Like the Taste of Summer
by Kaje Harper
For Reba; “The first time is so beautiful, if the one you’re with cares enough…”
content warning: This story contains mildly explicit male/male sex and strong language
Copyright 2011 Kaje Harper
Like the Taste of Summer is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Sometimes when you live with one man for more than half your life, you stop really seeing him. Not stop loving him. That center-of-my-heart, need-him-to-breathe kind of love doesn’t go away. But really paying attention gets submerged in the stupid details of day to day life. You pass each other in the hallway and say “I forgot to shop and the last bottle of shampoo is empty” or “I tripped on the damned broken step you were going to fix”. The little stuff.
And falling asleep you might roll away from his arms, because it’s hot and you have the AC on low to save a few bucks. Even pausing to kiss the back of his neck at the breakfast table becomes automatic, until a few minutes later you can’t recall if you remembered to do it today. Except that you always do. Some days are like that. Some weeks are like that.
And I’ve been coasting along that way for a while, not really seeing. Until Sean looks up at me this morning from his bowl of Captain Crunch, and holy Christ, his eyes are still that same clear, vivid blue. The taste of salt sweat from his neck is suddenly right there on my lips. And he smiles at me, just like he did the day we finally got it right. And I remember…
When I landed in college in 1981, I thought I was hot shit. Free at last, free at last, thank…well, thank the scholarship committee and my ex-girlfriend Susan who helped write my application essay, I was free at last. My parents had even expressed their gratitude for my snagging a completely free ride by giving me an old car. So I rolled into town in my own wheels, with the windows down and The Pretenders on the radio.
When my friend Troy heard where I was going to school he said “Bumfuck, Iowa? Jesus, Jack, you’re going to be bored out of your skull.” But then Troy’s folks had money, and he was headed to Northwestern. I had to take what I could get. As I drove slowly into town on that warm September afternoon, I was afraid he was going to turn out to be all too right.
There wasn’t a whole lot to the town of Carterville. The main drag started with a McDonald’s, a diner, a sleazy-looking bar, and a sprawling lumberyard. For a few blocks there were other small stores and offices, a couple of three-story apartments, and even two traffic lights. Then the downtown dwindled again to two junky-looking antique stores, a movie theater that needed about six coats of paint and some light-bulbs, and a grocery store with the unpromising name of Piggly Wiggly. There was a big cute pig’s face on the sign, grinning happily with a butcher’s hat on its head. Like it was thrilled to cut up its porcine brothers and sisters into chops for the good people of Carterville. It was so, sooo hicksville.
The houses I could see were mostly light-colored clapboard affairs, some bigger, some smaller, with gabled roofs. Here and there I noticed fancy gingerbread trim in contrasting colors. Blue trim on a pale yellow house, red on blue, maroon on beige. Like some colorblind paint salesman had come through and given everybody a deal they couldn’t refuse. “It’s just four years,” I reminded myself, momentarily giving up my efforts to sing in Chrissie Hynde’s range. “And Des Moines is only two hours back down the road.” And then I was out of town and back among the cornfields.
Lots of cornfields, with stalks turning brown in the warm air. The cobs seemed to still be on the plants, browning too. Which confused me, because surely you should pick the corn before it did that? I’d puzzled over that off and on the last few hours, leaving civilization behind, as the radio struggled to pull in decent stations. As Elvis Costello vanished off the radar, as Michael Jackson and Springsteen gave way to REO Speedwagon and Grand Funk Railroad, and all through the half-hour stretch when the only music I could pull in had cowboys and tractors in it, those exact same fields rolled by. But what did I know? I was a city kid. Corn cobs in Pittsburgh came piled in bins at the supermarket, not growing higher than my head. All I could tell was Iowa had a lot of really tall, flat, brown, dusty, dry, really boring corn.
On the college station I had finally located on my radio dial, King Crimson gave way to the Grateful Dead. I was singing along to “Pride of Cucamonga” when the college itself came into view. And oh yeah, that was more like it. Stone buildings like someone took a chunk of Olde England and set it down amid the cornfields. A freaking bell tower, and tall trees, and a pair of iron gates on the drive. I could do this. I thought that this gracious assembly of buildings (gracious to me then, because I didn’t know pretentious when it bit me in the ass) couldn’t possibly contrast more with the dreary little town I just drove through. I didn’t know how prophetic that was.
The dorm turned out to be an ugly brick building back behind the main campus. I’d shared a room all my life with my big brother, until he joined up, so having a roommate didn’t bother me. And although I was five-eleven, my feet didn’t stick out the end of the bed the way my roomie Gordon’s size thirteen clodhoppers did. So life was good and I settled in easily. I was looking forward to doing some partying and getting drunk and maybe finding out what the grass I’d been too scared to smoke around home was like. And maybe getting laid.
Susan and I never got that far. She wasn’t ready when we started dating back in ninth grade. Well, neither of us were. And then by the time she said she was, we’d become more like sister and brother and it felt…wrong. So we’d stayed good friends and did stuff together, and I took her to the prom. But I know she went off to college with a pack of birth control pills in her purse and her eyes on the prize. And I figured I’d do the same, but with condoms.
However somehow, although I became a connoisseur of the finest weed and learned to tell whiskey from tequila (yeah, I was that ignorant), the sex never came my way. I studied my schoolwork enough to get by, partied hard with a growing circle of friends and acquaintances, and watched the mating dance going on around me. I just never found the right one. The college girls seemed too knowing, too sophisticated. I figured they would take one look at my virginal fumbling and laugh till they cried. And the town girls…it was risky to think about that.
I learned that early on. There was a bitter cold antagonism between town and gown, between the residents of that little hick settlement on the prairie and the young men and women who swept into it on a Friday night with their cars and their cash and their entitlement. The students spent money. The townies needed money. And that was probably the most they had in common.
The bar on Main Street served the college students and staff. So did most of the other places along the drag. But get two blocks off Main, and you’d better be fifth-generation Cartervillian if you wanted to escape unscathed on a drunken Friday night. And the girls were strictly off limits. At least where their brothers and boyfriends could see you.
I can’t regret that hostility, you know, despite a couple of fights I got caught up in and the night my roomie, Gordon, had to scoop me up with his Camaro as I ran away from an angry high-school footballer. Because town-and-gown brought me Sean.
The first time I saw him, Gordon and I had been drinking up on the hill with some of the other guys. Iowa is pretty damned flat, so rumor said that the hill was the town’s old garbage dump, piled high and covered over with sod. Whatever the source, it was a great place to hang out. There were actual stands of trees and you were above the worst of the bugs. We would sit on the old stone wall, look down at campus and drink whatever we could afford that week.
That night I was up there with Gordon, and Tommy and Lyle, and a bunch of the other freshmen. It was a gorgeous fall night, the air soft and still warm, the stars bright. I hadn’t drunk as much as usual because I was worrying over an English paper that was due. And when the guys began their ritual intoxicated rambling about which girls put out how often in which ways, I got up and began wandering down the hill. I was about a hundred yards down when Christian yelled, “What the fuck are they doing?”
I glanced back and a couple of the guys were standing staring down the hill. They were pointing at the student parking behind the dorm. There was an old pickup truck down there sitting in the road, spitting enough grey exhaust to show it was running. And several dark figures seemed to be moving around the cars. Our cars!
I think we all got it at the same moment, because there was this group roar, like a bunch of bears waking up from hibernation. And then we all went charging down the hill. I was well out in front, and as I got close to the cars, I smelled the chemical tang of fresh paint. There was a sharp tinkle of breaking glass.
I yelled something and dove toward my Corolla. Suddenly the dark figures broke away from our cars, running all out for the pickup truck. I couldn’t see most of them, but one guy was right there, still crouched down by the door of my ride. He lurched upright, swinging at my head with something in his hand. I caught his wrist and hung on. He fought me desperately as the doors on the pickup slammed and the engine roared, revving impatiently.
“Let go!” His voice was light and panicky. “Let the fuck go!”
“Fuck that, you son of a bitch.” I took a glancing punch in the ribs and jerked him to his knees, trying to look around him at my car. “What the hell did you do to my wheels?”
Up on the hill, the other students were coming in a pack, screaming curses and threats. The pickup gunned its motor one more time, and then screamed off down the drive, laying rubber. The guy I was holding onto looked both ways and then his face in the streetlight got pale as milk. “Oh, shit.”
I heard Tommy yelling, “They busted my windshield! Fucking faggot townies! I’m gonna kill them. Gonna break every bone they’ve got.”
