It was like my thinking that shopping for a Prom outfit with mor would be a disaster was a premonition or something. 'Difficult' was an understatement: most of the stores we went to were either too fancy to suit my tastes, or the things I liked weren't much better than things I already owned.
Skirts this year came in three lengths, mini, midi or maxi, depending on how far down the lower hem fell. Mini-skirts came only part way down the thigh, and midis came to just below the knees, while maxi-skirts came almost down to the floor. I favored midis most of the time, if I wasn't wearing jeans, and while I thought a maxi might look better for a dance, none of the patterns seemed suitable to me.
We'd begun looking in Newark since it was closer than Columbus, but nothing turned up at the bigger department stores there, nor the smaller Arrow's in Heath. Friday after school we'd even gone to Eastland Mall off Hamilton Road to check out Lazarus and JC Penney's, also without any more encouraging results. Lazarus had the best selections, but I thought they were all too fancy for our gym dance, so we went to Sears where the odds might be better. I counted that trip as three strikes from the three anchor chains, so we looked into a couple of the other small shops in the rest of the mall….
Who would have thought those little fashion boutiques would have prices even higher than a major company like Lazarus, and not much more choice? Not me, that's for sure. Heck, I had less trouble deciding who I'd vote for in the Presidential primary—Jerry Brown all the way!
"Do you want to try the Downtown Lazarus on Saturday?"
I looked at mor in disbelief. I knew it was the flagship store of the family-owned company, but wouldn't that just mean the prices might be even higher than its satellite branches? Would the increased selection be worth the trip? All I knew about the store was that it was six stories high rather than the usual two for the outlying ones. That might mean more choices in each department, or just more areas that weren't considered popular enough to merit space in the smaller stores. Since I knew nothing else about it, I'd leave the final decision up to my mother.
"If you think there's a chance, I'll go…" I sighed in resignation. I got a reassuring pat and a hug for letting her win this one, and that made me feel better about the impending trip, even if I didn't hold out much hope for a successful outcome.
I had another idea by Saturday—why not have Bobby come with us? I felt that since we were going as a couple, then he ought to get a say in what I picked out…but mor was against it. "I don't see why not…he has to be seen with me in it, so it's only fair, and it's not like we're getting married or anything."
Just from the expression on her face, I knew this was a lost cause. I repeated my decision against anything too fancy, and said if this trip didn't work, then I'd wear something I already had in my closet. This final confrontation occurred in the kitchen over dinner on Friday night, and I could see far shake his head and grin as he concentrated on his plate of roast beef and potatoes. When we both looked at him in silent demands for support, he threw up his hands.
"Leave me out of it—I set the budget, and that's all I'll contribute…."
As we were driving west on I-70, about 8:00AM Saturday, I began thinking about why this meant so much to my parents. I'd never really thought much about their pasts since they seemed to remain the same from year to year—just being an anchor for our lives…and always there when we needed them. Who ever thought their parents had once been teenagers like us? I could just about see them that way thanks to pictures in our photo albums, but those only showed them on the outside and not what went on inside their heads.
When I thought about the discussion I'd had with mor about my sex life, after belittling Jay, it began to dawn on me that she was a lot more like me than I'd ever imagined. She'd told me about some of her fears from those days, and of her frustration with the boys on the farms around her and in their school. 'They tended to treat girls like we'd break or something…and that we'd go along with whatever they wanted us to do, as long as it didn't go too far.'
I learned that she'd dated one or two guys before Dad, and then only because she'd known him her entire life, never looking at him as a potential husband until later. Thinking about the selection of boys around us now, it struck me that it must have been even worse for her, as they came from an only slightly larger town. What hit me harder was that it was back in the mid 1940s, during World War II, when many men would have been off in Europe or the Pacific fighting. Some of those she'd known might not have come back from that at all….
I think I surprised her when I reached across the front seat of the car and took her hand, giving it a squeeze. "Jeg elsker dig, mor," I whispered softly, "og far også." Like Jay, I only used my Danish on rare occasions, and she knew that for me to do it now must have meant this was a special moment between us.
