Our parents, I knew, could sense the change between my brother and me. Every so often, I caught my mother frowning at me or at Tom, knowing that something had happened between us … but she was not so foolish as to comment on it lest it slip away as easily as it had seemed to arrive.
After that day, whatever bond I thought I shared with my brother simply … evaporated. We treated each other like strangers sharing a roof, thrown together by happenstance, not by relation. We were always pleasant with each other, but nothing more than that. Passengers on a bus, strangers in a hotel.
It helped that Tom was gone for most of the time. I knew, of course, where he had to be: with Paul, desperate in these few remaining weeks to be with each other as much as possible, to wring as much as possible out of whatever it was between them. My parents, I assumed, also knew where he was, but did not understand the reason behind it. Tom had told them only that the Warnocks were about to move away and that the two boys wanted to spend as much time together as possible. As friends. That I was not part of this sad triumvirate might have crossed my parents' minds, but escaped discussion, boats remaining unrocked.
I kept my end of the bargain, never breathing a word of what I knew about Paul and Tom. Despite what had happened - and despite what I had told my brother - I doubted that my parents would really believe me, so outlandish would my claim have been, so full of jealousy it would have seemed.
My ankle healed slowly; I felt better off of it than on it, but I could still manage a school day. Paul and I studiously avoided each other. I wasn't sure what Tom might have told Paul. If anything.
A few days into winter break - a day or so before Christmas - I was home. St. Louis was on the verge of a snowstorm; I could look out of my bedroom window and see the front of the storm, the gathering gray clouds churning in from the west. I heard the doorbell ring, heard my mother's voice greeting someone, then the sounds of that someone coming up the stairs. Then, there was the soft, tentative rap on my door.
"It's me." A not-quite-unfamiliar voice, but one that I had not heard in some time.
The door opened. "Can I come in?"
I sat up in bed; I had been napping. "Sure."
He slipped into the room.
"Tom's not here, just so you know," I said.
We looked at each other steadily. "So, he told you," he murmured.
I nodded. "A few weeks ago. When he …" I gestured at my ankle.
Tom followed my hand, sighed. "I'm sorry for that."
"You didn't do it."
"I know, but …" He stood with his back to the door. "I came to see you ."
"Well, here I am."
"You know that we're leaving."
"Yeah. He told me."
"Atlanta! Can you believe it? I don't even know -"
"Why couldn't you tell me?"
"I don't know. I just … couldn't."
"Paul, we've known each other since we were six years old. You could have told me anything ."
He understood that I wasn't just talking about him leaving. "Not … that . Not when it involved Tom."
"I would have tried to understand. Instead, you just cut me off completely. I had no idea if it was something I said, or …"
"I didn't know how else to handle it! You can't imagine what it's like, to feel that way and do those things, and …"
"What is it like?"
"What is what like?"
"Feeling that way. Doing those things."
He looked away, trying to find the words. "I don't know. It's … it's …" He pulled his chin up. "I'm not ashamed of it."
"I didn't say you had to be, Paul."
"But I can see it, Tim. I can see it in your eyes. You're glad it's not you ."
I shrugged. "I can't help how I am, Paul. I can't help how I feel."
"Neither can I. I hope you can see that, Tim."
"I would have tried, Paul."
Silence settled between us. "I'm sorry," he repeated.
"You said that."
"No, I mean … well, for all of it."
He sighed. "So, that's it, then? Ten years of friendship down the drain? Just because -"
"Just because you lied to me? Couldn't bring yourself to say the one thing that would make all of this make any sense at all? I told you everything , Paul! Everything! I told you what he was like, what living with him was like, and you knew why, you knew the secret. And you said nothing!"
"Would it have helped?"
"Yes! It would have been something . He's been angry ever since I could remember, and now I know why."
"It's not easy, being this way. You know what people are like; you know what they would say. Jesus, Tim! What would my parents have said, or done? Or yours? "
I had no answer to that. Paul reached into the pocket of his jeans, pulled out a folded sheet of paper, tossed it on the bed. "Anyway, there's … that's our address in Atlanta. If you ever want to talk again, you can write me a letter."
I said nothing, did nothing. I just sat there on the bed, arms crossed. We looked at each other in silence, in a kind of stand-off.
"Fine. I guess I'll go, then," he muttered. He turned towards the door, then turned back. On his face sat a strange expression, one that I had seen before. On Tom.
"You want to know what it's like, Tim? When your brother and I are together? You want to know what it is that we do with each other?" I stayed silent … although I was curious, as I had been since the day Tom had unburdened himself to me. He went on. "It's the best thing in the world. It really is. It's better than with a girl. Guys … well, they just know what other guys want. What they like. Girls, you always have to guess, you always have to play by their rules. And, even then, there's no guarantee that you'll get what you want." He smirked. "You should try it some time. I think you might like it."
Paul, to my knowledge, had never been with a girl. He did have two older brothers and an older sister; I assumed that his knowledge of women must have come from whatever Steven and Richard had let slip, as well as Linda's viewpoint from the other side of things. He watched my face as he went on.
"Guys, though … it's simple. He says 'suck my dick,' and I do it. He says -"
"Stop it," I said.
But Paul shook his head. "No. He says 'let me screw you' and -"
"Paul, stop it!"
"- and I just lie back, and open my legs, and let him inside me. It's so easy. And it feels good, it really does. To have him in my mouth. To have him up inside me."
I understood that he was trying to shock me, to get some kind of reaction out of me. I kept my face neutral, not willing to give him any kind of reaction, but it was still a shock to hear those words coming out of his mouth. Paul had always seemed a kind of innocent, in his blond-haired, blue-eyed perfection. Now, though …
He stood there, his back to the door, staring at me, a kind of concupiscent smile playing on his lips. He was beautiful; I could easily understand Tom's attraction to him.
Part of me, I understood, was jealous of my brother, of Paul, that they were able to indulge themselves in something that still remained a mystery to me. Part of me, as well - a part I kept firmly tamped down - understood that, if I wished, I could have this, too. One simple word, one simple gesture, and I could have Paul, could possess him, could do to him the things that Tom did to him.
Paul, I think, knew that, as well.
"Why are you doing this, Paul? Why do you think you have to tell me these things? I don't care."
"But you do, Tim, you do. I know you do. I can see it." He shook his head. "It seems to be part of what I am. I can tell. I can always tell when somebody else feels the same way I do. You can pretend all you want, Tim Keenan, but I see it."
"No," I whispered. "It's not true." Knowing that it was.
"Isn't it?" he answered. "I can see you right now, thinking about, seeing it in your head, trying to imagine how it is with us, with me and Tom. You can't stand it, I think, that it's him and not you."
I cleared my throat. "You know what, Paul?"
He licked his lips. "What?"
"You know what you sound like, right now?" He said nothing, waited … but I could see the nervousness at work in him. He, as well as I, knew that this could go either way. "You sound like a slut, Paul. You sound like a whore."
He closed his eyes, turned his head to face the floor. He stood there for a long moment; a gust of wind rattled the window.
Then he left.
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