As soon as I got home I told my parents how much I'd enjoyed seeing Kenny and that it had been great to be with him again. Dad just smiled and Mum seemed mildly surprised that the visit had gone so well. Neither of them objected when I said I wanted to see him again soon, though Mum mentioned that it was rather a long way to go for a day trip and that I couldn't really do it very often. Her comment provided the perfect opening for me to ask them if Kenny could come and spend a weekend with me.
"I'm not sure about that," Mum said, frowning. "We'd have to make lots of preparations."
"What preparations?" I asked.
"Well," she said hesitantly, "like padding sharp edges on furniture in case he has a seizure."
From the way she said that as if she were making it up as she went along, I got the impression that it wasn't the real reason for her apparent reluctance. Then it occurred to me that she might be concerned how Kenny would behave if he blamed her for keeping us apart. However, I decided that my best tactic was to take her words at face value.
"He's got good meds now and it's been about three years since he had a seizure," I said. Then, seeing that she didn't seem to be convinced, I added, "And I'll be with him all the time."
"It's a big responsibility," she said.
"He's got to get permission from the Director of the centre," I pointed out, "and I don't think that the Director would agree if he thought there was any risk."
"Well, let's wait and see about that," she said, giving me the impression that she was relieved that in some way the decision had been taken out of her hands, at least temporarily.
"Ya know," I said, playing my trump card as subtly as I could, "although I was annoyed when I found out Kenny and me had been kept apart, I know you all did what you thought was best. I'm glad you gave me the e-mails and it's great that I'm back in touch with him so now we can just concentrate on all being back together. After all, apart from his uncle in New Zealand, we're the closest thing he's got to a family."
Before Mum could respond, Dad made his contribution to the conversation. "Like your mum said, we have to wait to hear what the Director says, but whatever happens, we'll do what we can to help you stay in touch with Kenny. Now, how about a nice cup of tea and you can tell us more about what Kenny's doing nowadays."
I'd hoped that Kenny would phone me within twenty-four hours of my visit, but he didn't and I didn't call him because I didn't want to seem too pushy. I didn't want to take the risk of putting him off, especially as he was apparently not as enthusiastic as I was about our friendship. He eventually phoned me on the Wednesday evening.
"Sorry I didn't get back to you sooner," he said. "I went to see the Director on Monday, but he wouldn't give me a decision because he said he had to consult with my social worker. Anyway, I saw the two of them when I got back from school today."
"But they said it was okay, didn't they?" I asked anxiously.
"Well, sort of. Carol, the social worker, said that ideally she'd like to visit your house and talk to your parents before she allowed it. Apparently, with all the stuff in the news recently, they have to be ultra careful."
"I'm sure that will be okay," I said, "though I suppose it might delay your visit here if we have to wait until she does that."
"She said that because you live in a totally different area and they're short of staff and funding, it could take ages for her to get around to going to your house or getting a local social worker to do it."
"I guess I'll just have to keep seeing you on day trips until she can arrange things, then," I said, not trying to hide my disappointment.
"So I pointed out that you and your parents had known me and Mum ever since we were little kids, so surely they could take that into account. Anyway, she said in that case she might settle for talking to both your parents on the phone and seeing you in person next time you come here."
"Well, obviously you and your parents might not want to go to all that hassle just so I can visit you," he said in a carefully neutral tone.
"It's not a hassle!" I protested quickly, "and even if it was, it would be worth it. How about if I come over on the Sunday after next? Do they work on Sundays?"
"The Director lives on site and Carol always says I can contact her any time. So I'll ask if she could arrange some time on a Sunday."
I thought I detected a hint of happiness breaking through a chink in his armour of apparent unconcern.
On the following evening Kenny called to let me know that the Director and Carol had agreed to talk to me before lunch on the Sunday that I'd suggested. Carol would also arrange to call my parents and interview them on the phone one evening before then. My parents were no more enthusiastic about being interviewed than I was to meet with the Director and social worker, but at least they agreed.
After the phone interview, which took place the following Monday and lasted almost thirty minutes, my parents reported to me that it had all apparently gone well and that Carol was looking forward to meeting me on the Sunday. Being a little shy, especially around strange adults, I couldn't say that the feeling was mutual, but the stress of meeting her would certainly be worth it if it allowed Kenny to spend occasional weekends with me. So it was that I looked forward to the trip to Linchester with a mixture of pleasant anticipation and mild trepidation.