"I was just thinking about how lucky we are to have you guys as our jeps. Most kids only see their parents after work or when they're being grounded for something, but you guys actually communicate."
That was a big thing for kids to talk about these days—how a lot of words were being said by everybody, but no one was really hearing what was being said, so nothing got done. We even had a phrase for it, which described this failure between us and our elders perfectly: a 'generation gap.'
Riding with mor that morning, I began to see the fault for this problem wasn't only in the hands of the older generation, but with my own as well. Anti-War protests and riots showed us in a bad light, telling others that we couldn't discuss things without resorting to violence and extremist positions, so why should they make the effort we weren't willing to? Their generation had fought a war against tyranny and lawlessness, for democracy, and now with the Soviet threat of nuclear annihilation, saw any attack on the status quo as one more battle to be won.
My generation had grown up wanting for nothing, and didn't see that you had to work for things to make life better, so we were impatient. We saw all the little wars and injustices as things needing to be fixed now, and not at some future date; all we had to do was sit down and talk, and things would work out. Who wouldn't want Peace, or Equality, or Justice? Like the song said, it was the Age of Aquarius when 'peace would guide the planets and love would steer the stars'….
I had a sudden flash of insight when I had that thought: all those kids at Berkeley and Columbia and other campuses must not have been from farming families, because we all knew life meant work, and there was no 'free lunch' as our parents put it. You got out of life what you put into it, and if that was nothing, then you had no one to blame but yourself.
I remembered the times I had looked through our photo albums, wondering about pictures of two guys I had never met. All we'd heard were their names: Willem and Eskil, and the sad fact they'd died young. It was obvious they were the same age as our parents, but far had never told us about them, other than to say they'd died before we were born, but I'd put two and two together when I saw similar pictures framed in black ribbon at our grandparents' farm, along with two pennants, each bearing a gold star. That told me they had to have been relatives, but how close? Did the fact we only saw far's parents at our house have any significance?
With the frankness of our evolving relationship, I thought now might be the best time to finally ask about them. It took a little time for mor to make up her mind when I asked the question, but since she knew her husband couldn't talk about it, she must have decided it would fall to her to explain.
Her voice was hesitant at first as she kept most of her attention on the traffic. "Willem was Dirck's older brother—the first born—and he'd have been fifty this year if he'd lived…." I watched her swallow, then clear her throat before going on. "He was called up to fight in Europe, so he joined the Army Signal Corps—that is what we'd call 'Communications' today. Radio and codes and stuff. Willem was a nut for science, and had built his own crystal radio set when he was eleven, so it seemed a good fit for him, and he'd be safer than fighting in the front lines…."
"But it wasn't, was it…since he's gone," I managed to whisper through a tightening throat. "And Eskil—was he killed then too?"
The look she gave me then was one of the saddest I'd ever seen, but I think we both realized that despite the grief and hurt, the story had to be shared at last. I suggested stopping somewhere so we could do this face-to-face, but my mother shook her head and drove on. "It helps if I'm concentrating on something else, Lene…thirty years has dulled the pain some, but it will never go away. They were friends I knew all my life, but it's a thousand times worse for your father—he lost two brothers who were part of him.They still are," she said, her voice breaking. It took a few seconds before she was ready to speak again.
"Willem got through Normandy and even the end of the war, so he was looking forward to coming home once he had enough points…you got them for length of service, and the more senior men got the first transports home, while the rest had occupation duty. The Allies had been through enough, and been warned that no German could be a friend since the Nazis' grip on their society ran deep, but Germany was almost destroyed and people were starving, and refugee camps were filled to overflowing. Willem wrote about how hard it was to see little kids scrambling among the ruins in rags trying to find even the smallest thing they could eat, or trade for a scrap of food…."
There was a pause as we came closer to the exit to Hamilton Road and Eastland Mall to let some cars move to our right, but we continued on toward downtown. "In the last months of the war, propaganda broadcasts were saying Germany would be victorious in the end, and traitors would fall to special Werwolf units who would drive the Allies out. Nobody put much stock in those reports since we all knew the Wehrmacht had almost no resources left and were surrendering whenever they could.
