"Brian, see me after class, please."
Surprised, Brian nodded, then continued stacking his books on top of the desk while the other students filed out of the Chemistry classroom. Briefly he wondered if he was in trouble, but couldn't remember anything he'd done recently to annoy Mr. Renfrew. The teacher sat sorting papers at his desk and looked up as Brian approached. Renfrew was the epitome of the absent-minded professor, Brian thought; his hair always looked uncombed, his clothes rumpled, and things - keys, papers, coins - were always falling out of his pockets as if they were anxious to abandon their owner.
Mr. Renfrew set aside the stack of papers and folded his hands. "Sit down, Brian," he waved his hand at a front-row desk, and when Brian sat on the chair, he said, "You did very well on the organic chem test. In fact, you got the only 'A' in the class." When Brian nodded, Renfrew went on. "You're a smart kid, you've got great potential - when you're not cutting class or getting into fights."
Brian sighed. Another one of THOSE lectures. He glanced out the window, and started to tap his shoe against the chair railing. All he could do was wait it out.
"In fact, I wanted to ask if you'd like to join Science Club. There's a great group of boys and girls in the club this semester, and - "
"No, thanks," Brian answered shortly, getting to his feet and picking up his books once more.
Renfrew gave Brian a hard look that surprised him. "Please sit down, Mr. Kinney, I wasn't finished speaking."
Grudgingly, Brian sat back down, but he said, "I don't join clubs."
"May I ask why not?"
"You know, participation in clubs and other extra-curricular activities looks very good on college applications."
Brian snorted. "Well, I'm not going to college, so it doesn't mean a thing to me." He leaned back and folded his arms.
Obviously surprised, Renfrew stood up and walked in front of his desk, perched on the edge in front of Brian. "College is vital for children of your generation," he stated. "And a student with your intelligence can do very well, and prepare for a successful career."
"Not interested," Brian repeated, rolling his eyes and looking away, out the window.
The teacher continued earnestly, "Don't throw away your future, son, nothing is more important right now than school. I'm sure your parents must want you to continue your education - "
Without turning his head, Brian cut his eyes back to the teacher and interrupted. "No, they don't."
Brian perfectly remembered the day he'd approached his father about going to State College after graduation next year. His dad's words had been precisely, "You're a fucking idiot if you think I'm gonna pay for you to screw around for four years in some fucking college! I worked hard all my life and you're not going to college on MY back. You can fend for yourself, sonny-boy, same as I did, nobody ever helped ME, now did they?" He'd also made it clear that, if Brian expected to live at home for a single day after his eighteenth birthday, he'd be paying room and board. His mom had said nothing. When had she ever?
"They don't," Brian repeated, "And I have to go now, I'll be late for work."
"Where do you work?" Mr. Renfrew asked.
"McDonalds," Brian answered absently, standing up and gathering his books once more.
"Without college, you'll be at McDonalds forever. You know that, don't you?"
Brian glared at the teacher. The words stung. The words stung because he was afraid, really afraid, that they were true. Fuck you, he wanted to say, but didn't; instead he brushed roughly past the teacher and hurried to the door.
"If you want to go to college, Brian, if you really want to - there's other ways than parents."
Brian stopped with his hand on the doorknob. "Like what."
"Scholarships, loans, work-study."
"Not for guys like me."
"Exactly for guys like you."
Brian turned around and stared at the teacher. He hoped his eyes didn't show his hunger. "How?"
"Come see me tomorrow morning, before school starts. I'm usually here early. We can talk about ways and means. My sister's a counselor at Penn State. There's lots of resources out there for good students."
"Okay. Maybe. If I can." He tried to sound nonchalant as he turned and walked out the door, but despite himself, Brian could not keep from rushing through the hall and down the stairs. Don't get excited, he kept telling himself; Renfrew was an old loser. Probably just wanted more students in his stupid club. Don't get excited! By the time he reached the exit and saw Mikey waiting for him on the lawn, he'd calmed down and assumed his normal facade of cool.
"Science Club? Science Club?" Michael exclaimed, open mouthed. "Why in hell did you join the Science Club?"