When I arrived at St Anthony's, a little before noon, Eileen was again in Reception. She greeted me with a cheerful grin and immediately buzzed me through the doors. I was a little surprised when she emerged through the Reception door immediately followed by Roy and Kenny. It appeared that Roy was now quite comfortable with his new prosthetic.
"Glad you're on time," Kenny said with a smile.
"Good to see you again," Roy added. Bearing in mind his attitude toward me on the first occasion that we'd met, I was a little surprised that he apparently really meant what he'd said.
"Kenny… erm Ken told me you did very well on Sports Day," I said. "Congratulations."
"He came second in the one hundred metres," Eileen said proudly, "and none of those he was racing against had any disability."
"But I came fifth in the two hundred," Roy said with a frown. "I need to work on my stamina."
"The Director and Carol said they'd like to see you as soon as you arrived," Kenny said, "so they can both get home in plenty of time for lunch."
"Okay. I suppose I might as well get it over with as soon as possible," I said, resigned to my fate.
"Don't worry. They're nice people, " Kenny encouraged me, "and they don't bite. Well, not unless you keep them from their lunch for too long."
Kenny led me along one of the corridors that led off from the atrium and through a door labelled 'Director' into what was an outer office with a desk for a secretary, several filing cabinets and a few chairs. There was no one in the room and Kenny went straight across to the inner door and tapped on it. He ushered me inside and briefly introduced me to the two occupants who stood to greet me. Then Kenny departed, closing the door behind him.
The Director was a tall, thin man with the same black hair as his daughter, though his was beginning to show a little grey at the temples. The fact that he was dressed so casually in a pale blue short sleeved shirt and dark blue jeans surprised me at first, but then I realised that it was Sunday and he was probably technically off duty. The social worker was much younger and prettier than I'd expected. She had long brown hair tied back into a ponytail and wore a white blouse with a dark-grey skirt.
Attempting to put me at ease, the social worker said I could call her Carol and the Director said I could call him Max. Both of them smiled warmly and invited me to sit with them in comfortable chairs around an oval coffee table. I'd expected them to ask me about my house, where Kenny would sleep, if I knew what to do if he had a seizure and other such practical details. However, they hardly even touched upon such matters. So I supposed that Carol had already discussed those subjects with my parents. Instead they wanted to know about how I got on with my parents, about my friends and interests at school and about Kenny and me growing up together and why we'd lost touch.
I answered as best I could, trying to play down and excuse the role played by my parents and Kenny's mum in splitting us up. Then I got a little carried away describing how close Kenny and I had been, how we did so much together and how wonderful it was to be able to spend time with him again. At that point Carol, who'd been jotting down notes, stopped writing and looked at the Max. They both smiled and nodded their heads.
"Thank you, Sam. I think we've learned enough," Carol said. She looked at her watch and added, "So can "and I think we all deserve some lunch."
They stood up. So I followed suit and asked, "So can Kenny come to stay next weekend?"
"Well, I need to report to my supervisor in the morning," she said. "I'll let Ken know the decision tomorrow afternoon."
My expression must have communicated my feelings of disappointment, frustration and anxiety, because she smiled and added "Don't worry. Just go and enjoy your afternoon with Ken."
"I expect he's waiting for you in the outer office," Max said, gently ushering me toward the door.
Kenny was indeed waiting for me in one of the chairs just outside the door and as soon as he saw me he stood up and looked expectantly at us.
"Carol will let you know tomorrow," Max told Kenny. Then he went back into his office and closed the door.
"Can we go and eat now?" I asked as I suddenly realised I was starving.
Roy and Eileen were sitting across from each other at a table and already eating when we got to the dining room and if it had been my decision I would probably have given the two lovebirds some privacy and chosen one of the many empty tables. However, after we got our food Kenny immediately went to sit next to Roy, leaving me to sit next Eileen.
"How did it go?" she asked me. When she saw my slightly confused expression she gave me a conspiratorial smile and added, "Roy told me everything and just because the Director's my dad doesn't mean you can't be honest."
"It went okay, I think," I replied, wondering what exactly was included in the word 'everything', "and Max was nice."
"Max?" all three of them said almost in unison.