"One of Willem's last letters said he had some news, and would surprise us when he got home—we never found out what that was because we got a telegram a week later saying he'd been killed in a 'mopping up' exercise during one of his patrols. Dirck's parents didn't learn the details until one of Willem's friends returned home and visited. One of those special units tried to kill a local official for working with the Americans, and Willem's Jeep got hit by a mortar as they chased down the killers."
I took mor's hand in mine and gave it a gentle kiss, tears filling my eyes.
"In another six months, he'd have been on his way home rather than being buried in one of the Allied cemeteries over there. His friend said the only way they could confirm it was him was his dog tags, along with the duty roster he'd signed to get the Jeep for the day."
"Did his friend have any idea what Willem's surprise was?" I asked, trying to absorb a past horror that was hitting me in the present.
"I'm not sure…I know he never told the parents, but he did say something to Dirck about 'boys being boys' despite the Army's 'non fraternization' orders. Some girls, and even some boys will do almost anything for some food or money when there's no civil authority left…but did that mean he and Willem had taken advantage of the situation? That didn't seem to fit with the young man we knew and sent off to fight, but who knows what changes combat will make in a soldier's behavior?"
I saw we were coming up on the exit for I-71 North, which would take us just east of Downtown, but we just passed it by, though we did move one more lane to the right. "I thought we'd take High Street north for a quicker route, and make finding a parking place easier. Lazarus has parking garages, but this early on a Saturday, we should find plenty of spaces on the streets nearby, and the weather's nice enough to enjoy a little walk. The meters might be free today too, since it's the weekend."
I could tell from the set of my mother's face just how much talking about Willem had cost her, and I was fine with putting the conversation on hold…I could learn of my Uncle Eskil's fate another time. With concern, I reached over and patted her hand, and received a smile in return. We turned our attention to scanning the curbs for parking spots, and I noticed a lot of small shops on the east side of the street as we drove. Some were selling antiques, others were little restaurants, and some seemed to be clothing stores judging by the window displays. "Maybe we can find something in one of these if Lazarus doesn't work out," I suggested, thankful the previous heaviness had lifted. I felt some guilt at asking about my uncles, but maybe it would turn out to be a good thing for mor to have talked about. She always counselled me that holding things in took its own toll.
"We'll see, but don't reject everything you see this morning just because it's from Lazarus. Some of their stock is pricey, but they have a reputation for selling quality goods that will hold their value—even on their discount floor. Some of those other shops look like they're on a par with Goodwill or the Salvation Army, and I doubt you'd find anything suitable for a school dance, fancy or not."
As we neared the imposing structure that was our destination, we could see the State Capitol on our right, just a short distance ahead. It was set in a grassy square with a statue of Christopher Columbus in front of the main entry's steps. I'd been there once on a school trip and had to say I was disappointed. The interiors were showing their century of wear, and later modifications for new office space had taken away or covered up many of the original features. The main lobby and two legislative chambers gave some hint of what the 1850s grandeur must have been like, but it was mostly hidden now. I hoped some day a group would restore it, but the way state budgets went, it didn't seem likely any time soon.
"Here we are," I heard as we came to the main brass and glass doors. I'd been too wrapped up in my own thoughts to pay attention to the street-level display windows, but I knew at Christmas they'd be a showcase for many children's dreams. The temperature dropped when we entered, due to the very high ceilings and marble flooring as much as the air-conditioning. Very soft music could be heard as we moved from department to department, and floor to floor, occasionally broken by a soft chime and an almost-hushed announcement for the staff.
I was impressed that there was very little attempt made to draw customers to any particular sales area or line of goods. I had to admit a hundred and thirty years of experience led to a very classy atmosphere you would never find in the malls we usually frequented.
The staff, both male and female, were dressed in suits, with the women's being a bit trendier with fuller blouses and looser jackets. No one gave anything but a courteous smile and friendly greeting when we approached them, and answered any questions we had, displaying a full knowledge of their department's wares. Although we had more interaction with the women's departments, I couldn't help but notice the men on the sales floor were also immaculately turned out and well-spoken. Young associates or older clerks, many seemed to have a certain manner that made me smile. If Jay hadn't already found Mikey....