"Just for laughs."
They were lying side by side on the floor of Michael's room with their feet on the bed, listening to Bruce Springsteen, eating Oreos, and doing homework.
"Who said," quizzed Brian, "'I regret that I have but one life to give for my country?'"
"Colonel Sanders? I don't know, who cares? Tell me why the hell you joined Science Club!"
Brian shook his head. "It's a secret."
"Promise not to tell?" When Michael nodded, Brian whispered, "Terry Johnson says that they're learning how to build bombs, in the club. I'm going to build a HUGE bomb and blow up the whole fucking school!"
Michael's eyes widened alarmingly. "No! No, Brian, you can't do that!"
"Why not? You can help me. You hate the school too. We'll be heroes."
Grabbing Brian's arm, Michael pleaded urgently, "No, no, please don't, Brian! Please!"
Brian burst out laughing; Mikey was so easy.
"Shit," Michael said, deflated. Then he got mad. "Damn you, Brian Kinney! You asshole!" and he reached out a clenched fist to punch Brian's ribs, but Brian caught his hand and held it. He grabbed Michael's other hand and flipped him over on his back, then straddled Michael's chest and pressed his hands flat on the floor.
"Gotcha! Gotcha!" he crowed to his struggling friend. Then he whisper-shouted, "Oh, no, here comes MISTER HANDS!" Michael shrieked with laughter as Brian's hands turned into a tickle machine, roaming quickly all over Michael's prone body till Mikey was squirming and giggling.
Brian laughed too, they rolled around on the floor hanging onto each other and laughing, till they were out of breath, then lay twisted together, gasping and hiccuping. Gradually Brian became aware of the warmth of Michael's body, pressed close to his; he breathed in the Mikey-smell of Irish Spring and old comic books and Oreos. Their legs entwined, Brian was aware of Michael's dick, growing hard beneath the fabric of his jeans. Just like his own was. They lay frozen for a moment, then Michael disentangled a hand from his twisted shirtsleeve and slowly, hesitantly, reached out to brush the hair from Brian's eyes. They stared at each other for an eternity, till Brian took a deep breath and said, extraordinarily calmly, "Let me up, I gotta take a piss." He tore his eyes away quickly, but not before he saw disappointment cloud Mikey's face.
Hurrying to the bathroom, Brian locked the door, flushed the toilet, and stood still, staring at himself in the mirror. "No!" he whispered. "No! You can't." God, it wasn't fair. He wanted Mikey. He'd always wanted him. And now, when finally Michael was ready, was wanting him too, Brian couldn't have him. It wasn't fair.
"Life isn't fair," he'd heard his dad say dozens of times, when he wanted a bicycle, when he wanted a skateboard, when he didn't want to change schools. Oh, he knew it was true all right. And Vic had said the same thing, the time Brian called him, crying because Charlie was getting hot-and-heavy with somebody new, a tall, thin boy named Paul, and wouldn't see Brian any more.
"Get over it," Vic had advised; harshly for Vic, who was always so kind and never teased Brian when he asked stupid questions. "Charlie's my friend, but he's no good for you, and not just because of his age." Brian had been shocked to discover that Charlie was almost thirty; he didn't look old. Luckily, Paul moved to Dallas in the summer, and lately Brian had been able to go over to Charlie's house again. Not often, but sometimes.
Charlie had taught Brian so much. How to put on a condom, how to rim, and, oh, lots of other things, not just sex stuff. About dealing with people and about relationships. It was Charlie who'd explained that you can't have sex with friends; sex ruins things, he'd said, and shared awful stories of ruined friendships from his own life. At first Brian didn't believe that could happen with Mikey, nothing could ruin their friendship, they'd been tight almost from the moment they met. They shared everything, well almost everything. Michael was the only person in the world Brian told about his dad beating up on him, and Mikey shared his own feelings about his dad abandoning his family. Nothing could change that closeness Brian and Michael shared.