"Not even the staff here call him that, at least not in front of the residents," Roy explained. "Everyone here calls him either Director or Mr Harding."
"Except I call him Dad," Eileen said, "and Mum calls him Max."
"But that's not exactly here, is it?" Roy said with mock pedantry. "That's at home."
"Well, I'm not from here, either," I pointed out. "Anyway, I think they wanted to put me at ease so I wouldn't hide anything from them."
"What've you got to hide?" Roy asked, giving the impression he was hoping for some juicy gossip.
"Nothing at all," I said, "but they wouldn't know that, would they?"
When we'd finished eating, Kenny asked if I'd like him to take me on a guided tour of the city centre and maybe see the cathedral and castle. On the one hand the idea of seeing historic buildings with Kenny was attractive, but on the other hand I wasn't a great fan of busy city centres. After a couple of seconds thought, though, and bearing in mind that it was Sunday, I decided to accept Kenny's offer.
"Will you two be coming?" I asked Roy and Eileen.
"We have other plans," Eileen said, looking at Roy and blushing a little.
On leaving the dining room, Kenny announced that he was going to get his wallet from his room and visit the loo before we went out. Eileen said she needed to finish off a job in Reception before taking the afternoon off and that left me waiting in the atrium with Roy.
"What made you ask if we'd be going with you?" he asked as propped his buttocks up against the back of a chair.
"Why wouldn't I?" I replied and shrugged. Then, after a pause for thought, I said, "Maybe I thought Kenny… erm Ken would be more at ease if his best friend was with us. Sometimes he seems a bit uncomfortable when he's alone with me."
"Ya know," he said hesitantly, "one thing I like about you is that you can be quite simple…"
"There's no need to be insulting," I interrupted, immediately taking offence.
"Don't get your knickers in a twist," he said, laughing gently. "I didn't mean simple as in a simpleton, but as in uncomplicated. To you, it's simple and obvious just to take up your friendship where you left off, but for Ken it's much more complicated."
Before I could question him any further on the matter, Kenny came into sight and walked over to join us. As I led the way outside, Roy tugged at Kenny's tee shirt and pulled him back a little. In a whisper that I could just about hear, he asked, "Have you told him, yet? If not, you should do it soon."
Kenny made a 'Sh' sound, shook his head and followed me outside.
We had a great time looking around the city, where Kenny obviously felt very much at home. He seemed much more at ease with me outdoors than he'd been in St Anthony's and he clearly enjoyed his role as tour guide. When he took me to his favourite cafe for tea and cake, he insisted on paying for everything, claiming that was only fair because I'd had to pay for bus fares to go to see him. Later, a few minutes before it was time for me to catch the bus home, he walked with me to the main bus station and waited with me until I got on the bus. I found it very difficult to say goodbye.
All the following day I was on tenterhooks as I waited to find out if Kenny would be allowed to come to visit. I couldn't concentrate in any of my classes and when the school day ended I could remember very little of the subjects that had been covered. Perhaps Kenny had guessed how I was feeling, because he phoned me just a few minutes after I arrived home.
"Carol says it's okay for me to visit you when I like, as long as it's not on a school day and if the Director arranges it with your parents first," he announced as soon as I picked up.
"So you're coming this weekend?" I asked, barely able to contain my delight.
"Yeah, if it's still okay with you and your parents. I'll ask the Director to phone them and confirm details."
"Yippeee!" I yelled, my delight no longer contained. "Can you come on Friday evening and stay until Sunday evening?"
"Not Friday. It would be too much of a rush after school to get a bus at a reasonable time, especially as it's been a while since I was used to go home on Friday nights. Maybe if I come again I'll be able to manage a Friday."
"What do you mean, if you come again?" I asked, appalled that he could even contemplate the idea that he might not visit again.
"Well, we've not spent so much time together or spent a night in the same house since we were kids. Maybe we just won't get on any more."
I was so shocked by the fact that he actually seemed to believe what he'd just said that for a couple of seconds I was speechless. Eventually I said with complete certainty "We got on, we get on and we will get on. There's absolutely no doubt of that."
I thought I heard him sigh, or maybe he just took a deep breath, and then there was a brief silence before he spoke. "Roy's been nagging me to tell you something before I come to visit. He says that starting a friendship again should begin by being honest and open."