The lean wrist in my hand twisted frantically, trying to break free. I looked around and then growled, “No chance. Jesus.” I yanked open the Corolla’s back door. I wasn’t drunk enough to watch my buddies beat this guy to a pulp, whatever he and his friends had done. “Get in,” I hissed.
The guy took one look at me, his eyes huge and dark in the yellow light. Then he scrambled into my car.
“On the floor, stay low.” I shut the door and was leaning against it, inspecting a scrawl of red paint across the side that read, “FUCKE”, when Gordon and Cory panted up to me.
“Those motherfuckers. They trashed Tommy’s car real bad. How’s yours?”
“Just paint,” I said. “And bad spelling. You?”
“They painted up my windows. Cocksucking bastards. Damn it!” Gordon slammed the hood with his big fist.
I could almost feel the dread of the townie in my backseat, crouched down waiting for the wrath of a drunken mob to descend on him. I put my back up to the window, to hide him better.
I leaned down and touched a fingertip to a drip of red. “This stuff is still wet. Maybe if we get some turpentine or something we can get it off before it dries.”
“You have a gallon of turpentine in your shorts, Jack?”
“Nope. But the Build-rite sells the stuff.”
“You can’t drive into town now. They’ll kill you.”
“They’ve got to be spooked right now. If I go right away, they won’t be expecting it. Tomorrow, yeah, I won’t want to show my face there without my brothers. But tonight should be fine. Fast in and out.”
Gordon nodded tipsily. “A couple of us will come with you.” He started to walk around my car.
“No way. You guys are plastered and you smell like alcohol and grass. You know the cops are on the townies’ side. I get pulled over and they’ll slam all our asses into jail. And then we will be fucked.” I grabbed his arm and turned him back toward Tommy. “You go help the big man clean up the glass. On second thought, help him sober up and then clean up the broken glass. I’ll be back in thirty.”
“You’re a good guy, Jack. A smart, smart guy. Do you need money?”
“I think I can pay for turpentine. You guys can owe me.” I glanced around. Cory was crouching over on the grass, dry heaving between his knees. A flat-out run on top of a fifth of whiskey can do that. Gordon wavered irresolutely, like he was still thinking he should come with me. I gave Gordon a hard shove toward the grass and slid into my car. A second of fumbling for my keys, because maybe I wasn’t as sober as I thought, and I pulled away carefully. The air behind me was still turning blue with Tommy’s cursing.
I was about a mile down the road when the guy in the backseat carefully raised his head. I caught a look at him in my rearview, indistinct in the darkness. Tousled light hair, pale T-shirt, a clean, classic profile as he turned to look anxiously behind us. He leaned forward between the seats, and I caught a tang of fear sweat and aftershave, and a hint of mint.
“You can let me out anywhere here,” he said quietly. “Thanks, man. I think you probably saved my life.”
I kept my foot on the gas pedal. “I’m not letting you out here. For one thing, it’s ten fucking miles to town, and for another you’re buying the turpentine.”
He was silent for another mile. “I guess that’s fair.”
“Unless you’re too scared to be seen getting out of my car.”
“It wouldn’t do me any good, that’s for sure. So I just won’t be seen.”
“What the hell were you thinking?” I exploded. “I mean, chasing us out of bars or a punch in the face is one thing. But Tommy’s car is wrecked. That’s real money involved.”
“Money,” the guy spit out. “That’s all you bastards think about. Like it makes everything okay. Like you can do whatever the hell you want to whoever, because you have money and we don’t.”
“What the hell?” I twisted to look at him. “I’m a scholarship kid. My folks are as stony as yours probably are.”
He shoved at my shoulder with a hard hand. “Eyes on the road. Jesus, you want to crash us?”
I turned around quick and got us back on my side of the center line. “No, seriously. I want to know. What the hell was that about?”
The guy sighed. “You don’t care.”
“I want to know what possessed a bunch of lunatics to jump in a truck, drive ten miles, and wreck our cars in a parking lot. I want to know why my car got spray-painted by a fool who can’t even spell fuck right.”
“I was writing ‘fucker,’” he said with dignity. “I got interrupted.”
And suddenly we were both laughing like fools. I was hiccoughing so bad I had to pull over to the side. After a minute catching his breath, the guy in the back opened his door. I thought he was going to take off, but he just walked around and got in the passenger side. He still had a can of red paint in his hand, and his hair was silver-blond under the dome light. He glanced at me, and then tossed the paint can out into the lurking cornfield.
We looked at each other. I still remember that moment so clearly, me and Sean, staring at each other in the feeble overhead glow. His skin was pale gold, summer tan laid over milk, with just a brush of freckles over his nose. His hair was long on top, and swept into his eyes like corn-silk. His eyes were blue, clear and wide, still a little dilated in the aftermath of escaping with his life. And his mouth…it was probably a good thing for my sanity that the dome light shut off about then.
I put the car back in gear, wondering what this guy saw when he looked at me. Darker, taller, carrying a little more weight, I guess. I’d had an indoor job that summer and what I’d got of a tan had faded fast. Ordinary face, brown eyes, nothing special. Oh, I wouldn’t crack mirrors, but I fit right in with a hundred other guys on campus. Whereas this guy was…better. I started for town, not looking at him.
Eventually he said softly, “I’m Sean. Sean Brennan.”
“Shaun? Like Cassidy?”
“Yuck. S E A N, dumbass, like it’s supposed to be spelled.”
“Jack Korbel. “
“I’m sorry about your car, man.”
“You were gonna explain that.”
“Yeah.” He rubbed his face with one hand. Eventually he muttered, “Marlon’s little sister is pregnant.”
“And she says it was some college bastard. Took her to a campus party, booze and reefers and the backseat of his car. And then when she went looking for him later she couldn’t find him. He dumped her there, didn’t even give her a ride home. She doesn’t even know his last name.”
I didn’t say anything, because it was completely possible. Likely even. The townie girls might be technically off limits, but everyone knew some girls were far more willing to break that rule than their male family members would like. A college guy might turn out to be a good catch, if they could land him. Or just a good time with someone they didn’t go to nursery school with. The girls were occasionally around, hanging on a guy’s arm in a dress just a little too shiny, partying hearty. So the brilliant comment that came out of my mouth was, “It wasn’t me.”
Sean gave me a look from under that hair. “I figured that out, moron. Any guy that can’t let a stranger get beat up by his friends isn’t going to ditch a sixteen-year-old at a party.”
Sixteen. Ouch. “Is she…okay?”
“She’s fucking pregnant! How can that be okay?” He let another couple of miles roll by. “There was nothing Marlon could do, you know? His folks are furious and everyone is moaning and wailing, and asking why didn’t he protect his little sister. And there’s no goddamn thing he can do about it. So we took his truck and a couple of cases to the creek. And Jimmy had his brilliant idea. And we were all plastered enough to agree it was brilliant.”
“You don’t seem that drunk.”
“They all were. I’m not big on beer. Tastes like piss.”
“They ditched you.”
“Probably the smart thing to do. There were five of us and a gazillion of you. Only safe thing to do was split.” He coughed a laugh. “Of course, that’s assuming Jimmy or Marlon or whoever didn’t put the truck in a ditch and kill themselves, driving drunk.”
The first houses on the outskirts of town began appearing, down long gravel drives. I glanced at my watch, trying to figure out the time. “Will the hardware store still be open?”
“Nah.” Sean pointed. “Turn there.”
I took the side road obediently. “Why?”
“I’ll do you better than the hardware. I work at the garage. We’ve got some stuff for taking tar and shit off the bodywork without wrecking the paint. I have a key to the storage bay. I’ll get you a can.”
The garage was deserted when we pulled in, pumps shut down and the lights off. Sean slid out of the seat and hurried to a side door. He moved well, light on his feet. He was built slender but he carried himself centered, like a low-weight-class wrestler. Not an extra ounce on his bones.
In a couple of minutes he came out with a metal can and set it on the floor of the passenger side. “Put it on a rag, don’t pour it directly on the paint. And rinse with a lot of water as soon as you’re done. Do it tonight, before the paint really sets.”
“You’ve done this before?” I asked sourly.
He grinned suddenly. “Water tower. I got ratted on and it had already dried too hard. Took two days and a ton of white paint to fix it. And that was from the other time I drank too much beer.”
“Dangerous with a paint can in your hand.”
We looked at each other, and then he took a step backward. “So, don’t let that stuff tip over. I don’t know how solid the lid is on. I’m sorry about your car, man.”
I wanted to say I was sorry about Marlon’s sister, but I didn’t. “Do you want me to drop you somewhere?”
“Nah. I’m ten minutes from home.”
“Everything in this town is ten minutes from everything else.”
