"Then he told you?" Uncle Farid asked as he blew out a cloud of smoke, the cigarette dangling from his thin lips.
"And what did you think about it?"
"Richard conducted psychological warfare on him just like he did with me. That means it's in your area of expertise, not mine." After that declaration, I waited. Mutely, in fact, watching him as he watched me.
Eventually, looking as though I'd farted in church, he asked, "That's it? That's the sum total of what you walked away with after Nate told you what Richard did?"
"I'm not qualified to offer an expert opinion on the side-effects of Richard's mental voodoo on the man who once was my best friend."
Waving a dismissive hand at me, he huffed in frustration before explaining, "I'm not asking for a psychological evaluation, Greg, as you well know. Dodging the issue doesn't help us deal with it. Your conversation with Nate has direct implications for your own treatment. So, can we dispense with the avoidance?"
"Yeah," I mumbled. As I stared at him, I wondered where he thought he was going and why he thought he needed to go there. In exasperation I explained, "What I feel is a hollow sadness, a resigned acceptance of my fate, a profound disappointment, all of which you know already. So why are we focused on Nate instead of my depression and grief?"
"Dealing with the former will help us deal with the latter." Then he stared, his implacable stoicism challenging my emotional havoc.
After several moments in a silent standoff, I shrugged in defeat as I sighed. Then I moaned, "Fine." I rolled my eyes for his benefit, though he'd looked away by the time I did it.
He tamped the spent cigarette in the ashtray as he inquired, "You intimated that Richard's efforts with Nate were focused on his feelings—"
"There are none," I announced adamantly, now realizing the destination he'd had in mind all along, the one place I didn't want to go.
"Are none what?"
"What do you mean?"
Leaning forward so I could prop my elbows on my knees, I clasped my hands together and bounced my thumbs against each other as I stared at them. Several times I took a deep breath as though ready to delve into a meaningful treatise regarding Nate's feelings toward me. In the end, however, all I could do was drop my head and explain, "He adroitly maneuvered around the question when I asked for an explanation. Maybe he thought he expertly avoided the issue, but he didn't; he only avoided answering it despite it hanging between us the whole time pleading for a response."
After a deep inhale followed by a flustered sigh, Uncle Farid told me, "When you say 'there are none,' Greg, you sound very definitive."
"I asked. He refused to answer, instead trying to divert my attention to something else entirely. By not answering, he answered well enough."
"I don't think that's sufficient—"
"In fact, Uncle Farid, it is sufficient. Sure, Richard messed with his head the same he did with mine. For that, I'm regretful beyond words and hopeful that you'll help him overcome whatever impacts and influences the doctor had on him. The last thing I want is for Nate to struggle in life because of what that asshole did to us.
"But Nate and I have been inseparable for more than twenty years. If there's one thing he's demonstrated openly and repeatedly, it's that he's straight and—"
"Did he explain to you the precise contents of Richard's manipulations?"
Glancing up to meet Uncle Farid's solemn gaze, I nodded and said, "Yeah. So?"
"Just as you've been unduly influenced to act on Richard's instructions, does it not stand to reason that perhaps Nate—"
"I know where you're going," I interrupted, letting my head drop and hang sadly, eyes closed, "but I can't live my life based on what might be. What if are the two most painful words in the English language; I refuse to plan my future based on them. I can only act on what is. And isn't it just as likely that Nate's hesitation in answering is due to his own confusion?"
"Confusion about what?"
"Richard put those thoughts in his head, manipulated him based on his feelings and our friendship. Everything I know about Nate says he's straight, albeit terribly comfortable with any sexuality. Wouldn't it be likely that his inability to answer that simple question stems from the crap the asshole doctor put in his mind rather than what he really feels? I mean, Richard made him think there might be something there and now Nate's struggling with it because there's no substance, only suggestion."
"You're assuming, though."
"Maybe ... Perhaps ... It doesn't matter, not really. I gave Nate a chance to tell me if there was something, even if it was just hope. He backed away and refused to say anything, as though he didn't want to hurt my feelings with the truth. Which is what I suspect."
"What are you saying?" he asked gently.