I steered mor away from the upscale Women's Fashion Boutique with some difficulty, knowing I'd hate everything there. They had a few areas devoted to various girls' age ranges, so I dragged her to the Teen section. Summer fashions were appearing already, and I hoped that would make this less formal, and I was right…but even I could see that a lot of these clothes weren't right for a dance. Still, I preferred the lighter fabrics and colors over what we'd seen elsewhere. 'You said they have a discount floor," I prodded.
Near the center of the sales floor were pairs of brushed steel escalators, one going up to the next floor and the other down to the one below. Not far off were another set for shoppers going in the opposite direction. Inlaid tiles gave the floor's name as you got on or off each flight. From somewhere close, I caught a whiff of something good, and realized this floor must contain one of the stores eating establishments. Maybe we'd try one if the trip took us closer to lunch time?
Of course we couldn't just go from one escalator to another to reach the top floor…they were spaced far enough apart that a little 'window shopping' couldn't be avoided. We passed through Men's Fashions, and Accessories, then a floor of home items like china, glassware, silver, and other decorative necessities—even a musical department with a small harpsichord! I knew what it was since it was smaller than a grand piano and stood on three legs, and the keys were reversed: black for the main ones, and white for the smaller sharps and flats. I didn't know the maker, but the inner works were on display as the lid was raised to reveal an intricate system of strings and small picks for plucking them. Holy crap, who plays one of these in the Twentieth Century…and with a two grand price tag?
I wasn't really fond of shopping at the best of times, but I had to admit that Lazarus' variety and pure understated glamour began to draw me in despite myself. When we finally made it to the sixth floor it was almost a relief. In general, the selections were smaller in each department, but the overall tone was also a bit less 'refined.'
The displays were less artfully crafted, but about the only difference I could see in the merchandise was that it had lower prices than the items on the other floors. Looking through some of the women's clothing, I thought they might be from last year's offerings, rather than the newest trends. That didn't bother me at all since I really paid no notice to that sort of thing, unlike the other girls at school. If something looked good on me, then that was all that mattered.
Two hours later I was more than ready to leave. Only one outfit came even remotely close to what I thought would be nice, and I wasn't thrilled with the honey-gold color, but mor said it went well with my hair and eyes I balked at the $25 price, but agreed to take it out of desperation to get out of the store. "We can alter the length a bit too," I was assured. My stomach grumbled as we were carried down to the main floor, but I'd rather starve than spend any more time in this place now.
Mor looked at her watch, then quirked an eyebrow at me. "Want to eat and make it a treat, or wait until we get home? The Southern Hotel down on Main and High has a very nice restaurant, and so does the Neil House…."
I was hungry after our quick breakfast, but the idea of some fancy dining room didn't appeal to me at all. I knew Bobby's parents went to places like those sometimes, but they'd given up taking him along once he got old enough to stay home by himself. I almost laughed imagining him turning up his nose at weird dishes with sauces, and letting his parents know he'd starve if that was all there was to eat…he was a growing boy and needed a lot to keep him from shriveling up and blowing away in the wind.
He must have done alright because he was likely to be voted 'Most Valuable Player' on our school's basketball team this year. He'd turned down being captain in favor of one of his best friends, who he thought was a better strategist, but it was a toss-up because the two of them worked together...so well that you could scarcely tell them apart on the court. OSU and other Big Ten scouts looked them over, but Bobby had already decided on staying local to be closer to home…and me, he'd said one night as we were driving home from seeing some country music groups at Frontier Ranch.
I got a warm feeling in my stomach thinking of those words, and despite all my logic, I was fairly certain that I'd end up marrying Robert Thomas once we got out of college. That made me think of my bror's night with Mikey by the pond, and I wanted to see how that turned out as soon as possible.
"Nej…I want to see how the guys got along last night, so I can hang in there until we get home. Wonder if they'll have a certain 'glow' about them," I mused with a not-too-subtle grin that didn't go unnoticed by my mother.