"If you want to think of it as starting again, that's up to you, but you know that as far as I'm concerned we're just carrying on where we left off," I replied, wondering why he seemed to make such a big deal of the idea of starting over.
"But time's passed, things have happened and we've changed," Kenny replied patiently. "Well, at least I've changed, but maybe you not so much. Anyway, it's one of those changes that I want to tell you about."
"Okay, go ahead," I said, knowing that whatever this change was, if I'd not noticed it already, then it couldn't have been important. Actually, I couldn't even think of a change that might take place that would alter how I felt about my Kenny.
There was quite a long pause then I heard him take a deep breath. "I'm gay."
It took a couple of seconds to digest that interesting piece of news, but I couldn't understand why he seemed to be making such a fuss about it. So I just stated what was obvious to me. "If you're gay now, you must have been gay when we were eleven. So that's not a change at all."
"You're being pedantic," he said, sounding a little hurt. "Okay, then. At some time after we lost contact I realised I'm gay and that realisation was a change."
"On that sort of logic," I replied a little sceptically, "I changed when I just found out and I change every time I find out something new. So we're both always changing and it doesn't matter."
"Only you could get into a discussion on logic and miss the whole point of what I told you," he said, sounding exasperated.
"I'm sorry, but now I'm confused. I thought your point was that we had to start a new friendship because you'd changed. Then you said that the only change is that you found out something, but people don't have to restart their friendships every time they learn something new." Knowing that my logic was irrefutable, I felt quite smug.
"What about if you find out something important, like that I'm gay?"
"Actually, now I come to think of it, there lots of other important changes that I've found out about since we got back in touch. Like you've got a new best friend and you don't wear a helmet any more."
"What the fuck's a helmet got to do with anything?"
"Well, I liked your helmet," I admitted guiltily. "I always associated you with it and quite frankly, seeing you without it was a much bigger surprise than finding out you're gay."
"But being gay is important to me."
"So it's important to me, too. And I'll be happy to discuss it as much as you want when you come to visit."
"You're weird," he said, but not unkindly.
After we'd hung up, I went over the conversation in my head and felt a bit guilty when I realised that Kenny might have thought I was trivialising his sexuality. I thought that I might have hurt him by giving the impression that I thought that being gay was unimportant or irrelevant. Of course, I knew it was important, but the importance was eclipsed by the joyful prospect of spending a whole weekend with him after being deprived of his company for so many years. When a man who's dying of thirst finds water, even food seems unimportant.
Kenny phoned on each of the next four evenings and each time we spoke for at least ten minutes. Most of our conversations related to details for his visit or what we'd been up to that day. However, the subject of sexuality wasn't even mentioned.
On the Saturday morning I was so excited that I couldn't eat breakfast and couldn't even sit still long enough to finish my morning cup of tea. When I got a text from Kenny confirming that his bus was on time my nerves were soothed a little, but when I announced that good news to my parents, Mum seemed to get a bit more nervous. Then at the appointed time Dad drove me to meet Kenny's bus and bring him back home with us.
As soon as we got home, Kenny asked to use the bathroom. For some reason I was very pleased that he didn't need to be reminded where it was. If Kenny had been harbouring any resentment toward my parents, he certainly didn't show it and he soon managed to charm all the nervousness out of my Mum. After a light lunch Mum and Dad went out to the shops, leaving me alone with Kenny.
While he unpacked his overnight bag in the spare room, I hovered around, hoping that he didn't feel that I was being too clingy. Then I took him to my room and proudly showed him my new laptop and after that he sat on my bed while I brought to him my most recently acquired books and CDs.
"You don't need to try so hard," he said, looking a little bemused.
"What d'ya mean, try so hard?"
"To impress me. You don't need to try."
"Oh," I said, embarrassed when I realised that my behaviour had been rather manic. "It's just, well, it's just that it feels so good to have you here again. I feel like a little kid at Christmas."
"You've grown bigger," he said with a smile, "but you've not really changed."
As my euphoria began to fade, I began to realise for the first time what he'd meant about changing and I sat down in the chair by my computer desk.
"I guess I've not really needed to," I said sadly. "I've not had to go and live away from home and I've not lost a parent. Not like you. I've never really needed to change or adapt."
"That's nothing to be ashamed of. I'm glad that you're the same and that you've never had to change."