"That was ten days ago. If he really had something important to tell me, if he really had feelings for me beyond what he felt as my best friend, why hasn't he called? Why hasn't he come to find me? He knows where I work, he knows he can catch me at Starbucks, at the gym, at Kyle's school and home. He knows my phone number. Even if it was just to tell me that there's nothing there, no reason left for me to hope, he could reach out to me. Again, if he really had something important to tell me, why more silence?"
"You asked him to stay away, to give you time and space."
"If he had something important to say, he wouldn't let that stop him. Neither would I. So I'll tell you why the silence. Our relationship really is over, and there never was any hope of something more than we had. All the feelings were one-sided. That's clear enough for me.
"He admitted Richard messed with his head based on Nate's potential feelings for me, whatever they might be, and made him fear anything other than friendship. From everything I know and our encounter in the parking garage, I realize now there was never a threat of any such feelings on Nate's part. Richard threatened him for nothing.
"That means it's over. Looking back I realize it was always going to leave me disappointed, wanting, hoping for more than he could give. There's nothing to go back to and there's nothing to fix, not if I'm ever going to get over him and find my own happiness."
Finally sitting back and meeting Uncle Farid's unwavering stare, the resolve I felt belied by the single tear running down my cheek, I told him, "I think in the future we should treat the subject of Nate in a clinical sense at it relates to my ongoing therapy for the Richard event." Wiping the tear away with an annoyed swipe, I added, "It's time for me to move on."
Uncle Farid leaned back in his chair and studied me with sympathy. But his eventual sigh was distinctly sorrowful.
* * * * *
December 19, 2016
"Why aren't we going to the hotel?"
Keeping my eyes on the road I replied, "Your mom called and told me she needs to talk to us."
I glanced at a wide-eyed and worried Basketball Boy in the passenger seat and chuckled as I lightly smacked his arm and said, "Dude, relax. Yeah, she said us, but it's not the end of the world."
The poor boy looked positively terrified. Somehow Kyle managed to sink into the seat, making himself smaller. "What's that about?" he muttered, more to himself than to me.
"Relax," I said in a warm, joking tone, an attempt to bring levity to his sullen demeanor. "It's been a while since we pillaged a town and it's been even longer since we robbed a bank, so I can't imagine it's about anything villainous."
The look he gave me was part accepting and part rejecting. Clearly, like teenagers everywhere, he could come up with all sorts of ways this would turn out badly.
I can't say as I blame him. It's kind of weird. And she sounded so serious when she called.
An inventory of everything Kyle and I had ever done together, ever said to each other, rapidly filed through my head for evaluation. I couldn't come up with anything untoward or problematic. Which left me back where I started: unworried yet curious.
"Don't let your imagination run wild," I said as I turned onto the street where his house and our house nestled amongst a veritable laundry list of trees.
I wonder where Nate is ... I thought, seeing the garage door closed and no sign of life around the home we once shared. Probably at work.
Maybe he's out on a date.
I shivered. Then I shook off the consideration, realizing that that part of my life was in the past. The parking garage conversation was more than two weeks into history. Whatever he might be up to, it was his business, not mine.
After parking in the driveway, Kyle grabbed his gym and school bags. I followed him through the open garage into their house.
"Come on in," Gerald called from the dining room.
Like our house, the garage door opened into the kitchen, but from there the resemblance quickly died. Unlike so many developments, this neighborhood had had more than a handful of home designs available as it was built.
Tastefully decorated with classic yet comfortable furniture, family photos adorning nearly every wall, warm color schemes throughout, their home felt like a place a family lived. Which was obvious given the game console in the living room, the basket of clothing sitting on the counter full of teen fashions, and the way Basketball Boy dropped his stuff on the bar as though it would magically make its way upstairs to his room.
Which might be just how it works, though I doubt Teresa is that tolerant of such assumptions.
"Don't expect me to pick up after you," she said as she came downstairs, thereby proving my supposition.
"Mom ..." he whined with a roll of his eyes.
"You heard me," she responded, though her tone was jovial. She pulled him into a hug as she asked, "You have a good day, honey?"
"SSDD," he replied as he tried to squirm out of her grip.
Oh yeah. Teenagers haven't changed since I was one. Public displays of affection by the parental units are verboten.