Neither of us was expecting a mob, or a comedic horse when we got to the farm.
"Hey—don't get too close or you'll burn your wiener in the fire!" Of course it was Finn's exclamation or a similar variation when one of us got our snack near enough to the camp-fire to actually cook them. It was funny when his comment had been 'Everybody got their wieners?' after Jay handed them out along with sticks to skewer them on…but now it was just getting old—and annoying. The tension escalated when Benny jumped up and stalked toward his brother with a menacing growl.
'That's it—you need to cool off, so it's the pond for you…" Some of us had tried swimming earlier in the evening, but the water had been too cold when the sun went down, so we weren't sure if the wrestler would actually toss his brother in for real. Finn had begun to get up in case he had to run, and his jerky movement sent his hot dog falling into the yellow flames. Benny began laughing, and the tension evaporated as quickly as it had risen. "Now who's got the smoked sausage," he chortled.
"Both y'all," shouted Greg, pointing at the big guy's own stick that had been lowered and was now smoldering nicely and about to turn into a meat torch. His first instinct was to shake it to put out the flames, but that sent the crispy dog into a flying arc right into the pond.
"Shit…now see what you made me do? I was really looking forward to eating that."
The look on the poor guy's face was about the worst any of us had ever seen, even though we'd had a great ham dinner with Dirck and Rosalie only a few hours before. Jay and Cal spoke up at the same time, which made us all break up again.
"I've got more…" "I'll let you eat mine." Finn might have said something about Cal's remark, but he was lucky Lee punched him in the arm and distracted him from his undoubtedly obscene rejoinder. A little flare drew our attention to the spot where Finn's forgotten treat was turning into charcoal.
"That's pretty hot stuff, little brother…." Ben ruffled the other boy's black hair, then used his stick to get Finn's dog out of the flame. He threw it into the pond to join his own. A minute later, both were happily heating up the replacements Jay handed them.
"I don't think we can trust them with marshmallows," I said softly in Jay's ear. I had toasted them in my fireplace at home, and over the grill in my backyard, so I knew they could burn like molten lava if you weren't careful. I could imagine more than one burnt lip or tongue if the Ross brothers began arguing again. "How long does it take for the ambulance to get out here from town?"
"Guys, can I just say I'm having a blast out here even with the Three Stooges routine?" Like in my backyard gathering, Denny had once again hit the point of our evening on the head with his few well-chosen words. It was easy to forget how different his family life had been from the rest of us because he'd fit into our group so well in just a few weeks.
"Three Stooges," Finn retorted sassily. "There's only two of us, so that makes it pure Abbot and Costello…or maybe Smothers Brothers…."
"I put it on par with Rowan and Martin…on one of their bad days," I said with a grin. All of us knew how much Jay and I liked the comedy show with its fast paced jokes and sight gags, so choruses of 'Sockit to em' and 'Bet your sweet bippy' came at the two brothers from all sides.
"At least we aren't comparing you to those guys on Hee-Haw." Jay's comment brought a wounded expression to Finn's face.
That got groans as well as derisive hoots at the program's mix of country songs and stupid hillbilly jokes. Greg bristled at the way the show portrayed people from his part of the country, and I had to agree because I had relatives on my mom's side who lived in the hills of eastern Kentucky. They had odd habits some times, but nearly all of them were nice if you met them as equals, without acting superior like some city folk did. You could find good people everywhere, and bastards too, but I thought most of the time good ones outnumbered the rest.
It took us about half an hour of joking and jabbering to finish off all the hot dogs, and we decided to wait a bit before toasting the marshmallows. As much as I liked sweets, my stomach clenched at the thought of mixing anything with the two dogs I'd already eaten, and I'd watched as the two wrestlers ate three each. It came as a surprise to all of us when Finn agreed with the idea to wait a bit. Was he slowing down at last after his looney behavior most of the afternoon?
Sparks flew up from the fire as an occasional stick was added, and the crackling combined with the sound of crickets to mellow us out. We were sitting as couples in a rough circle absorbing the heat on our fronts, while our backs felt a contrasting chill as it got later and the fire burned lower.