His face closed down. I’d forgotten for a moment he was a townie. He raised one hand in a vague gesture and was gone around the side of the building.
The next time I saw Sean was at the theater a month later. He was with a group of his friends, two guys and three girls, coming out as my buddies and I were standing around the lobby waiting to go in. The theater was kind of a neutral zone, because it was the only one in town. Students tended to go to the late show, townies went to the early one. We ignored each other on the way in and out.
Sean had cut his hair some. It barely brushed his forehead, leaving those bright blue eyes open to the light. He was laughing at something his friend had said when I saw him, his head thrown back and that curve of his neck bare under his unbuttoned collar.
I had wondered sometimes, driving around town, if I would recognize Sean when I saw him again. Ten minutes in bad light when I was drunk wasn’t the best circumstances for my memory. And probably no one could really look as good as I remembered him.
And then there he was in the theater and it didn’t even take a second. It was just, Sean. I stopped short enough that Cory bumped into me and cursed me out good-naturedly. Sean looked our way for a moment. But his gaze slid over me and kept going. No hesitation, no eye contact. Obviously I was just another fucking college boy to him.
Then as we headed into the seats I happened to glance up into the mirror over the popcorn machine. And there my eyes were caught and held for a moment in Sean’s azure stare. His eyes widened a little. I felt dizzy suddenly, as if there wasn’t enough air in the room. But my buddies were hustling me into the aisle, laughing and pushing. And when we came out two hours later, snapping sweatshirts at each other in place of bullwhips, and quoting all the best lines, of course he was long gone.
I saw him here and there for months after that. Iowa is cold in the winter. The wind whips over the razed cornfields and some days it cuts to the bone. Coming from Pittsburgh, I was used to cold and wind. But some of the other guys were from points south. We spent a lot of time in dorm rooms full of smoke, listening to 8-track tapes. One of the guys was a Deadhead, followed the band and taped all the performances he could get to. We’d listen to the bootlegged music playing against the clink and murmur of bars and concert halls, and if we were drunk enough, we’d sing along.
Every now and then we’d go to town to stock up on beer, or Moon Pies, or grab a hamburger. And sometimes Sean was there, sitting with his friends in a McDonald’s booth, or working at the filling station. We would see each other, and there would be this awkward moment of staring, before our eyes slid away like they didn’t want to know. I wanted to talk to him again, and yet I didn’t. One time he was pumping gas for some old lady as I drove by, and I made myself swing around the block and pull into the station. But by then Sean was gone in back somewhere, and the old guy who owned the garage came out to fill my tank and take my money.
I went home for Christmas and found I didn’t fit in well anymore. My brother was still overseas and didn’t have leave. My mom was quieter, my dad sterner, and I always seemed to be saying the wrong thing. A couple of my friends were in town, but they were both tied up with new girlfriends. Coming back to Iowa felt like coming home. And wasn’t that a sad state of affairs.
Now me, I still didn’t have a girlfriend. And I was slowly realizing that I didn’t want one. I was horny as hell, and I wanted to get laid. But not with a girl.
The first time I realized that, with my eyes open and not squinting around it while I jerked off, I ran up the hill to the stone wall at the top. There was fresh snow on the ground and it was about twenty freaking degrees, and I sat behind that wall in a snowdrift and cried until the tears froze on my face. If it hadn’t been so damned cold, I might have stayed up there for days. But as it was I had to get up and go back down. And in the process of pretending with my buddies that I was fine I got…well, not fine, but better.
That wasn’t the last time I cried over it, not by a long shot. I didn’t want to be different. I didn’t want to be one of the freakin’ faggots that my father railed against when I was a teenager watching demonstrations on TV. I wanted a wife and kids and a nice normal life. Except when I didn’t.
So I wasn’t actually doing anything, and I was still trying to talk myself out of what I was beginning to imagine, drifting off to sleep at night. But I started looking. There were gay men in the school. A few daring souls who were willing to stand out. Some wore an earring in one ear, or smoked clove cigarettes and dressed different in ways I couldn’t put my finger on. And they were looked down on and harassed as often as they were left alone.
I didn’t exactly want to be one of them. But I watched them out of the corner of my eye. A couple of them were feminine and theatrical in a way that set my teeth on edge. But some of them were just guys, tall and short, slender and chunky. And brave, so fucking brave, to touch or put an arm around each other, where hostile eyes could see. And a couple were blond and slim and smaller than me.
Then one April day the phone call came.
The airport was two hours away, in Des Moines. The bag I’d packed was stuffed in the back of my car. I would later find I’d thrown in six pairs of underwear and no socks. I didn’t think I was crying, but it was hard to see the road right. So when I felt the first shudder and lurch, I figured I’d driven onto the verge again. But the next one was accompanied by the unmistakable whap, whap, whap of a flat tire.
I said every swearword I knew as I pulled over. Said them twice, coupled to a few taking-the-Lord-in-vains, and then I apologized. Took it all back. Promised to never say that shit again if only…if only.
I was struggling with the lug wrench, my fingers chilled and slipping, when a hand touched my shoulder. I jumped about ten feet and whirled around. Sean stood behind me, wearing only a T-shirt over his jeans even though the wind was cool.
“Hey,” he said. “Flat tire?”
“No, I thought I’d fucking get out and play with a lug wrench for the fun of it.”
He snorted and then looked closer at me and said tentatively, “Jack?”
He remembered my name. That took me closer to the edge than anything else that had happened in the whole stinking day. I jammed the heels of my hands into my eyes. “I need to get to the airport, okay? I need to get there and I can’t miss the flight, and my tire is flat.”
Sean nodded. “Look, I’ll help. You get those nuts off, I’ll get the spare.” He reached in my car and popped the trunk latch.
I bent to the over-tight lug nuts again with a better will, until Sean said, “Um, Jack? Your spare is flat.”
“Flat?” I straightened slowly and walked around to look in the trunk.
“Pancake, man.” Sean pressed on the spare, and sank his palm inches deep.
“Flat.” I just stood there. “I don’t have another one. My flight is in three hours.” I was beyond swearing.
Sean looked at me irresolutely. “Um, where are you going?”
“Home. Pittsburgh. My mother called. My brother…” I turned away, looking out over the fields, newly plowed in long dark furrows. “He wasn’t even in a war zone. He was in Germany. That’s almost like being here, right? They said the jeep flipped over. They said…”
After a minute I felt Sean’s hand, tentatively brushing across my arm. “Is he…?”
I looked at him and then away again. “I have to get home. Mom needs me to get home.” Because my cold, unemotional father would be no use to her at all. Because nothing was likely to be any use to her now, but I had to be there.
“Okay,” Sean said firmly. “This is what we’ll do. Give me your keys. You get your bag and get in my truck where it’s warm. I’ll drive you to the airport. You’ll make your flight. Then I can come back and get the car towed to the garage. I can get a new tire for it, have it ready when you come back.” He hesitated. “You are coming back, right?”
I hadn’t thought that far ahead but, “Yeah. I will.”
“Okay then.” He took the keys out of my hand and grabbed my case himself. “Come on, Jack, get in.”
I sat in the grateful warmth of his pick-up as he stowed away the tools, pulled my car further off the road, and locked it. He hauled himself up into his seat, and steered us out onto the black-top.
I looked down at the denim over his knee, so I wouldn’t stare at his face. “Why are you doing this? The airport is two hours away. You’ll be on the road for four.”
“It’s the right thing to do. And anyway, I figure I owe you.”
“You can still see the ‘F’, if you look close enough.”
“I noticed.” After a lot of silent miles, of me staring out the window and him tapping his fingers to the Rolling Stones on the radio, he said, “I had an older brother. Ten years ahead of me. He went to Vietnam. 1972.”
The bleak tone of his voice made it unnecessary to ask if his brother ever came home. He didn’t talk after that, didn’t ask questions, didn’t offer platitudes I wouldn’t want to hear. He just drove, fast and easy, and sometimes sang with the radio in a voice that was much huskier than his speaking tones, and rock solid on key.
At the departure unloading zone in front of the airport he stopped and looked at me. “When are you coming back? I’ll pick you up.”
“You don’t have to do that. I can get the bus.”
“Bus takes four hours, with all the stops. I’ll pick you up.”
“I don’t have a return ticket yet.”
He reached into the glove compartment and pulled out a little notebook, lined with dates of fill-ups and amounts of gas. He ripped out a back page, scribbled on it and handed it to me. “Call me, when you get that plane ticket. I’ll come get you.”
Our hands brushed as I took it, his warm against the chill of my skin. I couldn’t seem to get warm. “Okay.” I put that little scrap of paper in my wallet, safely, with the other important stuff.