'But what if it did?' he'd asked himself, over and over in the quiet moments inside his head. What if it did? Brian could not bear, really could not bear, the thought of losing Michael. If he could not escape to Michael, if he no longer could crawl into Mikey's bed for comfort in those scrawny arms; if he couldn't escape to the Novotny house for Debbie's pasta and hugs; if Michael somehow started hating him, and then maybe Uncle Vic would hate him too. . .then what would Brian have left in his life to escape to? Nothing. Nothing and nobody.
Not Charlie. Charlie liked him okay, but he'd made it clear from the beginning that Brian was not his boyfriend; Charlie didn't have boyfriends. Charlie would kiss him, Charlie would fuck him, and Charlie would take him on fabulous sexual adventures in the kidnap-house on Church Street. But only sometimes. Only when he wasn't busy doing something, or someone, else. Brian accepted that. It was okay. Or, if it wasn't really okay, what choice did he have?
Looking deep into his own eyes in the mirror of the upstairs bathroom, Brian sighed. He was ready to return to Michael's room now; nothing would happen. He wouldn't let it happen. Sex was sex and friends were friends, and the only true friend Brian had ever had, the only person in the whole wide world that Brian had ever cared about, was Michael Novotny. Sex you could get anywhere; Charlie said so, and hadn't Brian proved it to himself, many times now? If Michael was ready for sex, he'd have to get it from somebody else.
It had been one of those lucky evenings, one of those times Charlie let Brian come over to the kidnap-house. Inside his head, Brian always thought of the house that way, it lent an aura of danger and adventure to his times with Charlie. They had smoked a joint and drank a bottle of beer (Charlie had had several bottles of beer), and Brian had been introduced to the intense pleasure of sixty-nine. They lay spent, exhausted, the perspiration drying on their naked skin as they sprawled on Charlie's bed.
Soon Brian would have to get up, get dressed, and go home to his lonely narrow bed. He wanted to roll over, wrap his arms around Charlie, fall asleep in his arms. But Charlie didn't like afterwards-hugs. "When it's over, it's over, you can't relax with somebody hanging off of you," Charlie explained, and Brian nodded. He was sure that was true. But he sort of wanted to do it, anyway.
The house was dark when he got home, about two in the morning; a good sign that he could get up to his room without seeing anyone. Bad timing made him enter the upstairs hallway just as Clare came out of the bathroom. "You're home awfully late," she said loudly, accusingly. "It's a school night."
God, he fucking hated Clare. "Shh," he implored. She ought to have more sense than to wake up their dad in the middle of the night. Clare had had her share of beatings, too, although now that she was working full-time as a secretary at an insurance company and paying room and board, Pop didn't seem to bother her any more.
"You smell like beer," she said accusingly, standing with hands on her ample hips beneath the long flannel nightgown she wore.
"Shh," he repeated, moving away toward his room.
"What the fuck!" he heard his dad growl, and Brian's heart leaped in his throat. The hall light was snapped on, and he just had time to see a gleam of satisfaction come into Clare's eyes before Pop had come roaring out of his room and stormed into the hallway.
"Brian just got home this minute and he stinks of beer," Clare reported, then suddenly Pop was grabbing Brian's jacket, pushing him backwards across the hall. Brian saw his mom framed in the bedroom doorway, watching silently. Always she watched silently. He fucking hated her, too.
Brian crashed against the wall and barely caught himself in time to keep from falling to the floor. His father's fist came whizzing toward his face, and Brian twisted away at the last minute, so Pop's hand smashed into the wall instead. His roar of pain and fury nearly drowned out the sound of smashing glass, as a framed photograph fell to the floor with a crash. Pulling away, Brian backed off from his dad; he wanted to run away, but he knew that would make things worse; he'd tried that before. Get it over with, that was the best way.
Jack was holding his hurt hand, moaning. Then, "It's broken," he said in a normal tone of voice, which scared Brian more than shouting. "You broke my fucking hand, you fucker." His dad thew back his head and glared at Brian. "You're going to reform school this time. Joanie, call the police."
Brian's mom stood like a statue in her long blue chenille robe, hugging herself. "We're not going to give the neighbors a free show, calling the police in the middle of the night," she said coldly. 'You want to make a laughing-stock of yourself, do it somewhere else." She turned and went back in the bedroom, shutting the door behind her. In the silence of the hallway, Clare also divorced herself from the scene, and went into her room, shutting the door.
