Tom, of course, was suspended. When he got home that day, he was grounded, as well. Later, at home, after supper, when we went to our individual rooms, he came into mine, closed the door quietly behind him. I leaned back in my chair - I was working on a book report due in two days - and looked at him.
"So …" he started.
He cleared his throat. "So you think you know something about me."
"With Paul, you mean."
I shrugged. "I don't know anything, Tom." True enough; I had seen only bits and pieces which could have meant anything.
"I didn't say you did. I said you thought you knew something."
"Does it matter either way?"
He thought about that for a long moment, working at the corner of his mouth with his teeth. "I don't know. Maybe not. What I really want to know is -"
He left the thought unfinished, but I knew enough to finish it for him. "You want to know what I'm going to do about it." He said nothing, which told me that my guess was right. I went on. "I don't really care one way or the other, Tom. If that's what you want to be, then go ahead. I can't do anything about it, anyway, right? You can -"
"I don't want to be it," he murmured, bringing me up short.
"I don't want to be that way," he repeated, louder. "It's just that …"
"I can't … help it."
Which maybe I understood. Things were happening to me, as well. Certain feelings towards girls, feelings that wracked my brain and my body at the most ridiculous of times. "Do you … well, do you want to talk about it?" I watched his face as it reflected the struggle inside him. "I don't mind, Tom." Not sure, of course, what I might hear from him, how far he would take it. If he even wanted to. I waited.
"Maybe …" he whispered. He went over to my bed, sat down on it, facing away from me … something else I thought I understood. It hinted at the kind of false anonymity of the confessional: you could only hear the priest's voice, as he could only hear yours … but Tom was right: you knew he recognized your voice even as you recognized his. As long as neither of you could see each other, it didn't matter.
When he started speaking again, his voice was so low I had to strain to hear it. As quietly as possible, I got up, turned my chair around to face him, sat back down.
"I don't know when it started. This feeling, this … thing. Maybe it was always there and it didn't matter until I was old enough to do something about it. I didn't believe it, not at first. I mean, you're not supposed to feel things like that, right? Everybody I knew believed that it was wrong and that it wasn't something that I would want to be."
I heard a sniffle, then, and knew that he was crying. He went on. "I thought I could fight it, maybe. Like a … like a disease, maybe."
"That you liked … boys. Instead of girls."
He said nothing for a long moment; the loudest sound in the room was that of our breathing. "Yeah," he said, finally.
"When did you first know?"
He blew out a breath. "Oh, I don't know. Maybe when I was eleven or twelve."
"Really?" What had I been thinking, at that age? Not all that long ago, really … but my head was probably filled with anything but thoughts of girls. Maybe, I reasoned, if I wasn't feeling what Tom was feeling, it wouldn't necessarily take up any space in my head.
"Well, I mean … not for sure, but … it was there, in the back of my head."
"Summer camp …" I murmured, thinking back. Heaven for my parents, rid of the both of us for two weeks. Two weeks of hell, for me. What had it been like for Tom? He seemed to enjoy the independence of it all. What else might he have experienced?
He nodded. "Yeah. And … well, sports. It was just … there," he repeated. "Guys, and … yeah."
"But nothing until Paul."
"No." He tapped the side of his head. "Just what was going on here, all the time. In my dreams, a lot." He looked at me. "I'm sorry, by the way."
"For stealing him away from you. Paul." I shrugged, not knowing what to say. He went on. "Do you remember that day … oh, it must have been back in July. It was hot. You and Paul had walked over to the park to go swimming."
I didn't really remember that day, but if Tom said it had happened, then it had happened. "Yeah, I guess," I offered.
He looked at me, looked away. "Anyway, Dad had to pick the two of you up when you were done, and he decided to take everybody out for a treat. He told me to go make sure the two of you were ready, and when I got to the main gate, I could see Paul standing there, just wearing his swim suit, and something just … clicked. That's when it happened."
"Did he know it?" That secret, something Paul had kept from me, even though we told each other everything.
Tom shrugged. "I … maybe. I think so. I remember the two of us just staring at each other. I worried that everybody could see it on my face, what I was thinking."
I did remember that day, now. We had all gone over to The Hill for some pizza after we had gone to the pool. I remembered now that Paul and Tom had sat next to each other, constantly bumping up against each other, jostling each other's elbows, laughing at each other's jokes, things like that. I remembered wondering what was going on; I could tell that something had happened, but had no idea exactly what. Not until now.
"If it means anything, I had no clue what was going on," I said. "I just remember that from that point on, Paul seemed to … well, drift away from me, and I couldn't figure out why."
"Well, that was it. That was the start of it. I felt … I don't know. Different. Strange. Excited and nervous at the same time."
"So, now …" I started. "You and Paul. Are you …?"
He looked at me. "If I understand what you're trying to say, then … yes, we are."