Sean reached out as I slid toward the door and closed his fingers over my wrist for an instant. “It will get better. It feels like the end of the world, like nothing will ever be right again, but it will get better.”
All through the next five horrendous days, through my mother’s tears and my father’s silence, and the military funeral with the bugles playing taps and my mother’s white hands clutching star-spangled fabric like it was her son she cradled to her chest, through all that I felt, at odd moments, the brush of another boy’s touch over my skin. And heard his voice.
I’d figured I wouldn’t call him. I could just take the bus, show up at the garage with my checkbook. But before that scrap of lined paper could fall apart from being unfolded and refolded so many times I made the call. His voice on the other end of the line was a real thing in the surreal desert of our Pittsburgh house. “I’ll be there.”
He was waiting for me at the airport curb, in the cab of his light-blue Chevy C/K. My mother had packed a bunch more of my stuff, folding it all in tissue paper like I was flying to the moon. I tossed both suitcases in the back, and climbed in. Sean didn’t look at me as he pulled out, sliding the truck through congested airport traffic like John Wayne on the back of a good cutting horse.
In Pittsburgh the spring had barely started, the first green just hinted at in brown lawns and bare branches. Here, the sun held a promise of warmth to come. The lilacs were blooming. I stared at it all blankly, as we left the edges of the city behind and nosed out onto the empty blacktop that stretched for miles across the flat land.
Finally Sean glanced over at me, his eyes cool. “You look like shit, Jack.”
I started laughing. All those things I’d thought he might say, all the little gestures of romance I’d begun to hope for, and he came out with that. Which made sense. The guy was a stranger, right? You could fit every word we’d ever said to each other on one of those little notebook pages of his. Obviously everything I’d imagined was all in my own stupid head. It was just funny. So I laughed. Until I was crying and then howling and I bit the back of my hand to try to stop the godawful noises I was making.
“Jack, God, Jack don’t.” Sean looked around wildly, like he wanted to escape.
I would have said I was sorry, but there wasn’t room in my mouth for anything but screaming.
Then Sean must have seen what he was looking for, because he pulled off the blacktop down a small lane. Up a low hill, round a bend, with me doing the full messy snot and choke and tears thing, and then we were screened from the road by a small stand of poplars. Sean screeched to a halt, threw the shifter in park, and reached for me. “Jack, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. God, Jack, don’t cry like that.”
I tasted blood in my mouth, and then he pulled my hand away from my teeth and folded me into an awkward, unpracticed embrace. Sean held me, and he rubbed my shoulders with one hand, and his cheek was against my hair. And the pain that was twisting my gut into knots eased off and I could breathe again.
After a few minutes I pulled away, and he let me.
“I’m sorry.” I scrubbed at my cheeks with my palms and tried for humor. “I goobered your shirt.”
“I guess it’ll wash out. Was it that bad at home?”
I shrugged. “It was grim, but I was keeping it together. At least I thought I was.” I meant to say sorry again but he reached out a hand and put a finger on my lips. I could feel him trembling, just a little. Nothing compared to how shaky I was, down inside. I had grief and hope and fear and bone-deep want all mixed up together.
Sean’s eyes were so dark, pupils dilated to hell and gone, barely ringed with that azure blue. I looked into them like my last hope of heaven was in there. Inch by inch he slid that finger over my lips and then up my cheek, wiping tears.
“I’m a mess.” My voice barely carried, shaking like it was.
“You’re…fine.” Slowly, so slowly, Sean slid his hand up and behind my head, threading his fingers into my hair. He looked into my eyes as he did it, like he was giving me a chance to back off. Which was the last thing I wanted. I clenched my hands in my lap to keep from reaching for him. And then he leaned in and kissed me.
I’d kissed Susan, often enough. Susan whom I knew and almost loved and felt so comfortable with. And just the brush of this boy’s lips shot deep down inside me to something Susan had never touched. I groaned with it. Sean backed off a little. “Was that wrong?”
“God, no.” I finally put my hands on him. I cupped that face between my palms and kissed him back, using everything I’d ever learned. He was slow at first, clumsy and uncertain. I had to press my tongue hard against his teeth before he got the message and opened up to let me in. And then I wasn’t thinking about Susan or technique or anything at all but Sean, in my hands and in my mouth. The taste and feel and smell of Sean’s skin.
We broke apart eventually, panting. Sean stared at me, wide-eyed. “You’ve done that before.”
“Hell yeah, I had a girlfriend. Two of them.” If you count seventh grade. “Didn’t you?”
“Why would I?”
It took a moment before his meaning penetrated. “I don’t know. Trying it out, being like other guys, you know.”
“What would be the point? I’ve known I was gay since I was seven.”
Suddenly I got angry. “Well I haven’t. Maybe I’m still not sure, all right?”
Sean dropped his eyes to my lap, and then smiled a little bitterly. “I think there’s good evidence.”
“I can get it up for girls too, you know.”
Sean’s eyes narrowed and the light went out of them. “Okay. Whatever you say. I’m sorry if you think I’m trying to turn you queer.” He reached for the stick shift.
I grabbed his hand before he could take it out of park. “No, Sean, it’s my fault. I’m just…I’m kinda scared, you know?”
Sean’s expression lightened. “Hey, I’ve been growing up gay in small-town Iowa. And you want to know if I understand being scared?”
I snorted something that was half laugh, half sob. “I’ve had girlfriends, but I don’t know how to do…this.”
Sean straightened in his seat and put the truck in gear. “I think this isn’t the time or the place.”
“But I want…don’t you?”
“Oh, yeah, I want. But you’re exhausted and hurting and we’re parked behind the only tiny stand of trees for ten miles, and this isn’t the way I’ve dreamed about it.”
“Hell, yes.” He gave me a crooked grin as we turned back out onto the black-top. “I used to see you around town, laughing with your friends, and I would go home and get in the shower and imagine…things.”
My whole body seemed to want to come to attention at the sound of his voice. “What kind of things?”
“Um. Just…stuff, you know.” He sounded huskier, like when he was singing. “Don’t make me talk about it.”
My smile threatened to crack the stiff mask of my tear-streaked face. “You want to do it, but not talk about it?”
“You have a problem with that?”
I leaned back in the seat and closed my eyes. Suddenly it was all too much, too many ups and downs in the span of one day. “So tell me how this should go.”
The road hummed out from under our tires, as he thought about it. “Today I’ll drop you off at your dorm, and you go in and get some sleep so you don’t scare little old ladies with that face. Tomorrow…if you give me a check for the tire, I can deliver your car to your place. Then we can…maybe take a drive before you give me a ride back to town?”
“I could do that.”
I thought hard. My brain was full of mush. “What day is it?”
“It’s Tuesday, Jack.”
“Tuesday.” So Wednesday, then. I had Chem lab in the morning, and English at two. Nothing after that, although there would be three days of missed classes to make up. Fuck it. “Three o’clock. I’ll meet you at the gates.”
“I can get off early for a change. I’ll be there.”
At the dorm he dropped me and my bags in the parking lot, took my check for the tire, and pulled out like a bat out of hell or a spy getting out of enemy territory. Andrew came toward me as I was humping my cases to the sidewalk. “Jack, you’re back. Here, I’ll get one of those, man. Who was that in the truck? Looked like some townie.”
“Just a guy. Gave me a ride from the bus. Jesus, I need a night’s sleep.” I followed Andrew toward the dorm without glancing back.
He was there waiting when I hit the gates at five past three, panting from having run all the way from the quad. The weather had warmed up, and I was sweating all over my freshly-showered skin and clean shirt. Sean reached across and swung open the passenger door. “Get in.”
I looked over at him as we pulled away. His hair was clean and silky, and looked newly cut. He wore a black Led Zeppelin T-shirt and khaki pants, with running shoes over bare feet. I was caught again by the line of his neck, the curve of his shoulder. My breath came shorter.
“Hey,” I said. “It’s my car. How come you’re driving?”
“Because I figured you didn’t want people watching us changing seats at the gate. And because I know where we’re going.”
“Where are we going?”
He grinned at me. “Now I’ve been scouting this out for years. Just in the hope, mind you. Because when you live in a place that is as flat as a pool table and has about the same number of trees, finding a hidden spot that every other teenager in town isn’t using as a make-out zone takes some doing. We’re going to drive for a bit.”
I rolled down my window and let the sweet spring air flow over me. After a few minutes it got cool enough to put it up halfway again. I could see what Sean meant. We were ten miles out and heading away from town, and with the corn barely in the ground you could practically see all the way to the movie theater.
“Now there,” Sean said eventually, pointing, “is Sand Creek. A few trees, a few bluffs, a scenic pull-out or two. And a hetero couple necking in every single one once the sun goes down, and maybe before.”