Brian and his dad were left to stand staring at each other. Pop was calm now, and surprisingly, sober. "Look what you did to your father," he said, holding up his injured hand. The knuckles were grazed and bleeding.
"I'm sorry I was late," Brian answered evenly. He wasn't sorry about his dad's hand, and he wouldn't pretend to be, either. "Do you want me to put on a bandage?" He pulled open the bathroom door and flipped on the light. Pop followed him in and sat down on the toilet.
Pop rested his hand on the sink. "You smell like beer and sex," he said. Brian could feel his dad's intense stare, while he busied himself with cotton balls and hydrogen peroxide, and searched the cabinet for band-aids.
"I had one beer, that's all." You couldn't smell sex, could you? he wondered.
His dad was silent as Brian spread ointment on the scraped knuckles and applied two band-aids. Jack flexed his hand and nodded with what passed for approval of the bandaging job. He continued to stare, and Brian finally had to return his look.
"You turning into a lady's man, sonny-boy?" Pop asked.
Brian shook his head. "No," he answered honestly.
"Hunh." Pop stood up and punched Brian's arm with his good hand, but lightly. "Gonna be a lady's man, like your old dad, I bet," he gruffly whispered. "That's okay. Just be careful. They're bitches, all of 'em. You being careful?"
"I'm not - I don't - "
"Yeah, right. You're not and you don't! Ha! Don't try to kid your old man," he smirked. "Just be sure you're using rubbers. Some little bitch'll get pregnant, just to spite you."
"Okay," Brian agreed. Jack punched him again, a little harder, then stepped out of the bathroom and into the hall.
"Clean up that broken glass before you go to bed," he ordered, over his shoulder.
Michael was excited, so Brian forced himself not to complain; they were going to a party. Half the junior class had been invited to a Halloween party at the Gunnerson's, a rambling ranch-style home situated just barely within the confines of their lower-middle-class neighborhood. They had been there two years before, at a 14th birthday party for Stacy Gunnerson, daughter of a school board member. Stacy was one of those pretty blonde cheerleader girls, always dressed in expensive clothes and wearing a lot of makeup. Her brother Roger was also blond, and ruggedly handsome; he was a senior, captain of the football team.
It was a costume party, but Brian had resisted all Michael's coaxing to dress up. Micheal was dressed as a wizard, in a long flowing purple cape that Debbie had whipped up on her sewing machine. Brian had only agreed to go to the party if he could wear jeans, and the black leather jacket that Charlie had given him. He'd convinced Pop the jacket was cheap vinyl, bought at J. C. Penney with his McDonalds earnings. Brian knew the jacket had cost two hundred dollars, because he was with Charlie when he bought it, for Brian's sixteenth birthday.
The party was just as boring as Brian knew it would be. The rooms were crowded with dancing, laughing, chattering teenagers and loud music blaring from a dozen speakers. Brian had joined groups of dancers from time to time, he'd drunk innumerable cups of sickly-sweet pink punch spiked with vodka, he'd even spent some time in Mr. Gunnerson's den, running his eye over the leather-bound volumes of Great Books lining the shelves. Now Brian wanted to leave; he couldn't understand why Michael wanted to be a part of this kind of celebration.
Sometime around midnight, Brian lost track of Michael. He searched the kitchen and the family room, and finally stepped outside through a sliding glass door. The patio was dimly lit by candles set on filigree white metal tables scattered around a kidney-shaped swimming pool. It was chilly; air off the heated pool rose into the evening air in a steamy blur, but Brian noticed a couple huddled on a lounge chair in a secluded corner of the patio, making out, despite the cold.
A moment later, the door slid open behind him and Stacy Gunnerson emerged. She was dressed like a princess in a long sparkly blue dress with a rhinestone tiara, and held a wine bottle in one hand. "Hey," she whispered, "Gimme a cig?" He shook his pack and then lit the cigarette she raised to her lips. She put fingers on his hand to steady the match. Exhaling a cloud of smoke, Stacy asked him, "Having a good time?"