A plain man, neither attractive nor unattractive, Gerald had made his way from the dining room, beer in hand. His blond hair and neatly trimmed blond mustache were just shy of being noteworthy, the color a little too dark and the texture a little too coarse to draw more than a cursory look. His face was rounded without being chubby, his ears a little too prominent, his smile a little too crooked. He always made me think of the guy in the office who no one remembered five minutes after they met him, the meek, shy, reserved guy who never went out to lunch or drinks, who was always the wallflower at company events and parties, the reliable yet forgotten guy who quietly did his work before slinking away without notice.
But Gerald was anything but forgettable. What he lacked in looks he more than made up for with personality, wit, charm, charisma, and a gregarious nature. He was a social animal, good with names and faces and personal details, always cheerful and always friendly and always interested in what someone had to say. He personified the notion that strangers are friends you haven't met yet.
The man would make one hell of a politician.
He gripped my hand firmly as he welcomed me. "Good to see you again, Greg."
"Always a pleasure, Gerald. How've you been?"
"Great! How about yourself?"
"Busy with work, but that's as unusual as breathing."
As soon as he released my hand, Teresa stepped in and wrapped me in a hug, which I happily returned. "It's always a pleasure to see you, Greg," she whispered in my ear.
"The pleasure's all mine."
As she released me, she gripped my shoulders and held me at arm's length, her features taking on the look of a curious woman. "Kyle says you're working on starting your own business."
I shot Basketball Boy a stern look that wouldn't fool anybody due to the smile on my face, then back to his mother I said, "Yeah. It's a secret." Here I threw a silly frown at Kyle. Back to Teresa and Gerald, who now had an inquisitive look on his face, I added, "But I'll probably be ready to start business in a month or two."
"I don't think Kyle's mentioned it. What do you do exactly?"
"Computers, networks, servers, all that fun stuff."
Kyle's stepfather waved a hand in front of his face as though he smelled something foul. "You've already lost me," he joked.
"He knows all about technology, more than anybody in school," Kyle chimed in, sounding a bit proud. That amused me.
"It's a lucrative field, isn't it?"
I nodded at Gerald as I explained, "It's highly specialized, so, yes, there's ample amounts of money involved."
"Especially if you're good, right?" Kyle asked.
"I think it works that way in any line of work," his mother said.
"Where's MJ?" I'd seen neither hide nor hair of her. If she was in the house and she knew I was there, she'd be all over me. The fact that she wasn't told me she was probably not home.
"Visiting some friends," Teresa told me. Her voice and expression communicated more than her words.
They didn't want her here for this, whatever this is. Obviously it's more serious than I thought.
Other than heightened curiosity, though, I couldn't muster any worry. Nothing in the months of my friendship with Kyle struck me as nefarious or bothersome.
Waggling his empty bottle of Sol, Gerald asked, "Care for a beer, Greg?"
"That sounds good." I added a grateful smile to emphasize my words.
As he fetched two bottles from the refrigerator, Teresa pulled Kyle into the dining room and called over her shoulder, "You boys join us as soon as you have your fix."
Once he'd opened the beers, Gerald handed one to me, then we both joined his wife and stepson at the dining room table. I took a seat next to Kyle—doing otherwise would've put me at the opposite end of the table like a recluse or a reject—and Gerald sat next to his wife.
After taking a sip of beer, he took his wife's hand. He leveled an apologetic yet serious look at Basketball Boy. "You remember what we've been discussing about Orlando?" he asked.
Kyle's expression wilted from inquisitive to frustrated anger. "No!" he yelled. "You said it might not happen."
I schooled my features and remained silent, already fearing what this might mean.
"Honey," Teresa softly began, "you know—"
"No!" he yelled again.
Gerald couldn't muster a harsh expression, instead settling on distressed sympathy, yet his voice conveyed a no-nonsense sincerity. "Kyle, it's my job. You knew this was possible."
Maybe it was the stunned curiosity on my face that prompted Gerald to tell me, "I've been promoted."
"The big project in Orlando ..." I mumbled, my hand coming to rest on Kyle's shoulder. He flinched but otherwise didn't react.
Teresa nodded as her husband's subdued voice filled the room. "It's a big step up for us. I've been managing this project all along, from the beginning. Now they've offered me a promotion to move down there and manage the team once they're ready."