I dared to say, “Necking sounds good.”
Sean laughed. “Patience, Grasshopper. All will soon be revealed.” He drove another five minutes, and then took a dirt road to the left. It climbed a slight rise, between scrubby fields high with weeds that hadn’t seen a plow this season. Then the road topped the rise and started down again. In the little depression that no-one would dignify with the term valley, there was a tumble-down house. The boards were weathered silver, with streaks of the original light blue. The roof sagged down into the middle of the front room like a giant had put a careless foot on it. Beside the house, the flattened remains of a barn had become a heap of bleaching boards, presided over by the base of an old stone silo.
“You see here the closest thing to privacy to be found within twenty minutes of Carterville,” Sean said. “There are some other abandoned places with the barns still standing, that the high-schoolers use. But the road down here sucks.” My car bottomed out in a rut, as if to emphasize his words. “And this one doesn’t have much of anything. Except…”
He pulled my car around the side of the old house, and there the collapse of walls and roof had created a snug space, just big enough to take one vehicle in it. With an ease that spoke of practice, Sean swung the Corolla in a three point turn and backed it into the space. He shut off the engine.
The world was quiet. Somewhere off to our right, a redwing blackbird called twice. The metal of my car pinged, cooling. Sean turned to me. “We don’t have to do anything, you know. We could just talk.”
“Shut up.” I reached for him. “Shut that pretty mouth and come here.”
Either Sean had been practicing, or his first fumbling had been mostly nerves, because we fit together perfectly. Sean’s mouth was made for kissing. He opened easily for my tongue this time, sighing into my mouth. My lips heated against his. His cheek was smooth under my palm, freshly shaved.
It was a few minutes, or maybe a few hours, before we backed off a little. “This gearshift sucks,” Sean said. “My truck has a bench seat.”
“Yeah.” It was a sigh of satisfaction.
We didn’t do a lot more than kiss that first time. Maybe my hand was in Sean’s lap a few times and his hand was in mine, but clothes stayed on and buttoned. This was so new; I think we were both scared of messing up. We didn’t want to take something perfect and make it less than. So we talked, finally, feeling our way between bouts of kissing that ramped us up to the stop or bust point. By some mutual consent, each time, we stopped.
When it was too dark to see each other we finally sat back in our own seats. That last round had put Sean’s elbow in my nipple and almost ended with my thumb in his eye. With a sigh he turned on the ignition. We looked at each other in the dim overhead light.
Sean’s beautiful mouth was reddened and swollen. His neck looked a little chafed, and I kicked myself for forgetting to shave before going out. It was only this past year that I’d had anything worth shaving. His hair had lost its careful style and stood in knots from the tugging of my fingers. God, Sean’s hair. I think if I was ever separated from him I would remember the feel of those silky strands between my fingers, down through all the years.
Sean looked back at me and snorted. “You look like you’ve been making out with half the cheerleading squad.”
“Not half the football team?”
“Oh, no, no, no. Not in Carterville, Iowa you don’t.”
We both sobered, our eyes meeting.
“We’ll have to be careful,” Sean said. “If you want to keep doing this.”
“Bench seat,” I told him.
That smile was worth working for. “Right. So we can only come here in the daytime when the road is soft, like today. Because once it gets dry the dust trail lingers half an hour in the air and people will get curious.”
“Not a problem at night?”
“Yeah, right, true. So after a rain, or at night. With a freaking flashlight because I like my eyeballs in my face where they belong, thank you. We can meet up somewhere in town, ‘cause there’s only space for one vehicle to park out of sight.”
“I could pick you up.”
“At the garage, if it’s night time. Old man Turner quits work at five on the dot these days. But I’m often there later. No one will wonder. But fuck, that means driving your iron maiden on wheels here instead of my truck. Because in this fucking Peyton Place of a town they will notice if your car is always parked there.”
“Always?” I grinned at him. “So I’ll meet you. I’ll drive into town, park the car by the cinema. Then it’s just three blocks to the garage. I can walk there.”
“Yeah, better.” The dome cut out. Sean’s cheeks looked hollowed and mysterious in the green dashboard glow. “We’re going to do this.”
“Damn right we are.” I hesitated. “If you want to.”
Sean laughed again. “For a college boy, you sure are stupid. Let me take you home before all your brain cells liquefy and leak out your ears.”
“My car, town boy.”
We traded seats and drove out to the main road with just the parking lights. At the blacktop I flicked on the high beams. Just in time, as one of the local patrol cars turned onto the main road from the Sand Creek turn-off and headed our way.
“Rousting the lovers’ lane,” Sean said. “Officer Cornwall likes to shine his light in the cars and make the girls squirm. Or so I’ve heard.”
We looked at each other as the black-and-white rolled quietly past us. I thought about what the patrolman would have seen if he’d shone that flashlight into my car. “Sean, we’re going to have to be damned careful.”
“Yeah, you got that right.”
It was Saturday before I got on top of my classes enough to call Sean. The drive out to the abandoned house was pretty quiet. I was sitting on the high bench seat beside Sean, wondering how far we were going to take things today. My body was up for just about anything, but my brain was nervy. I’d almost been sorry when Sean decided the road was damp enough to head out by daylight. This would be a little easier in the dark. But I hadn’t told him so.
Sean pulled into our parking spot, turned off the engine and leaned toward me. Kissing was already familiar, easy. My mouth knew his, my hands found his hair without thought. But when his hand landed on the button of my light blue jeans I chickened out a little. “Whoa, whoa, Sean. Slow it down.”
He looked at me, breathing hard. “What?”
“I don’t know, I just…”
He ran a finger over my shirt, just barely touching my nipple and I gasped. “Mixed signals here, Jack.”
“I want to. I’m just freaking chickenshit, okay?”
“I thought you were the one who had all the experience with the ladies.”
“Kissing. I had experience kissing. Not…”
“Thank God.” He kissed the angle of my jaw. “I thought I was the only virgin in this truck.”
I glared at him. “Motherfucker.”
“Cocksucker.” He grinned at me, like he knew how that growl tightened things in my groin.
“How do you make an insult sound sexy?”
“Choose your insults wisely.” He slid away from me and opened his door. “Okay, Jack. Get out.”
“Get out.” He stalked around the hood with a gait that should have looked fake on a pretty blond boy two inches shorter than me, but instead looked…damned hot. He yanked open my door and held out his hand. “Come on, Jack. Trust me.”
I slid out and joined him. The day was cool but bright and the sunlight kissed his hair. I followed Sean as he pushed his way through a patch of scrub and into a… hideaway. It was a sheltered space, screened by the falling walls of the farmhouse. A few small trees were growing up around where the fence line had met the clapboard. Tall grasses and climbing vines made a cool, green backdrop. The hood of Sean’s truck was visible if I looked back, but beyond that only the sky above could see us.
“Take off your shirt,” Sean said softly. “I want to look at you.”
I dropped my fingers to my buttons, keeping my eyes on Sean’s face. As the fabric came free, a light breeze trailed cool fingers across my skin, and I shivered. Sean reached down, grabbed the hem of his T-shirt and dragged it off over his head. My skin trembled all over as I stared at him. I couldn’t stop looking.
Sean was wiry and slim, with light muscling that looked like it was made for work and not just play. His skin under the shirt was winter-pale. His nipples were pink, tight in the cool air, waiting for me. I stepped forward and laid a palm over one small bud. Then I slid my hand slowly down, paying attention to the line that tiny piece of flesh drew across my palm. Sean put his hand over mine, stopping the downward motion, and pressed it against his chest. I could feel the pounding of his heart against my wrist.
We didn’t talk. Slowly, carefully we fitted ourselves together. Sean’s arms locked around me. I traced the long lines of his side, the curves of his upper arm and neck. Sean leaned in and kissed me.
I kept my mouth closed, because my whole focus was elsewhere, on that slim body pressing against mine. I felt his cock, hard as my own, riding against my hip. His arms were warm against my ribs. He kissed me softly, languidly. “Yeah,” he murmured after a while. “Just like that.”
And the words changed things. Suddenly it wasn’t enough, this loose embrace, this gentle kiss. We slammed together tighter, harder, sucking and biting at each other, fingers locked into muscled thighs and rounded ass. Sean humped up against me, groaning in my mouth. I grabbed his butt and practically lifted him off the ground to get him there, there, where the motions of his legs ground him against my sensitive shaft and set every nerve on fire.
“Oh, God,” Sean gasped. “God, Jack, Jack, gonna come if we don’t stop. Gonna fucking come right now.”