Stacy laughed. "Yeah, right, you're bored to death, aren't you?" When Brian didn't answer, she continued, "You're Mister Standoffish, huh? Everybody says so."
"I'm not," he denied. "Not standoffish."
Brian was annoyed. "I'm not shy, either." Without waiting for an offer, he grabbed the wine bottle and took a swig. It was white wine, slightly sweet and cloying. Stacy took the bottle from him, tilted her head back and emptied it in one long drink. He watched her throat working as she swallowed, and for a moment it reminded him of Charlie, sucking and swallowing Brian's cock last Thursday night.
Something made Brian reach out a finger and wipe a drop of wine from Stacy's lips. She grabbed his hand and held it tight. Swaying slightly, Stacy smiled seductively and raised his hand to her mouth, took his index finger between her lips, and sucked it. Brian felt his balls draw up and tighten. "Wanna come to my room?" she asked, slurring her words. Brian realized she was very drunk; he tried to pull his hand away, but she held on tight.
"I can't, I'm waiting for somebody," he said.
Stacy giggled. "Yeah, Michael Who's-it, I bet. Your little boyfriend."
"He's not my boyfriend. He's my best friend."
Brian tried to pull away but she clung to his hand and laughed up at him. "Some people think you're gay, you know that? You and your little friend."
"I don't care what people think. They're wrong, but I don't care, anyway." Brian tried to look unconcerned, but he was pissed. He didn't like people talking about him. It didn't matter. Except that it did.
"Then come up to my room," she said, leaning against him. Her hair smelled like lavendar. "I'll suck your cock. You can pretend I'm a guy."
"That too, if you want."
Stacy giggled, turned slightly to set down the empty wine bottle on a filigree table, but missed by several inches; Brian barely caught the bottle and laid it down flat. Vaguely he heard it roll off and fall to the ground without breaking, and they listened to it roll away over the patio, away and away and away while they stared at each other. Then Stacy leaned her whole weight against Brian; he had to put his arms around her or she would have fallen at his feet. "I feel dizzy," she told him, "Would you help me upstairs to my room?" She swayed, her eyes closed, and Brian stood undecided, propping her up.
Brian didn't want Stacy Gunnerson touching his dick. Yet Charlie had told him he should try pussy some time, just to be sure he didn't like it. Brian had messed around with girls, back in junior high. Nothing major, just kissing them and feeling them up. It had made his dick hard, he remembered, but maybe just because it was excitingly forbidden. At sixteen, Brian was sure he didn't want pussy, yet Charlie always seemed to give good advice. And it would make a story, an adventure, to tell Charlie, the next time he invited Brian over. "Okay," he said at last, surprising himself. He slid open the patio door and helped Stacy into the house and up the stairs. Brian glanced around, but there was still no sign of Mikey.
Stacy's bedroom was pink. The walls were pink, the carpet was pink, the bed was pink. Brian felt faintly nauseous as he shut the door behind them and helped Stacy across the carpet to her bed. He'd thought she was faking, but apparently she really had felt dizzy, because when she sat down on the bed, she missed the edge, and slipped to the floor with a thump. Stacy crowed with laughter and sprawled, spread-eagled on the floor. Brian leaned down and got his arms around her shoulders, hoisted her up, nearly dead weight in his arms; got her upper torso on the bed, then lifted up and laid down her legs, one at a time. When he turned to look at her face, Stacy Gunnerson was passed out cold. One arm dangled over the edge of the bed, and she was quietly snoring, her lips parted and a drop of saliva forming in the corner of her mouth. Slightly revolted, and greatly relieved at this reprieve, Brian left the room for the darkened hallway, and pulled the door shut behind him.
At the head of the stairs Brian paused. He heard what sounded like soft moans coming from a room directly across the hall from Stacy's. He shrugged; someone else was getting lucky, probably another cheerleader seduction. He took one step down, then paused again. The moaning voice was somehow familiar. Who was it? Then, feeling like a spy on a bad tv show, Brian tiptoed over to lean against the door and press his ear to the wood panel.