"Still," I said after a brief pause for thought, "no matter how you've changed, the important things, the things that make you the person who's so important to me, those things are still the same."
My words seemed to embarrass him and that in turn made me feel embarrassed. So for a while I couldn't think of what to say next and he, too, sat in silence. Then I thought of something I wanted to say to him.
"Kenny. Ken," I corrected myself. Then, setting aside what I'd been about to say and feeling a little exasperated, I continued, "I know everyone else calls you Ken now, but all the time I've known you, you've always been Kenny to me. So is it okay if I keep calling you Kenny?"
He looked at me in silence for a couple of seconds and I noticed that his right hand was twitching a little, indicating that he was probably feeling stressed or at least nervous. Then after a long pause he blushed as he said hesitantly, "Erm, I s'pose, but there's one condition."
"What's that?" I asked, wondering why he was apparently making such a big deal out of my small request.
"Well, erm, can I, erm, touch your hair?" He blushed and looked down at the floor. Then as if offering up some sort of excuse, he mumbled, "They don't let us have pets."
"Yeah, of course you can," I replied, also blushing. "You can touch it whenever you want as long as no one else can see."
He remained where he was and kept his gaze on the floor. So after a few seconds I went and sat next to him on the bed. Then when he still didn't move, I took his hand and placed it on my head. He looked up, stroked my hair for couple of seconds, then pulled his hand away as if it had been scalded. The movement was so sudden that at first I wondered if it had been one of his spasms, but then I thought it was more controlled than the spasms I remembered.
"I bet you think I'm a weirdo now," he said, staring at the hand as he placed it on his lap.
"Of course I don't. You're not like anyone else I know, but you're not weird. You're just my Kenny." As soon as I'd said that, I wondered if I'd made a big mistake by using the word 'my'.
That concern revived in me the old placatory ritual that had become almost an instinct when we were kids. I leaned my head forward until it was just touching his shoulder and that gesture awakened in him the old response. He began to stroke my hair, soothing us both, and suddenly I felt whole again.
Although I wasn't aware of the passage of time, we must have been like that for several minutes, because I became aware of the front door banging and the sound of my parents entering the house. Kenny jerked his hand away and moved so that all contact between us was broken.
"It's okay," I said. "They wouldn't come in here without knocking."
"That wasn't the only thing I was worried about," he said, frowning. Then before I could ask what else he was worried about, he stood up and added, "I need to pee. Then maybe we should go down and see if they want help unpacking groceries."
That was when I noticed the bulge in the front of his jeans.
As I'd expected, my parents didn't need any help with unpacking and in fact they'd almost finished by the time Kenny came downstairs. For the rest of the afternoon his behaviour returned to the slightly detached friendliness that he'd shown toward me since my first visit to St Anthony's. He also seemed to avoid any other possibility of us being alone together in my bedroom.
While he'd been stroking my hair and I'd been leaning my head on his shoulder, I'd felt as if we'd returned to the close friendship we'd had before and I'd revelled in the thought that 'my Kenny' had returned to me. His sudden withdrawal of affection and ensuing coolness toward me left me confused and hurt and I wondered if I'd done something wrong. Then it occurred to me that maybe he was just inhibited by the presence of my parents in the house.
"It's a lovely afternoon," I said to him. "Why don't we go for a walk? Maybe we could look around all the places we used to go together and visit the park where we used to play."
"I think we're a bit too old to be playing in the park," he said wrily.
"You speak for yourself. I still like going on the swings if there's no one else around," I said, then blushed, wondering what he might think of my childishness. Trying to cover my embarrassment, I added, "And I remember you used to like it, too, when your mum wasn't around to tell stop you and tell you how dangerous it would be if you had a seizure on a swing."
"Well, you probably still look young enough to get away with it."
I wasn't sure how to interpret either the tone of his voice or the odd expression on his face as he said that. So I just shrugged my shoulders and went to tell my mum that we were going out.
For the first part of the walk he was very quiet, but as we saw the old familiar places and began to talk about our shared memories, he became quite animated. By the time we made our way back home for dinner, I'd reached the conclusion that his sudden switch of attitude earlier that afternoon had probably been caused by the presence of my parents. During dinner he was again quite charming and warm toward them and I felt a little jealous.