Holy Christ, I needed him, wanted more, ice and fire running through my body. I was beyond words, almost beyond thought. I growled and grabbed his head with both hands, pulling his hair, and thrust my tongue into his mouth. Sean’s hands clamped us together at the hips, so each motion drove us onto each other. Sean whined around my tongue, and then broke his mouth free with a jerk to cry out wordlessly. I bit his neck, there, in that tender spot where the curve of his shoulder began. And we both came for each other, like that, plastered against each other so tight we were practically one flesh.
After a few shaky moments, Sean let up his bruising grip on my ass. “Um, maybe we should have gotten undressed first.”
“Don’t,” I said. “Don’t change any of that.”
Sean sighed, and laid his head against my shoulder. “You’re a romantic, Jack. But yeah, that was perfect. Except the part where I now have cum dripping on my sneakers.”
I let go of him reluctantly and looked down. I was kind of a mess too. We could go back to the truck but…I didn’t look at Sean as I slowly unbuttoned and unzipped, and slid my jeans off. And then my sticky shorts. I draped them both over a spike of wood and finally brought my eyes up to Sean.
He was watching me, with something so intimate in his eyes that I looked down again. It felt too personal even for me.
“No,” he said. “Jack, look at me. You are…you’re even better than I dreamed of, all those nights in the shower. You’re fucking perfect.”
“And I’m standing here with my ass hanging out while you’re still dressed.”
“I can fix that.”
He stripped with quick, economical movements, not drawing it out like I had done. And then we moved together quickly, because really looking at each other was almost too much. Sean’s hand slid across my chest and downward. I felt rather than saw the brief hesitation before he slipped his fingers through the coarse dark curls at my groin and wrapped his fingers around me.
“You’re already hard again.” He played with me, sliding his hand up and down and around my sensitive head.
I reached for him in my turn, marveling at the silky softness of him. He hardened in my grip, lengthening, stiffening, as I touched him. He filled my hand, bigger than me for all my larger body. I stroked him, rubbing my fingers around in the ways I’d taught myself for pleasure. Sean gasped and pushed against my palm, seeking more. I turned in and kissed him.
I’m sure there were awkward moments that first time, learning each other’s bodies. But all I remember is the deep heart-pounding pleasure of it. The taste of Sean’s lips and the beat of his pulse against my mouth. The way he felt in my hands, at once so hard and so soft. The sounds he made, as he rode my grip with ever wilder abandon. And the pure white-out overload of coming in Sean’s hands, as my own fingers filled with his slippery cream.
This, I thought. This was what I had been moving toward all these months, without really knowing what it was. This day and this man and this moment. And then Sean kissed my neck, and sighed against my skin. After a long slow pause, with my heartbeats still loud in my ears, we let each other go. And Sean stepped back and smiled at me, that smile that no one else has ever given me.
We stayed there for hours, kissing some, talking a little, rousing twice to please each other with growing confidence and skill. We might have spent the whole evening, if some doofus hadn’t forgotten to bring any food with him. We were growing boys, and the growls of our stomachs urged us pizza-ward. But we lingered as the sky turned to gold and red, dressing slowly, and grimacing over the crusty stains on our long-abandoned shorts.
“Well I just won’t wear them.” Sean pulled on his pants and stuffed his shorts in a back pocket. He yanked his T-shirt on over his head and then pushed my fingers aside to finish buttoning my shirt himself. “There.” He kissed my throat. “All put back together. No one will suspect anything.”
I laughed at him. “Right. Because you always come home with your hair in knots, a hickey on your neck, and cum-smeared shorts in your back pocket.”
“Did you give me a hickey?” He squinted down at himself, trying to see it.
“Here.” I touched the spot with my finger, and then kissed it softly. “Sorry.”
“Like hell. I think you wanted to brand me. We’ll have to trade shirts.”
We undressed again and swapped. His T-shirt stretched across my chest in a way that made him stop and run his hands over me. The collar of my button-down hid his neck well enough. He had a comb in the glove compartment of his truck and we tidied up, and then drove back to town fast with the windows open, singing along to Peter Gabriel and Genesis. Sean’s voice was better than mine.
Two blocks from the theater, he paused so I could jump out. We didn’t touch or even speak. Not there. But as he drove away he held one hand up against his cheek, thumb and pinky out in the universal sign for, “Call me.”
That night, when the lights were out and Gordon was shaking the floor with his snoring, I snuck that black T-shirt of Sean’s onto my pillow. And I fell asleep to the distinctive combination of mint and aftershave, motor oil and skin, that would always be Sean to me.
That was the best summer of my life. I remember it now in fits and snatches. Working in a professor’s bio lab, washing petri dishes, a plum job when half the young people in town were busy detasseling seed corn. (And the next summer, when money got really tight, I would find out how much fun that job was not.) Meeting Sean after work in the soft golden evenings, my skin smelling of warm agar and alcohol, Sean tasting like motor oil and paint, and neither of us caring.
Watching Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark for the fourth time, but the first time with Sean there. Both of us laughing like hyenas when he shoots the guy with the swords. With my leg against his, down in the dimness, ankles rubbing in promise of better things to come.
The night when Sean surprised me by putting me up against the peeling paint of the house and taking me in his mouth, and the night I got up the nerve to do the same to him. And just Sean. A hundred images of Sean. Jumping in the truck, laughing at a joke, lying back on the old blanket we brought, eyes closed as I sucked him down. Arguing over little stuff, animated and intense. The Black Hawks versus the Penguins, Special Export versus Grain Belt. Sean had opinions on everything and loved a good fight. And Sean looking up at the stars and talking about how he was going to New York some day and make something of himself, while the moonlight turned his hair to silver and I drowned myself in the sight of him.
By September we had our routines down pat. We had codes for where to meet and when. We could get each other off quick and dirty in ten minutes if that was all the time we had. But we still liked better to spend hours together, talking and touching. Or just sitting quietly, Sean reading while I studied. Sean loved books, but hadn’t read many outside of school. His father figured book learning was a waste of time for a mechanic, and there wasn’t any money anyway. I was studying British novels in my English class, and the scholarship covered textbooks. So when I was done, I passed them on to Sean. He loved H.G. Wells, and Frankenstein, but gave up on Dickens ten pages into Great Expectations.
So I guess we got cocky. We had been sneaking in fast sex outside our hideaway for a while. Sean’s idea. I’d been scared, argued vehemently against it, but it was hard to turn down Sean with his hand on my dick. I would kneel down in the front leg-room of the truck and give Sean a quick blowjob, out of sight from the ground, while he sat there and tried to act like he was reading a book. Or he would come around the back of campus and wait for me, up the hill beyond the stone wall. And he would put me up against the backside of a tree, out of sight of the student drinking spots, and blow my mind with his clever tongue while I bit my sleeve to keep from making a sound that might carry.
That night, we had been up on the hill. Sean blew me and then I jerked him off in return. And when we’d both caught our breath, we wandered down to where Sean had left his truck parked on the side of the road. It was a gorgeous October night, still warm, with the moon fat and orange on the horizon. We stopped at the truck. Sean would drive back to town, and I would climb back over Mount Trashmore and head to my dorm room. I had midterms coming up, and I needed to get in some studying.
We had been arguing about which sport was better, baseball or football. As we stood there beside the truck I finally said, “There’s something to be said for seeing all those big guys bending over and sticking their asses out at us.”
Sean laughed and leaned in and kissed me hard. And a quiet sedan rounded the bend in the road and came whipping toward us. The headlights caught us squarely, Sean’s lips locked on mine, his hand in my hair. For a moment we froze, staring at the car as it pulled to a stop. Then Sean pulled his hand free and shoved me toward the trees on the hillside. “Jack, run. Get the fuck out of here!”
I didn’t think, just obeyed the crack of his voice. I was three stumbling steps into the shadows of the trees when I caught myself and turned back. If someone was coming after Sean, I was going back to help him. But the voices from the car weren’t men’s, they were the light mocking tones of a group of girls.
“God, Sean Brennan. Was that a man you were kissing?”
“It was! Eew. That’s so sick.”
“Who’s the other faggot, Sean? Do we know him?”
“When did you go queer, Sean? What a waste. I really dug you in high-school.”
Sean did the smart thing. He didn’t explain, didn’t try to argue. He just got in his truck and pulled away. And I crouched in the darkness, listening to the girls laughing and complaining about how you never could tell and we’ll have to give Gloria the word because she was crushing on him. Until they drove away and faded into the night. I crouched there, sick to my stomach and shaking.