"If this was a Scout troop, we'd be telling ghost stories…" Calvin remarked.
More than one set of ears pricked up at the idea until Greg pointed out that this wasn't the deep woods like most Scout jamborees were held in, and Spring didn't seem the right season for them either, unlike Halloween later in the year. "What else do Scouts do," Lee asked.
"Sing stupid songs…," Cal began before Benny swore under his breath and cut him off.
"I told you guys at Mikey's place I ain't friggin' singin' Kumbayah!"
"Okay, no songs, no ghost stories…what else happens at those Scout meetings?" Greg's brother repeated. "Doesn't sound like there's much of a reason to join, to me…."
I didn't know what happened at these things since I'd never been part of a troop or pack or den, or whatever they called themselves, but surely any group of young guys had to have some illicit activities when their leaders weren't watching over their shoulders. After some of the comments earlier in the day, I found it hard to believe that the guys might be trying to protect Finn and Lee's tender consciences. Hadn't Greg and Benny both said their younger brothers were in some sort of jack-off club? I wasn't going to mention it in case I got things wrong, but I was pretty sure I hadn't.
I remembered what my neighbor and I had done in a car out in one of his fields when we were twelve: "Did they ever smoke?"
Greg chuckled. "Heck yeah…like chimneys…and drank 'til they couldn't see straight." He snapped his fingers. "Oh—and they had pissing contests and did circle-jerks once the Scout Masters went to bed."
We were all surprised when Finn didn't jump all over that last comment—it just seemed out of place with his behavior earlier that day. The fire gave off just enough light for us to see Lee had leaned his head against the taller boy's shoulder, and Finn's right hand was running absently through his reddish-blond hair. The look of peace and contentment on the black-haired younger Ross was something that caused all of us to smile, and share knowing glances amongst ourselves.
Our conversation trailed off into the night's silence, and four couples thought of their own lovers and how rare these moments would be for all of us as we neared our summer break. Some of us would have jobs, others chores, or family vacations, so who could say when our next opportunity for a private rendezvous might occur?
As we sat enjoying the feeling of serenity and peace, the moon cleared the trees at the eastern edge of the pond, bathing us in pearly light. In another day or two it would be three-quarters full, so we wouldn't be in total darkness until a few hours before sunrise. Our surroundings were shades of gray and silver, but the fire added an orange tinge to our faces and those parts of us it could pick out. I felt Jay nuzzle my ear and I held back a completely juvenile giggle as best I could. The other guys shook their heads but made no comment as they were all enjoying some romantic moves of their own.
"So why did you ask about smoking, Mikey," Denny asked softly out of the silence.
I thought about Finn and Lee, and us serving as good examples for them, so I wondered if now was the right moment to reveal one of my secrets. In the end, conscience led to truth. "I tried it with a friend when I was twelve…a friend of mine got some cigarettes from his mom's purse, and we did it in a field behind their barn…."
"And?" Finn prompted with some eagerness. I think I saw shock on the others' faces, and soft exclamations confirmed it for me. Had I really done something so out of character?
I shook my head and laughed just a little. "Cool it, guys...I coughed so much I never got used to it, and quit two weeks later. I think my friends kept at it though. I just wondered if the rest of you tried it or not—I know Jay hasn't."
What came next was a surprise to all of us. "Just cigarettes…not pot?" Finn's head wasn't the only one to whip around at his boyfriend's words—we could hear a little crack of tendons from Greg's neck as his gaze jerked around to glare at his little brother.
"When the hell did you do weed?" he demanded.
"Down at Aunt Ida's during Thanksgiving break…and don't tell me you didn't do it with Cousin Nate same as I did with his brother Jubal…." Lee's voice held more than a hint of defiance, daring his older brother to deny it. "It's safer than drinking that moonshine their neighbors cook up back in the holler."
In the dim light I couldn't catch all the niceties of expression like the others, but from the ensuing babble I got the impression that there was less shock than plain old surprise at the boy's candor. Jay poked me in the side and mouthed "Do we tell 'em?" I knew he was referring to the joint Dave and Trebor had given us when we stayed at their dorm, now safely tucked away in his sock drawer.