Towards the end of the meal Dad announced that he and Mum would be going to the cinema that evening. That surprised me because that was something they hadn't often done since I was old enough to go to the cinema on my own. Furthermore, I hadn't heard them mention anything in particular that they wanted to see. It occurred to me that maybe giving us a little privacy was Mum's way of making some amends for keeping us apart.
After my parents left, we sat in living room and I flicked through TV channels to see if there was anything we both wanted to watch. I'd sat on one side of the sofa and had thought or at least hoped that Kenny would sit next to me, but instead he sat in an armchair. There wasn't anything that grabbed our attention and so I asked him if he wanted to look at my collection of DVDs to see if there was anything he wanted to watch.
"Maybe later," he said, apparently feeling ill at ease, "but first I want to phone Roy to see how he's getting on."
He went upstairs and after what seemed like an eternity, but in fact was about twenty minutes, he came back down. For a brief moment he looked at me hesitantly then a bit to my surprise he sat down on the sofa with me.
"How was Roy?" I asked.
"Fine. He's with Eileen. I guess I didn't phone at a very convenient time."
"Well," I said half joking, "he really must be a great best friend to give you so much of his time when he's occupied with the lovely Eileen."
"Yeah. He's always there when I need him."
"And you needed him tonight?" I asked a little sadly.
He didn't answer the question, but instead said, "Ya know, I nearly didn't come this weekend, but Roy said I should get things sorted one way or another and that in any case it would be wrong to disappoint you at short notice."
My happiness at being with Kenny dissolved in confusion as I wondered why he would be reluctant to visit and what things needed to be sorted out. After the initial consternation I also felt grateful to Roy and glad that he was Kenny's best friend.
"Is this about you being gay?" I asked, trying to work out what was going on. "I'm sorry if I gave the impression when you told me that I thought it wasn't important. Of course it is. It's important to me, too, but I was so excited about your visit and about seeing you again that it just seemed nothing else really mattered so much."
"Well, it's sort of about that," he replied vaguely.
"I'm happy to talk about it now if you want," I said earnestly. "I don't want anything to interfere with our friendship."
"What if what I want to talk about stops us being friends?"
"That's never going to happen," I said with conviction. "The only thing that ever came between us was our parents and even then we eventually managed to get together again."
"That's because of your determination and persistence," he said, his lips twitching into a little smile. Then his expression became more serious as he added, "I doubt I would've had the courage."
"Courage?" I echoed. The word seemed so inappropriate and totally out of place in the context of the conversation that I wondered if I'd misheard it.
"Ya know," he said, "I was really hurt and miserable when I thought you'd decided not to stay in touch, but as time went on and I discovered things about myself and about how I felt, well, it seemed as if it might have been for the best to have had a clean break before you found out. At least that way we had no bad memories of our time together."
"Did you really think that finding out you're gay would create bad memories? Surely you knew me and know me better than that."
"Not just being gay. Something else," he said, looking down at his feet, "and even if it didn't bother you, it would make it uncomfortable for me."
I sighed with frustration and for a brief moment felt like grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking some sense into him. However, I knew I could never use even that small level of violence against my Kenny.
"As far as I'm concerned, there's nothing you could tell me that would alter how I feel about you," I assured him. He looked up and smiled wanly, but it was obvious that he wasn't convinced. So I continued, "I suppose a lot's happened in the time that we were apart and there's a lot of catching up to do. So why don't we start now?"
"Erm, okay, maybe," he said, "but how do we start?"
Frankly I wasn't sure myself. So I just went for the first thing that came into my head. "Why don't we take turns asking and answering questions?"
"Okay," he replied, looking a little concerned. "You go first."
After a little time for thought I asked, "Have you got a boyfriend?"
"No. Have you got a girlfriend?"
"No. Would it matter?"
"I don't know," he replied, sounding uncertain. There was quite a long pause and it seemed he was trying to keep his expression neutral, but knowing him so well, I thought I could detect a little hopefulness as he added, "You're not gay, are you?"
"I don't think so," I said. "Probably not."
"Probably not?" he echoed, unable to hide his disappointment. "How can you not know?"
Finding it difficult to find the right words to answer him, I just sighed. Then I recalled something Roy had said to me. "Roy told me I was simple…"
"He meant uncomplicated," Kenny interrupted, clearly having discussed the matter with his best friend.