I didn’t call Sean that night. Sometimes if we hadn’t planned the call in advance I would get his mother or his father on the line. And I didn’t want to ask for him, in case he hadn’t gone home. Although where else would he go? I did call the next day, and got a busy signal all day long. And the day after, and the day after that, like the phone was off the hook.
And Sean couldn’t call me. The dorm had payphones out in the hallway. Calling out was easy. But incoming was a fraught business since you never knew who might answer the ringing phone, or how drunk they might be at the time. My mother had tried to call me once, and got some stoned junior who told her he was not Jack Korbel’s message service, and hung up on her. Sean knew better than to try.
A half dozen times in the next two days I cruised casually through town, running past the garage where Sean worked and looping by his parents’ house. The garage was open as usual, and I pulled in at the pumps. But the kid who did the fill-up curled his lip when I casually asked about “the other guy who works here.”
“That guy’s a faggot. He’s not around today, and I’ll kick his sick ass if he shows up. That’ll be four dollars and sixteen cents, sir.”
By the time Friday rolled around, I was frantic. I dug up enough money to pay for a tire and headed for Turner’s Garage to get my still-flat spare replaced. The gas jockey was nowhere to be seen, and old man Turner was on the desk himself. I explained the problem and asked if he could try to find the leak and see if it could be patched first. I knew that was a job Sean had often done, submerging the tire in a horse trough of water and looking to see where the air bubbles rose.
I told Turner I was fascinated by the procedure. I asked if I could watch. He snorted down his nose at me, but I was a paying customer so he hefted my flat spare and led me back around the shop.
And Sean was there, dressed in his overalls. He looked like hell. His eyes were ringed with black like one of those giant pandas at the zoo, and he looked ten pounds thinner. He didn’t glance at me as he took the tire from Turner and rolled it over to the water.
I went and leaned in against the trough beside him, pretending to be fascinated by the rising air. “Sean. Are you okay?”
He grunted. “What do you think?”
“We need to talk.”
Sean rotated the tire in the water, peering down intently as if some kind of answers would bubble up out of it. Finally he breathed, “The house. Ten tonight. We’ll meet there.” He raised his voice. “I’m sorry, sir. You see there? Something gashed the sidewall, all along here. There’s no way to patch that. You’ll just have to buy a new one.”
I followed Turner back into the garage, and paid him to order a new tire, since he didn’t keep the right size on hand. And I hung around putzing with the car, checking the oil and the tire pressures. I filled the tank again, although I could only squeeze a dollar’s worth into my almost-full tank and Turner looked at me oddly. But Sean never came out from around the back. And eventually I ran out of reasons to stay.
I got to the old house by nine thirty that evening, just in case Sean came early. And then I hung around and waited, my teeth chattering as the night gradually cooled. The moon was bright, creating sharp-edged shadows across the ground. I felt scared and sick, and yet in an odd way eager, like a balloon cut loose from its string. All that familiar routine was lost, but maybe there would be something good in the open sky we were suddenly forced into. Ten o’clock came and went, and then eleven. I was just deciding he’d given up on me when I heard the sound of the pickup climbing the hill.
I’d put my car behind the silo, so Sean could park the truck in the hidden spot. But he pulled in any which way, and left it standing there in the yard. I strode over to the truck and waited, while he stared at me out the window. Finally he shut the engine off and climbed out.
“Sean.” I reached for him but he ducked away from my hand.
“Sean, baby.” I caught his sleeve and reeled him in. He came stiff and unwilling, his head up high. But I caught the gleam of moonlight off the water in his eyes. “Oh, Sean.” I pulled his resistant body against me, running my hands up and down his back, molding my thigh against his. “I’ve been so worried.”
The breath he drew rasped like a sob, but his voice was steady when he said, “I’m okay.”
“You’re not okay.” I traced the bruises on his cheek, touched a finger to the two black eyes and winced in sympathy. “Who did this to you? Tell me who did this and I’ll fucking kill him.”
He pulled loose from my hands with a sharp motion and whirled to face me. “My father, okay? It was my father. He asked me if the rumors were true, if I really was a disgusting homosexual. And I said I was gay. And that was the first time he hit me. And then he said that I’d been seen kissing some older guy and he wanted to know who it was. Because the guy obviously made me queer. And I told him being born made me gay, and I wasn’t getting anyone else mixed up in this. And then he hit me in the other eye.”
“I’m grounded until hell freezes over, and he took back my house key and the keys to the truck. I can’t go anywhere unless he tells me.”
I glanced over at the truck.
“I swiped the keys. If I’m lucky, he’ll sleep through it. If not…” Sean shrugged.
“You’re nineteen. He can’t ground you.”
“Tell him that. His house, his rules. And even though I bought the truck with my own money, it’s in his name because I was only sixteen. So that makes it his.”
“You should move out, get your own place.”
“I’m thinking about it.” Sean walked away from me, staring at the ruined silo. Although I don’t think he was seeing old concrete blocks and mortar. “You know I’ve always wanted to go to New York. I’m thinking maybe now is the time. There’s nothing for me here.”
My heart dropped about a hundred feet down a mineshaft. “So I’m nothing?”
“No! Jack. You’re everything.” He came back to me quickly. “But don’t you see? We lucked out so far. No one recognized you, no one knows who you are. You can stay here and get your degree. You can do something with your life. As long as I stay away from you, no one will suspect. You’ll be safe. Maybe you can come see me in New York sometime.”
“So you get to go off and be gay in New York, and I get to stay here and pretend to be straight?” I got in his face, deliberately harsh. “What about the next man I date? Do I go sneaking around with him until something happens again?”
I was happy to see him wince at the question. But he said, “Hopefully, it will work better for you the next time.”
“I don’t want better. I want you.”
“Jack.” Sean put his palm against my cheek. “I love you. But I don’t think I can handle it much longer. You have no idea what it’s been like. Phone calls and people whispering, and half the time when I go in a store they pretend they can’t see me and serve the person behind me in line. And these are people who’ve known me since I was a baby. And my mother crying all the time.” He choked and stopped.
I bit my cheek. “What if I come out too, tell everyone it was me you were kissing? Then we’re in this together.”
Sean smiled sadly and shook his head at me, like he was ten years older than me instead of six months younger. “You don’t want to do that, Jack. I’m doing this for you too, you know. You’ll be safer once I’m gone. Tomorrow, I’m going to get a bus ticket, so he can’t accuse me of stealing the truck, and I’m going to hit the road.” He leaned toward me a little. “Would you kiss me goodbye, Jack?”
I stepped back. “Fuck that. Fuck you. You don’t get to decide for me, Sean. You don’t get to say ‘I love you’ and then just give up on us.”
His eyes snapped with temper and for a moment he looked like my familiar Sean, but then the defeated look was back. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Good luck with school and everything, Jack.”
I glared at Sean’s back as he walked away from me. It didn’t look anything like his normal confident stride. The moonlight turned his hair to grey. I kept staring as he put the truck in gear and drove back over the hill.
Suddenly I found myself running after him, my feet skidding on the coarse gravel. Up that small rise, heart pounding, breath tight in my throat. I was yelling, “Damn it, Sean, wait! Talk to me. Sean, you fucking coward, get your damned ass back here!” As I topped the rise, I saw his truck reach the main road and hesitate there, idling for a long, long moment while my hopes rose. Then he flicked on the headlights and turned for home. Only it wasn’t home any more, if that man wasn’t going to be there.
I grabbed a handful of gravel and threw it after him. Then a bigger rock, winging it with all my strength so it disappeared in the fickle light before it landed. And then I dropped right there, sitting down like my legs were gone, in the middle of that rutted dirt drive.
I couldn’t breathe. My eyes stung and the moonlight rippled and swam around me. I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t imagined this. Sure, things were bad, but Sean had always been the strong one, the adventurous one. Sean had jerked me off in the movie theater once, in the middle of the back row, laughing silently at me as I went from, “Oh, fuck, no,” to “Oh, God, yes,” with one of my buddies and his date six rows up the aisle. I was the one who had worried and planned, and tried to keep things controlled. Sean had been fearless.
Slowly I got my breathing under control, until my gasps were no longer the only thing I could hear. The wind was picking up, rustling through the dry corn and the abandoned stands of weeds. Somewhere off to my left, an owl hooted. On the road below, a truck rumbled by, oblivious.
And as I got less angry, and more heartsick, I tried to see what Sean saw when he thought about us. He knew I was leaving in three years. And I realized I’d never told him I loved him, hadn’t thought it needed to be said. Loving Sean was as essential as oxygen to me. But maybe he didn’t know that. Maybe he thought that in a few years I would go off and leave him here, in this dead end town, with all the scorn and pain lived through, and nothing but dust at the end of it.