"When? Tell me when!" Kyle trembled beneath my firm grip. I rubbed my thumb back and forth across his shoulder trying to calm him, comfort him.
She couldn't hide the hurt she felt on her son's behalf as she said, "The first of the year."
Kyle jumped up so abruptly that his chair tumbled over backward, a dull thud against the plush carpet.
Just as I spun in his direction he shouted, "I don't want to go to Orlando! I have friends here! I have school here! I have—" His words froze as his eyes locked on mine. Then back to his parents: "I don't want to go to Orlando!"
Teenager tantrums are still a thing, I guess.
Before anyone could speak, Kyle huffed and spun away, stomping across the living room to the stairway, more a fitful jog than a mad stalk. The three of us watched him go. Like a heard of stampeding elephants, his progress up the stairs and down the hall was marked by deep, robust bangs where each of his vehement footfalls landed.
After setting the spilled chair upright, slowly turning back to the two people still at the table with me, what met my gaze were a couple of sorrowful yet hopeful looks.
"I'm sorry," Teresa mumbled with a shake of her head.
Why does this hurt so much?
Gerald took a sip of his beer, eyes cast toward the table, lips pressed tightly together in a frown. Then, meeting my pained gaze, he offered a little shrug before saying, "It'll be better for all of us. It's good money, good responsibility, a big leg up in the company."
He's apologizing without apologizing.
Throw him a bone already.
Leaning my head to the side, I tried to sound supportive and understanding despite what I felt. "That's how life works sometimes. He'll understand when he's older, when he has his own job to deal with, his own responsibilities." After a deep breath I added, "It's life."
I stood, lifted the untouched beer to my lips and guzzled down the entire bottle, set it quietly atop the table, then looked at Teresa. Pointing up I asked in a solemn and hushed voice, "Where?"
"The door at the end of the hall," Gerald answered automatically, appreciation gleaming in his eyes. Teresa gave a supportive nod but remained silent.
Kyle's door was shut, so I gently tapped it with my knuckle.
"Leave me alone!"
A momentary pause, a painful silence, then he said, "It's open," his muffled voice carrying anger and anguish to my ears.
Slipping inside and pulling the door shut, I ignored the typical teenager's room in which I stood, with the video game consoles and the television and the stereo and the desk and chair and dresser and clothes strewn about and shoes scattered hither and yon. What I didn't ignore was the unmade bed, for upon it sat a stone-faced yet misty-eyed sixteen-year-old boy whose world was crashing down around him. Or so he thought.
"Talk to me, Kyle," I said, worry clear in my tone.
Worry for him or for me? I didn't have an answer for that.
Even as I waited for a response, I made my way across the room and dropped onto the bed beside the youngster who looked mad despite the unshed tears in his eyes.
His defiant posture slipped away as his shoulders sank and his head fell. He didn't sob or sniffle or shudder, and he didn't weep or shout. Still, I knew he wanted to do all those things; the look on his face as he'd stared at me said as much.
Reaching over, I picked up one of his hands, intertwined our fingers, pulled his hand onto my leg and wrapped it with my other one. Then I quietly said, "Talk to me, Kyle."
It was the hands that pushed him over the edge, I think. It began with a lone tear and an angry huff, and finally he growled, "Why the fuck does this have to happen now?" Then he crumbled.
His weeping was silent, eyes red as his tears flowed freely, a solemn lamentation. I wrapped an arm around his shoulders and pulled him against me. All I could do was hold him. I couldn't fix what he thought of as broken.
What we think of as broken. You feel it, too, don't you?
After several moments of tense silence, he stuttered, "We're ... we're leaving ..."
"I know," I exhaled.
After a deep, ragged breath, he said bitterly, "We're ... moving ..." With that he seemed to shrink into himself as his tears fell. There was as much anger as sadness in them.
Fucking hell ... Who comforts the comforter?
Don't lose it, Greg. This isn't about you.
I strengthened my hold on him, pressing him against me. "Not for two weeks." To my own ears it sounded like an empty platitude, a banal, shallow remark with no meaning, inadequate words meant to placate while accomplishing nothing of the sort.
It took several deep breaths and several long moments before he could speak. When he finally did, I felt my heart break a little more than it already was.