"But I think he was mistaken," I continued. "I just try to be honest and it just happens to be that honesty is often the simplest option, but sometimes my feelings are too complicated for a simple label and I don't think that it's honest to put simple labels on complex things."
"It doesn't seem all that complex to me," he said, frowning slightly. "If you fancy girls, then you're straight. If you fancy boys, then you're gay. If you fancy both then you're bisexual. Are you bi?"
"I find lots of girls and women attractive, but only a very few boys. Also, just because I find someone attractive doesn't mean that I want to have sex with them. There's only one boy that I've always wanted to be sexual with. Does that mean I should be labelled mostly straight, but a bit bi?"
"Maybe," he replied a little grudgingly.
He seemed to be mentally digesting what I'd said, but as the silence lengthened I began to feel uncomfortable. So I decided to push on with the conversation. "When did you realise you're gay?"
"Probably it's something I always felt deep down, but I didn't give it any thought until I first started thinking about sex. I think I only actually realised it at about the same time I found that loving someone isn't the same as being in love with him." He paused for a couple of seconds, then, apparently at a tangent, he asked, "Have you ever actually done anything sexual with girl?"
"Just snog. I've never felt strongly enough to go any further."
"You mean you disapprove of sex without love?" he asked, apparently abandoning the idea of taking turns with our questions.
"It's not a matter of disapproving or morals or anything like that," I said, trying to choose my words carefully. "And I don't care what other people do. It's just that I'm personally not comfortable going further than snogging unless it means something emotional to me. Maybe it's because I'm shy or at least, erm, self-contained, but it seems to me that having sex is a lot of effort if you don't like the other person all that much"
"You think sex is a lot of effort?" he asked incredulously. "That really is weird."
"Like I said, it depends who it's with," I said, not sure if I should feel insulted. Then, wishing to have my share of the questions, I asked, "Have you done sexual stuff with a guy?"
"Just messed around a bit a few times with one boy ages ago, but it was just an experiment. He's straight. Have you ever been in love with a girl?"
"No. Have you ever been in love with a boy?"
"Yes. Well, I think so, but I might have been too young to know really what I felt. At the time I was still dealing with the difference between loving and being in love. Actually, I'm still not sure I've worked it out yet. Have you?"
"No," I replied, "but to be honest, it's not something that I've really thought about very much. I just feel how I feel. Trying to stick labels on things and put feelings into boxes just makes things more complicated."
"There you are!" he said, as if he'd won some sort of debate. "You are simple sometimes or at least you're less complicated than me. You just feel how you feel, but I have to try to work out what exactly I'm feeling."
"I realise that some things are complicated, though," I said, after I took a brief pause for thought. "For example, I think that there's more to being gay or straight than just who you want to have sex with. For instance, what happens if you fancy mostly girls, but the only person you want to spend the rest of your life with is a boy?"
"Is that a real example or just hypothetical?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.
I found that I couldn't suppress a giggle as it suddenly occurred to me that our conversation made me think of the dance of the seven veils. We'd each been giving out bits of information like a dancer removing veils, hinting at what lay beneath, but trying not to reveal it. We'd been giving out clues, but neither of us had been prepared to take the final risk of being totally open. It seemed that the silly dancing would go on forever unless one of us was prepared to take the risk and I guessed that it would have to be me.
"It's real," I said. "As it happens, the only boy I've ever really wanted to be sexual with is also the only person that I want to be with all the time. So I guess if you really must have labels, I suppose I'm mostly straight, but I'd be happy to be gay with that special boy."
He looked at me as if he'd been startled by a loud explosion, then he blinked a few times as if he'd just woken up, but wasn't sure if he was still dreaming. He opened his mouth as if to speak, then apparently had second thoughts. Eventually he took a deep breath, fixed his gaze on the middle of my chest and spoke.
"The reason I was worried about coming to visit was that I was afraid you might find out how I feel about you."
He looked up into my eyes, but seemed unable to say any more. So I decided to throw any remaining caution to the winds.
"You already have a best friend," I said, "and it seems to me that he's very good at the job. So you don't need another, but if you want a boyfriend, I'd like to apply for the position."
He didn't say anything, but instead he smiled and raised his hand toward my head. When I leaned toward him and rested my head on his shoulder, he began to stroke my hair. Without the need for words, he'd told me that my application had been accepted and for the first time in four years I was truly happy.
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