I wasn’t the one walking around now with two black eyes from my loving father’s fists. I didn’t have to see everyone who’d known me since the day I was born looking at me like I crawled out from under a rock. Maybe this time, Sean needed me to be strong.
The eastbound bus left Carterville at ten AM, an hour before the westbound bus. When I got to the bus stop at nine-thirty, there was an old woman sitting on her hard suitcase, and a heavy-set man already waiting on the bench. The post office was open and I thought about getting myself a ticket on the bus, just to hedge my bets. But I didn’t do it. People walked past, shopping, strolling, stopping in to pick up mail. A young woman sat down on the bench beside the old man for a few minutes, until the sun got warm and she moved to stand against the wall.
Sean showed up about nine-fifty. He had a duffle slung over his shoulder, and a backpack on his arm. He looked old and tired, and a long way from the beautiful boy I kissed in the old abandoned house, back when neither of us knew what cum tasted like. He saw me waiting and stopped, and then trudged toward me again slowly.
When he dropped to a seat on the bench, the old man sitting there grimaced and said, “Damned faggots don’t belong on this bench with decent folks.” When Sean didn’t get up and move, the man made a big production out of hauling himself off to stand against the wall in the shade. I slid into the vacated seat. Sean didn’t look at me.
Out of the corner of his mouth, he whispered, “If you’re here to say goodbye, thanks but get the hell away from me.”
“Oh no,” I said loudly and clearly. “I’m here to go with you.”
“Fuck. Jack don’t waste this. You have a scholarship. Go home.”
“You see,” I told the waiting passengers, loud and clear as if my heart wasn’t trying to batter its way out of my chest. “I’m gay too. Sean here is my lover. And if he won’t stay here in Carterville with me, I’m going to New York with him.”
“Jack. Jesus!” Sean glanced wildly around at the people waiting there, and a couple of passers-by who had stopped to watch the show. “He’s joking. Jack is such a kidder.”
“Not about this,” I said. “Never about this. Sean, I want you to stay here. There are other gay guys on campus. They survive it. We can too. But if you won’t stay, I’m going to flush my whole scholarship down the drain and follow you. If there’s not a ticket left on this bus I’ll get my car and chase after it. And I’ll find you in New York, and stay with you, because you can’t get rid of me this easy.”
Sean’s face was buried in his hands, the tips of his ears burning red. “It wasn’t easy. Jack, stop, you’re crazy. Fucking certifiably crazy.”
I laughed, so freely. Because my secret was out there and it wasn’t ever getting stuffed back behind closed doors. And other than thinking that I might puke at any moment, I’d never felt this good. “What do you people say?” I asked, swinging in a circle to look at my growing audience. “What would it take to make you stay in small-town Iowa with the man you loved, instead of heading for the bright lights? Should I get down on one knee?”
Most of the faces around me looked disgusted, but a few looked amused. Sean’s face was concealed in his palms. I dropped to one knee in front of him. “Sean. Please. Three more years of school and then we’ll both shake the dust of this place off our boots. I just can’t leave yet. Stay.”
Sean lowered his hands and looked at me, his face painfully flushed. “God, Jack you never give up, do you?”
“Nope. Never. I need you. I’m so much better with you than alone. And now I’m out, and there’s nothing to protect me from by leaving. I’ll just be facing all the shit by myself if you go. Stay with me.”
Sean sat looking at me, his eyes slightly narrowed, shaking his head a little. I felt my heart sink. I swallowed hard and fought back a twist of nausea. Down the street, the incoming bus pulled up to the last stoplight, idling.
Sean stood and shouldered his bags. He tilted his head at me challengingly. God, he was going to make me do it. The bastard was going to make me chase him all the way to New York. I gritted my teeth and stood too. I could do that. Sean would see I was that serious.
The fat man pushed off the wall with a grunt. “You cocksuckers should both get on the damned bus and get the hell out of town.”
A woman said, “Mr. Simpson! Language.” She covered her little boy’s ears, but didn’t walk away from the show. Yeah, don’t teach the kid the words, but the hate is okay. I tried to focus only on Sean, and the train wreck my future was turning into.
Sean looked around our audience then back at me and his eyes began to sparkle. “Crazy Jack. Maybe I need to be crazy too.” He stepped closer, to where I could smell the mint from his toothpaste, and the faint whiff of motor oil on his skin. “Two questions.” I braced myself. “How big is your bed, and just how tolerant is that giant roommate of yours?”
I could feel the grin that stretched my face. “Not that big. And definitely not that tolerant.”
Sean nodded resolutely, hefted his duffle, and turned down the street. “Come on Jack,” he said over his shoulder as he walked away. “We’ll figure it out. Show me where you parked the damned car.”
Of course, nothing is that simple. We had our hard times that first year. My scholarship only covered living in the dorm, and Sean wasn’t a student, so we had to find an apartment. After the first four vacancies turned into ‘already taken’ when the realtors figured out who we were, I wanted to break something. We ended up with a one-bedroom in an old converted duplex owned by one of the sociology professors. Rent was always a stretch, but it was a decent place.
One of the worst times was when Sean’s father came by, about a month after we’d moved in. Sean told me that after he borrowed the truck that night, his dad tossed him out of the house. Just pitched him out with his backpack and his duffle on the front lawn. It was a good thing he was already mostly packed. But one of the things his dad wouldn’t give Sean was his beloved guitar. So when I saw his father at our door, with a slightly hang-dog look and guitar in hand, I hoped he’d come to make peace.
Until he told me that he and his wife missed the money Sean used to bring home. They’d sold the truck, but no one wanted the guitar so far. And if he had to have a faggot for his only remaining son, he thought he should get something out of it. He figured Sean might pay money to get his own guitar back.
I gave him thirty bucks we couldn’t really afford. Then I told the son-of-a-bitch that if he ever came around again without being ready to apologize to Sean and make nice, I would personally stuff his teeth down his throat. He huffed and puffed, and wanted to take me on. But I must have looked scary mad, because he left pretty fast. And then I had to tell Sean about it.
I didn’t want to. I spent a long time staring at that battered guitar case. I really wanted to pretend that his dad had done one nice thing for him. But a lie like that would come back to bite me, right about the time Sean would call his dad to thank him. So I told him the truth. And held him while he cried.
Sean was earning most of the money we had, but he was determined not to be what he called a burden to me. The dumb bastard pawned that guitar three times that year when things got tight, taking it half an hour away to a pawnshop that didn’t know who we were and would deal fair. And every time, I scraped together the cash to get it back before the ticket ran out. The third time, the pawnbroker asked, “Why don’t you just tell your brother to stop pawning your guitar?” And I handed him the cash and just smiled.
We had good times too, in that little apartment. The college lived up to the liberal part of its Liberal Arts designation and let me keep my scholarship. And old man Turner kept Sean on the job, and gave him more hours when the fuss died down. At first some people boycotted the garage. But they got tired of driving half an hour each way to find the next nearest place. And Sean had a near-psychic ability to diagnose an engine just from the way it sounded. He kept to the back and did his work, and people got used to it.
And three years later he was sitting in the back of the auditorium when they called my name with honors in Biology. A biomedical firm hired me for a lab job in upstate New York. And a talented mechanic can find work anywhere. We shook the Iowa dust off our shoes damned fast. I still can’t eat corn on the cob.
So this morning when I look at that man across the breakfast table from me, and he smiles, I see all those years, layered on one another like echoes in time. He’s heavier now, for the first time showing a small paunch on that stomach that was effortlessly flat for so long. His hands have a little looseness around the knuckles, although the line of grease under the nails that he never quite sheds has stayed the same. He wears a flat gold ring on one finger.
Twenty-eight years together, and I finally got to put that on his hand last summer.
“I want to do something fun and young for our anniversary,” I tell him. “Maybe sky diving. Sky diving would be cool. Or we could go scuba diving or sign up to learn to drive race cars.”
Sean looks at me from behind a fall of silken hair still more gold than silver. “You’re kidding, right?”
“You don’t like the idea?”
“Jack, I don’t want to spend my anniversary in a full body cast.”
“I’d still give you a blow job.”
He starts smiling. “You really want to jump out of a plane together?”
“Why not?” I walk around the table to him, and cup his cheek in my hand. His blue eyes are laughing at me. “Don’t bother to say no, babe. You know what happens when I have my heart set on something. I can get pretty crazy.”
He stands and looks me eye to eye. He had a late growth spurt, and now we match perfectly. Slowly he leans in and kisses me. “Oh, yeah, Jack,” he whispers against my lips. “I do remember.”
And his kiss tastes of corn pollen, and dusty dirt roads, and Iowa summer.