This, more than anything, shot some kind of weird feeling through me. Even at my age, I had only the vaguest notion of what happened between boys and girls. I intuited enough of it to understand it on a theoretical level, but I still hadn't ginned up enough courage to actually ask a girl out, and I certainly had had no experience in the rest of it. Nor, I think, did most of the people I went to school with. There were always rumors, of course, but I think most of us understood that they were just that. Our teachers and the priests who ran the school did all they could to make us understand that good Catholic boys and girls never thought about doing stuff like that until they were married, and that good Catholic boys never, ever thought about doing stuff like that with each other.
And, now, to hear that Paul and my brother - my handsome, athletic, all-American, boy-next-door brother - were doing things with each other that I had never guessed possible, would never guess possible, not in a thousand years …
"Does it bother you?" he asked.
Did it? Would I have felt the same if he had said, instead, that he was involved with Jane Callahan or Elizabeth Schulte or Emily Prescott? Would we have traded a knowing wink, a leer, a slap on the back? I tried to imagine it, them, together, naked, entwined in each other, in Paul's room, on his bed.
"I … don't know. Maybe. But …" My face felt hot.
"Well, that's what it is, Tim. That's my big secret."
I had so many questions, wanted to ask the where? and the how? and the why? of it … but only one question came to mind, the only one that made sense to ask. Understanding the rest of it would come later, I knew, as my awareness grew. But this one thing …
"Can I ask you something, Tom?"
"Sure. I guess."
"Why now? Why are you telling me this now?"
Instead of answering, he stood up, went over to the window that looked out into the back yard. He stood so close to the glass that I could see his breath fogging the ice-cold glass. "Because it's over," he answered, finally.
"Me and Paul. That's what's over. He's … he's leaving."
"Leaving? What does that mean?"
He turned. Even now, there was a hint of cruelty in his lopsided smile. "They're moving. Paul and his family. They're leaving St. Louis." The grin widened. " You didn't know."
Paul, in all this time, had said nothing to me, even though he must have known. "When? Where are they going?"
"Uh … Atlanta, I think. His dad got a job with some other airline. Delta, maybe? Anyway … they're, uh … well, after Christmas, I think. He's going to start school down there in January, which sucks."
This, more than anything - even more than the knowledge that Paul and my brother were involved with each other - seemed like the worst betrayal; I was on the verge of tears and dabbed at my eyes, hoping that Tom would not take notice.
"What … what are you going to do?"
He barked out a laugh that bordered on a sob. "Nothing. I can't do anything . I … well, I just go back to being me, and you go back to being you. Same as it ever was."
A twinge of … something - sadness? pity? - went through me, that my brother had found love - such as it was - and had had it snatched away. "I'm sorry," I whispered.
In answer, he shrugged. He turned away from the window, moved towards the door, stopped, looked at me. "By the way," he started. "If you ever breathe a word of this to anybody , I will beat the shit out of you."
To that, I said nothing. He looked at me through lidded eyes, turned away. Before he could open the door, I spoke. "Tom?"
"I do want one thing from you."
He sighed, leaned his head against the door with a slight thump! of sound. "What?" he asked, his voice leaden.
"It's not much."
"What is it, Tim?" Get on with it, already.
"I just … well, I want to stop fighting. I'm tired of it. I don't know if it's you trying to take out all of this … anger, or frustration, or whatever it is on me, but I want you to stop it, right now. I'm tired of being your scapegoat. If you get angry and need to take it out on something, then … then … I don't know, go punch a hole in the wall or go jerk off or … or … or go … go … fuck some boy somewhere, if you need to. Just don't go after me. If you do, I'm going to tell Mom and Dad what you just told me." I reached over, grabbed my crutch, tapped it on the floor; at the noise, Tom turned. "Something tells me that in light of today's events, Mom and Dad might just believe me more than they believe you right now. Do you understand?"
A long few seconds ticked by. I could hear the near-silent sound of Tom's steady breathing, could hear the sound of my heart beating nervously in my chest. This was the first time I'd stood up to my brother, really stood up to him.
"Tom?" I prompted.
"Okay, Tim. Sure." His voice was flat, mechanical. I failed to understand why until much, much later.
"Do you promise?"
"I … promise."
"I'm serious, Tom. I'm sorry that you're queer and I hope you find what you want. I really do. Nobody deserves to be unhappy. But if you lay a finger on me, so help me God …"
"I made a promise, Tim. I won't hurt you."
With that, he slipped out of the room. A few seconds later, I heard the sound of the door to his own room, closing behind him.
This 14 chapter story was created for the Inspired by a Picture: The Only Way is Up! Writing Challenge. The picture that inspired the story is:
Gymnastics at Ila school By Leif Ørnelund / Oslo Museum, License: Attrbution-ShareAlike CC BY-SA 4.0
Please read all 14 chapters before answering the survey at the end of the 14th chapter
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