I wasn't sure, because we'd promised Dirck to think about it for a while before we'd smoke it—and not do it unless we were settled in for the night, same as he'd made us promise about any drinking we might do. I think I was more open to it since I'd smoked cigarettes a few times, and it seemed pretty harmless as we watched the college freshmen share some after we'd watched Rocky Horror with them up at Graceland Mall. "Yeah…if we're gonna smoke it, now would be perfect. None of us are going anywhere tonight, and it's only one joint. How much could it do to us with eight of us here? You do want to, don't ya?"
With my kæreste practically sitting in my lap, I had no trouble seeing he still had doubts, and that made my mind up for me. I cupped his cheek in my hand and gave him a kiss, then shook my head. "Negatory, good buddy. We're both ready, or neither of us is. I'm curious, but not enough to upset you."
"You're a screwball—what's with the cb radio slang? You never did that before."
I hoped Jay couldn't see me blush, and prayed it was the heat from the fire that made my cheeks hot instead of sounding like an idiot. "My Dad has one in his car to use when he goes on long trips, and we listened to the truckers last time we went up to Marion to see my aunt. They tell each other where police have speed traps set up, and where the cheapest gas prices are…and good places to eat."
"Is talking to truckers another one of your little 'secrets'? Should I get one to put in my truck? I will, if it's a turn on for you…" Jay lowered his hand to check out my jeans front, but I slapped his hand away.
"You already have that cool radio—and you're too foxy as it is." He grinned when I said that, and leaned in to nibble on my earlobe. "Quit! We have to set a good example for Lee and Finn."
That little moral might have meant more if the subjects were paying attention to the rest of us, but they were now pawing through the grocery bag of snacks we'd brought down from the house. Along with some potato chips and cans of soda, there was the promised bag of puffy, large-sized marshmallows just waiting their turn to be incinerated over our fire before we went to sleep. "I don't see any chocolate bars or graham crackers," Lee whined sorrowfully.
"What's a camp out without s'mores?" Benny lamented.
Greg laughed and stared pointedly at the fire, then over to the nearby pond. "Going by the Hot Dog Incident we just saw…I'd say it's a heck of a lot safer. I can see molten sugar and second-degree lip burns in your near future."
We laughed at his disgruntled expression before he turned to look at Cal and saw what we'd really been amused by—the blond had blown on his nails and was buffing them on his tee-shirt. "Yep, can't risk those lips of yours, Benj. You'd have to cut out all those nice desserts over at my Gran's house—I think I heard something about you getting cookies tomorrow." The way the big guy blushed, I think more than one of us thought more than chocolate chips might be gobbled up once they were back home.
"This is starting to suck: no ghost stories, no songs…no s'mores—and I'm not in the mood for a pissing contest," Finn grumbled. "I love hanging out with you guys, but my friends from school know how to have fun. At least they'd have some beer for us if we stayed overnight."
Even though we lived in a dry town, almost everybody knew of an older brother or sister who could buy them beer for a party. Benny could pass for eighteen with his size, so the little markets in the area would usually sell him a few six packs. If it was a big party planned when parents were out of town, then older juniors and seniors would bring enough to share…but we were out of luck on that front tonight, or so I thought until Jay pointed to his gym bag by the entrance to the tent. He'd tossed some towels in it in case we went swimming, but I now remembered it also held the bottle of aeble snaps we had left over from our celebration last night.
I'd had some of the apple-flavored brandy more than once, at the Beckel's table, and we'd drunk nearly half the bottle last night, so I thought it would be okay for the rest of our group to share what was left. My grandfather made me drink his beer when I was little, and the throwing up it caused put me off drinking until Dirck had served us a little toast to welcome me into their family. What Dirck made was stronger than the beer, but the fruity aroma and taste almost made me forget it was alcoholic, until I'd felt the little burn it made on the way down.
"Sorry, no beer," Jay said, "but I've got some stuff my Far makes from our apples." I held up the unlabeled glass bottle to show them as my boyfriend went on. "It's pretty good, sweet and tart at the same time—and it goes great with chocolate cake!"
