in on the experience of listening to Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries while swooping down out of the mountains. We stopped at the Triple X -- that was a drive-in burger spot, not a movie rating -- for lunch, then at Lake Sammamish State Park to throw Frisbees for a while and roll up our pant legs to wade near the shore. We weren't in the mood for all the trouble of changing clothes twice just for a short swim in really cold water.
Bill and Joyce welcomed us warmly. We were barely into the house before Joyce dropped a bombshell. She was taking us on a short tour of the house. We saw Freddie's bedroom, still strewn with the clothes he had dropped when changing for their trip up to meet us, and moved on to the second bedroom. "And this," Joyce announced, "will be Kelly's room."
You've heard of the cat that ate the canary? Joyce was obviously proud of herself for having successfully sprung this little surprise. They hadn't even taken Freddie aside to give him a heads up. I wonder which of the three of us was the most shocked. I was astonished that they had made up their minds so quickly. They must have been up half the night talking about what might come next. Kelly looked first puzzled, then amazed, then bursting with joy. He turned toward Freddie and the two of them embraced in the tightest hug I had seen in a long time. And they seemed to forget that they had an audience because they spent the next five seconds in a lip lock until Bill gently said, "Boys." Though Joyce looked a bit uncomfortable, she made no move to interfere.
They boys went from joy back to shock at having been caught, followed by red-faced embarrassment, followed by uncontrollable giggles. It was Joyce who brought that to an end in a way that was certain to work with two fourteen-year-old boys. "Come on," she said, "dinner in ten minutes. Boys, wash up and then come to the table."
Kelly and Freddie trooped off to the bathroom, closely followed by Bill. "Joyce," I said before she could head for the kitchen. "What happened? Yesterday you didn't seem to be so sure."
She gave a deep sigh and then said, "I'm sorry about that, Art. It was a – what do they call it? A conditioned response. I heard those negative things about gay people for so many years that my response was just automatic. But I've actually been thinking about this for a while, ever since we got out of Reverend Foster's church and got a pastor who pushed us to think instead of just reacting. He said we shouldn't just pick the Old Testament laws that fit with the things we already don't like. I mean, what would I do without my cotton and polyester tops, even though the Bible says you aren't supposed to wear two different fabrics woven together? And we say that babies with birth defects are gifts from God, so how can we say that God wouldn't make anybody gay? And before you say anything, I don't mean that gay people are defective somehow. It's just the best analogy I could think of. But anyway, this whole thing with Kelly has just forced me to finally make up my mind. I still have flashes of my old thoughts, but I'm getting there. Now, you'll have to excuse me or we won't be ready to feed those growing boys."
It isn't worth recounting the details of the rest of the evening, Dinner together was wonderful, the food was delicious, the conversation was mostly about what Kelly and I had seen on our trip from Sheridan and not at all about Kelly's experiences with his stepfather. All that would come later, and Kelly would be in charge of how much to reveal, and how soon. We learned that Bill and Joyce had already contacted an attorney who specialized in family law and had begun the process of making their home into Kelly's home. They had also contacted the trauma center at Harborview Hospital and were in the process of getting counseling for Kelly. When Bill and I had a moment alone, he told me that he would talk with Kelly about being careful to leave out some details when he spoke to the counselor about his rescue.
When at last Kelly and I went back to the camper to get his gear, he asked Freddie to give us some time alone. Once inside, he grabbed me around the neck and kissed me. It was not a passionate lover's kiss, but neither was it a sedate parental smooch. "I'll miss you, Uncle Art," he said, and there were tears just beginning to glisten in his eyes. "Thank you. Thank you for rescuing me. Thank you for loving me. Thank you for getting me back to Freddie." And then he did begin to cry, deep, wracking sobs of sorrow, of relief, of joy. I held him in my arms until at last the sobs subsided, and I couldn't help but think of something C. S. Lewis wrote in one of his Narnia stories: "Crying is all right in its way while it lasts. But you have to stop sooner or later, and then you still have to decide what to do." What we had to do was to get on with our lives, richer for what we had experienced together, lonelier for a while for the same reason. He gave me one last kiss, then turned toward the same green backpack I had first spotted back in that rest area outside of Sheridan.
He picked up the backpack, turned around, wiped away a last tear, looked me in the eye, grinned, and said, "And I don't regret a thing." And then he was gone.
It was late when I left Bellevue, and I didn't trust myself to drive the whole distance to Portland without a break. When I pulled into the rest area south of Olympia, I decided to nap for an hour or so. I finally arrived back in my suburban Portland condo in the early hours of the morning. What I needed most of all was sleep, but sleep did not come quickly. I was in bed alone for the first time in a week, and I was surrounded by nothing but darkness and silence. There was a familiar feeling deep in my gut. The feeling was loneliness.
I was a lonely child, when I was growing up. We lived in a rural area, so there were no near neighbors. There were only twelve students in my grade in school, and the older kids -- there were two higher grades in the same room, this being a true country school -- looked down on us smaller ones and besides, I was chubby, uncoordinated, and though I didn't know it until about fourth grade, was nearly blind in one eye. When I finally got glasses, one lens was so strong that my brain never quite figured out how to merge the images from my two eyes. The result was that I had terrible depth perception and could never tell where a ball was as it came toward me, which made me hopeless at sports, which left me excluded at recess.
Being essentially friendless through all my school years, I had learned to be comfortable in my own company. Even in the years when I was married and had growing children, I had never felt uncomfortable when I was alone in my house. But I had never before experienced such a sudden plunge into loneliness since the day Nick and Tran were killed.
When I awoke in the late morning, the first impression I had was how quiet and empty my place seemed to be. I made myself a quick breakfast, then busied myself emptying my gear from the camper and driving it to the storage lot, a relatively short bus ride away.
I returned to a condo which had always been comfortable for me but which now suddenly seemed empty and bleak. I turned on my FM tuner and sought out KQAC, "All Classical Portland," and let the strains of a Mozart symphony fill the silence. Task number one was to fulfill my promise to myself that I would delete my encrypted files of photos. Task number two was to take the dust cover off my 1995 Dodge Spirit and drop off all my film cartridges from the trip at the FotoMat store for processing. Tomorrow I would pick up the prints, and my photos of Kelly would partially fill my need to feel his presence again. One of these days I would have to give up film and buy one of those digital cameras that were just now becoming affordable for someone like me. Task number three was to phone Heidi, my daughter, fill her in on my adventures, or at least some of them, explain why I was home earlier than expected, and arrange to get together later in the week with her, her husband John, and my granddaughter Rachael. Rachael was so quiet and withdrawn that she seemed to only tolerate me. Being a grandfather was not as much fun as I had hoped.
What was I going to do with myself now? There was only one thing to do. The same thing I did when I came back from Vietnam. School would be starting in less than a month and I had three new classes to prepare. Being buried in work had helped me make the transition from a war zone to civilian life. Now it would get me through my transition back to being mostly alone. It would fill the gap until the new school year would begin, when building relationships with the dozens of teenagers in my classes would give my life the sense of purpose that I always missed during summer vacation time. Kelly was not gone from me forever, that I knew. I hoped that he would find a permanent home with Bill and Joyce. What would happen to his relationship with Freddie, only time would tell.
It was not the end of the world. It was the end of something, though, something important, something full of pain and joy and love, something like the experience of years crammed into a week, something rare and unexpected and dangerous and thrilling, something that would live on in memory as long as I had a memory. I looked around my empty room, took a deep breath, and said, "I love you, Kelly."
And then I got to work.
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