"Two weeks," he spat, then added, "They're taking me away from you in two weeks."
I knew why I was hurting so much. I'd already lost Nate. And now I was going to lose Kyle as well.
"When did you first find out?"
He replied angrily yet without venom, "They've been talking about it for a few weeks."
He never said anything. Why didn't he tell me before now? At least that it was a possibility out there beyond the horizon somewhere?
Denial. You know a thing or two about that, don't you, Greg?
My hand slid from his back to his shoulder. I pushed gently, turning him toward me while moving us apart. I scooted away far enough to pull one leg up onto the bed and around behind him. Then I slowly pushed his legs up with my other one even as I pulled him to me. Gently I leaned back, taking him with me, keeping him pressed against me as I lay us both down.
Once we were settled, Kyle's shaking form resting atop my own, I kept rubbing his back and stroking his hair and holding him close. I kissed the top of his head but said nothing.
We lay like that for ten minutes as he silently cried angry tears against me, occasionally giving slight shakes of his head as if negating some proposition, from time to time huffing out a disgusted breath. Eventually he turned his face and rested his cheek against my chest. Basketball Boy stared at the wall without seeing anything. He needed to talk this through, but starting that process was his responsibility. I didn't want to lead him.
He sighed once, twice, three times, then he nestled his head under my chin and his face against my chest, his breath gliding between the buttons of my shirt and caressing my skin.
"I don't want to go," he mumbled softly.
Still stroking his back and his hair, still holding him close, I said, "You have to."
"I can stay here with you."
"That's not really an option."
"I don't want to leave you!"
"Sometimes we don't have a choice. Sometimes we have to do what's expected even if it's not what we want."
"I don't want to leave you," he repeated in a whisper.
"Don't they have telephone service in Florida? And Internet access?"
"Huh?" he muttered as he lifted his head to look at me.
"Kyle, you're not going to the moon. Florida's halfway across the country and it's just another state, not another planet. No, we won't see each other every day, at least not in person, but we can call and text and e-mail and video chat."
"And I can always go down there to visit you. I'm not tethered to Texas, dude. There's nothing that could stop me from going to Orlando to visit one my closest friends."
Dropping his head back to my chest, his tears stopped but his cheeks wetted, he shrugged as he muttered angrily, "It won't be the same."
"Of course it won't be the same, silly, but it's better than loosing touch with each other, isn't it?"
"Well, yeah, of course it is," he replied, making it sound like I was rather daft for mentioning it.
He squirmed a bit to get comfortable, still settled between my legs and atop my torso, bunches of my shirt gripped in his fists, his nose touching my chest as he pressed his face against me.
Under any other circumstances, our positions could be sexual, intimate, the prelude to something interesting or special. But not this time, not under these circumstances.
So quietly I almost didn't hear him, he whispered, "I don't want to live without you." It was less a whisper and more a breath of despair.
After kissing his head again, I said, "You won't be living without me. We'll be in touch all the time and we'll see each other as often as possible."
"But ..." His voice tapered off into the abyss of silent contemplation.
"What?" I whispered into his hair.
"I love you." He was so quiet, so nervous.
I gave him a squeeze as I mumbled, "I know. I love you, too."
"I know what you mean. I don't love you that way, but I do love you, Kyle." After a deep breath I added, "Maybe this is for the best." When he stiffened I held him in place and continued, "Being away from me might help you get over what you feel. You'll realize there are other guys out there, other guys around your age, other guys who aren't carrying the kind of baggage I have, and soon enough you'll have a boyfriend that you're madly in love with and can't live without, and you'll laugh at yourself for thinking you couldn't survive without me."
"I doubt it," he muttered with a subtle shake of his head.
Silence blanketed the room, cloaking us with wordless despair, unspoken desperation, mute distress. Slowly his breathing became regular, deepened, fell into the rhythm of sleep. I rubbed his back, gently ran my fingers over and through his short hair, stared at the ceiling, wondered how much more I might lose.
Little more than an hour later a light knock came at the door, quiet, unobtrusive. Not wanting to wake him, I looked that way and waited. The knock came again, as inconsequential as a dream. When at last no answer came, the knob turned and the door opened slowly, just a crack, just enough for a pair of blue eyes to peek through and meet my gaze.