Suddenly the door flew inward, it had not been completely latched; it slammed against the wall with a loud WHAP! and snapped immediately back again, rapping against Brian and almost knocking him off his feet. Brian stood transfixed, staring at the tableau on the bed directly in front of him.
"Ohmygod, Brian! Ohmygod, Brian!" squeaked Michael, naked as a jaybird, sitting upright and pushing away the curly blond head bobbing up and down on his engorged cock. "Brian!"
But Brian had turned away and rushed out of the room, ran down the stairs and out into the street. It had started to rain but he kept on running and running, till he tripped over a curb and went sprawling face-first onto somebody's grassy lawn. Gasping and coughing, Brian gagged, then threw up; he threw up sweet white wine and pink fruit punch and vodka and all the chips and dip he had consumed during the past three hours. When his breathing returned to normal, Brian stood up and walked home. His mind was blank, totally blank. He refused to allow himself to think - not about Mikey, and not about the captain of the football team who'd been sucking Mikey's cock.
When Brian saw Michael enter McDonalds next day, he took a deep breath. He was ready to face Mikey, and he asked Rudy, the manager, if he could take his break. When Rudy nodded, Brian grabbed his leather jacket, slipped under the counter and approached the corner where Michael stood, looking pale and nervous. "Let's go outside, I need a smoke," Brian said. They walked across the parking lot to the big yellow dumpster, and stopped while Brian lit a cigarette.
"Brian - I'm sorry," Michael said earnestly, putting a hand on Brian's arm.
Exhaling a cloud of smoke that ringed his head, Brian said, "For what?"
"I - I thought you knew I was - I thought you knew I was - "
"I did." Brian took another deep drag off his cigarette. "I do. I always have."
Michael was squinting anxiously at Brian's face. "And I - don't get mad, but I - I thought you were, too."
Brian nodded. "I am. Of course I am, Mikey." He made himself smile, and put an arm around Michael's shoulders. And then suddenly it was all right, and he relaxed, and really smiled, and then chuckled. "You just surprised me, is all. You and Roger Gunnerson, wooo!"
Michael laughed too, but uncertainly. "He surprised me, too - haha! He was drunk as a skunk! He saw my purple robe and thought I was Cleopatra or something!"
"Cleopatra with a dick!" Brian joked, punching Mikey's shoulder. Mikey punched him back and they roared with laughter. Then everything was okay again.
"Was that your first blow job?" Brian demanded.
"No," Michael admitted, then added, "My second. My first was Marcia Grundig, last year at that Stevenson kid's party. But she charged me five bucks!"
When they stopped laughing about that, Michael asked, tentatively, "Have you - been with. . .anybody?"
Brian ground out the cigarette butt under his heel and put his hands in his pockets. "I've been with LOTS of guys," he bragged.
Brian couldn't wait to tell Mikey all about his adventures; he'd wanted to tell him for such a long time. Now they could be best friends without secrets, best friends who could share everything. No more secrets. They'd already shared all the bad stuff, really; and now they could share all the good stuff, too.
After Michael had left and Brian returned to work, flipping burgers and assembling Big Macs, he felt a sense of relief. Now that Mikey was having adventures of his own, there would be no danger of the two crossing the line, that dangerous line into buddysex, which Charlie'd convinced him would lead to the death of their friendship. Brian sighed deeply. Now he could relax.
Except. . . except for one, small nagging thought in the back of his mind: Seeing Michael with another guy, Brian had been. . . jealous? He admitted it to himself now, he'd been jealous. He didn't like seeing somebody else touching Mikey. His Mikey. Now other guys would be kissing his Mikey, fucking his Mikey, maybe falling in love with his Mikey. Charlie didn't believe in love, and Brian didn't, either. But he was afraid, very much afraid, that Michael did. What if Michael fell in love with some guy, and that guy stole Mikey away from him?
Brian didn't believe in love, and he wasn't sure he believed in God, either. But standing at the counter, tossing lettuce and pickles on top of two all-beef patties on a sesame seed bun, Brian found himself praying: "Please, God. Please-please-please, God, let Michael love only me. Only me. Forever and ever, amen."