Benny wasn't about to let that comment go unchallenged, so he grabbed the bottle and took a big swallow…then his eyes squeezed shut and his face wrinkled up into evident shock before he coughed. "Damn, warn a guy next time," he croaked.
"Before y'all get sloshed, I think we should toast some marshmallows," Greg offered. I saw him give Denny a quick glance as we all watched Benj's performance, and wondered if the runner would be okay. I saw the two of them lean close together and whisper as they held hands, then saw the sandy-haired boy nod.
"Me and Yank'll just have a sip, and make sure ya don't wind up toasting your own puffy bits in the fire."
It didn't take long for all of us to have our sticks loaded with treats, and the fire was now low enough that they'd only flare up if you got them right in the flames. Toasting them was a fine art—light brown was good, a bit darker at the edges was the best sign that they were almost done…but even if bits were a bit black and crinkly, you were still okay as long as you waited for it to cool off a bit before eating them. The first round went pretty good, then somebody wondered what it would be like to put a little of the brandy on them…the nervous laughter when the white puff flared into blue flame made us glad the sticks were as long as they were. None of us needed burned off eyebrows or singed hair.
As the bottle emptied, of course things happened; our chatter got sillier, and Finn and Lee began using their sticks like swords…and more than one marshmallow became a blackened lava bomb. Exaggerated blowing to cool those off caused more laughter, and it wasn't long before somebody burned their lips because they got into a rush to gobble up more sugar.
Jay and I took smaller sips than the rest as we'd enjoyed our friends' antics more than getting wasted—for my part I was still worried about looking like an idiot in front of my blond Dane, and he was still intent on watching over me. There was also the fact that neither of us was the type to really lose control of ourselves. Me more so than Jay because I'd kept to myself for so long, and even now wasn't ready to tell my parents I liked boys rather than girls.
There wasn't much about it on television except an old documentary or two, and those never made it look like a good way to live…and then there were all those religious people like Anita Bryant who went out of their way to paint us all as evil-doers just waiting to corrupt everybody's children. I'd seen an Afterschool Special on ABC once, and that wasn't good either. Sure you'd see a character in a sitcom or movie that was supposed to be 'gay', as the new term was called, but I couldn't see myself wanting to be all girly like them either. Why weren't there kids like Jay or Benj on shows like that instead?
As it got later and later, I found myself leaning against Jay's shoulder more than I had before, and it wasn't from the apple brandy. I wanted to have him tell me we were okay—that I was okay just as I was. We could be ourselves in private, like now with our friends, but not at school or anywhere else…and that just didn't seem right to me. We'd have to wait until college to start being ourselves in public…but would we even then? College was still more than a year away, but I couldn't see the world changing just for us in such a short time.
Then I thought of Dave and Trebor, our OSU friends from San Francisco. They were more open than us since they were a bit older, but even they said Columbus was a place where you still had to be careful, though the university was a bit better. Nothing like they'd experienced on the beaches back in California, where nobody cared what you did, or with whom, so long as you were friendly. Was it just because of where we lived? I'd never lived anywhere bigger that I could remember, and the thought scared me more than a little. But, I'd have Jay with me, and that would make it okay.
Out of nowhere I felt a thumb wipe my cheek, and I was surprised to find I was crying. Jay held me in his arms and whispered something I didn't catch, and then I felt his head turn toward the others, who were also winding down from their sugar-induced highs. "Me and Mikey are gonna turn in, guys… it must be past midnight, and us farm boys have to get up early…."
Benny and Cal said they'd bank the fire before turning in, and see that everything was secure. The snacks and soda cans, along with the trash, went back into the cooler, and the lid was fastened tight to keep animals from getting inside. The sound of giggles could be heard as some of Jay's watering spots got used, and there was a lot more giggling as guys settled into their sleeping bags. I couldn't help wonder what clothes might come off or stay on. By the time they'd settled down, I was lulled into dreamland with the comfort of Jay's arms around me, and my head lying on his shoulder….
Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]
* Some browsers may require a right click instead