Teresa pushed the door open enough to step inside, Gerald standing behind her, gratitude written all over his face. He leaned against the wall as his wife tiptoed across the room to the bed. She leaned down, pushed a few stray locks of her son's hair aside, kissed his forehead.
When she stood up, the affection with which her eyes showered me made me shudder and blush. Without hesitation she leaned down and kissed my forehead as well, cupping my cheek and rubbing gently with her thumb. Standing upright, she whispered, "Thank you. And I'm sorry." In renewed silence she turned and left, pulling the door shut behind her.
Hours passed as I held Kyle, as he slept, as thoughts whirled around in my head accompanied by tumultuous emotions. Feelings of loss both past and future. Feelings of growing loneliness. Feelings of aches that might never be soothed. Feelings of suffering. Feelings of need. Feelings of love that would never be returned and feelings of love that could never be.
When Kyle wriggled in his sleep and began to roll over, I gently guided him off me and onto the bed, pulling my arm from beneath him lest I be trapped for the night.
As I turned to leave, I thought better of it and looked back at the sleeping teenager. I didn't hesitate when I leaned down and kissed his cheek, smoothed his hair, whispered into his ear, "Goodnight, Basketball Boy. Sweet dreams ..."
* * * * *
"This'll be hard on him," Gerald said in a hushed tone.
"Kids have a mental plasticity and emotional elasticity that we adults often lack, something we sadly lose as we mature."
Both he and his wife looked at me, then they both smiled.
"You're right," Teresa said. "It's just hard to remember that when you see them hurting like this."
"He'll be okay," I reassured them, though I was trying to reassure myself as well.
"I'm sorry we dropped this on you."
"It's no problem, Gerald. I appreciate knowing."
"I appreciate you being their for Kyle," he replied as he ducked his head and smiled. "Sometimes I'm not sure how to relate to him."
"That's true for all adults and teenagers," Teresa said, rubbing his back.
When she walked me out to the driveway to say goodbye, she hugged me tightly, thanked me again, then added, "I know this will be hard on you, Greg."
"It's life," I whispered, then I climbed into my car and shut the door.
* * * * *
After watching Teresa give a brief wave before disappearing into the house, the garage door lowering quietly in her wake, I pulled out of their driveway and slowly drove down the street, eventually passing the house. With the garage door shut I couldn't tell if Nate was home or not, though it was near midnight. If he was home, he'd have seen my car three doors down.
Moving like a stalking cat, my car rolled quietly along the street, passing the driveway I'd once called my own, passing the house I'd once called home. Suddenly feeling like a stalker, I accelerated out of the neighborhood.
At the stop sign, I banged my palm against the steering wheel as I shouted, "Fuck!" Then I repeated myself over and over.
I held it in check for Kyle. I didn't want to make his trauma more severe by adding my own to his. But it feels like my life is falling apart. First Nate, now Kyle. Who's next?
"I need to feel connected," I muttered.
I need to feel alive. I need to feel wanted. I need to feel something real. I need to feel connected. I need to feel ...
Turning the car away from the hotel, away from rest, away from refuge, instead I drove toward an apartment complex not too far away, an apartment complex with a beautiful courtyard and a first-floor apartment and a restaurateur who happened to be exceptionally hot.
I needed to feel something with another human, desperately needed the connection, and I knew Keigan could help me.
But will he?
The odds are in my favor.
This chapter started on December 16, 2016, in the story's timeline. A lot will happen from that date forward to February 5, 2017, which is Greg's birthday, though his party will be held on February 3. You'll even discover what Nate mumbled in the parking garage and why it was important. Greg's birthday party is a night of revelations and hope, filled with the promise of happiness for several of the main characters.
Yes, this story is fast approaching its conclusion, albeit not too rapidly. Essentially, there's less ahead than there is behind.
On the night of February 5, Greg will finally--and happily--experience something he hasn't been able to experience since his fifteenth birthday. He just needed the right person to help him get there.
Have I revealed too much? Probably. But I'm excited that we're now in the final stages of this race toward happily ever after. So sue me!
As always, thank you so much for your comments and reactions! Each of you has made sharing this tale a worthwhile and exciting experience for me. I hope in the future I can provide more engaging content for you to enjoy. Cheers and best regards!