|NO BIG DEAL
Wringing out the dishrag and hanging it over the faucet to dry, Debbie sighed and let her shoulders relax. All done for tonight, finally she could turn out the lights and get some shut-eye; mornings came so early on her split-shift schedule at the cafeteria. As she always did when standing at the sink this time of night, Debbie leaned forward to pull back the cafe curtain and peer out the kitchen window at the sky, looking for her grandmother's star. There it was! Winking and blinking back at her with a reddish glow. Michael said it was really a planet, not a star. Anyway, it always seemed to be hanging low in the western sky, waiting for her to find it.
"Hi, Gram," she silently greeted her grandmother. Debbie knew it was silly, but still she got comfort from talking to her grandma, up there in heaven or on this blinking red star (or what the hell, planet). Debbie had been close to her grandmother, very close, and when a stroke killed her last year, as suddenly and as surely as a lightning bolt with a billion gazooms of electricity, Deb knew she had lost the only person in her whole life who'd loved her unconditionally. Well, okay, she and Vic were pretty tight, but Vic was off in New York City, having a gay old time. Deb smiled at her pun. She hoped Vic was happy; she loved the raunchy son of a bitch.
For weeks after her grandmother's death, Deb had done most of her crying outside, late at night in the backyard, so Michael wouldn't hear her and get worried. She'd spent a lot of time staring at the sky, and talking to her grandma, and some way or other, she'd decided to pretend Gram was sitting on this blinking star, looking down and watching over Debbie and little Michael. Oh well, it was easier to imagine her grandmother perched on a star, than to imagine her floating around on clouds playing a harp. Gram would rather play bingo and smoke unfiltered Camels anyway, which she was still doing, at 85, when the stroke had taken her away. Gram used to say, if smoking was not permitted in heaven, then damned if she was going to go there.
About to close the curtain, Debbie noticed another tiny, blinking red light, but not in the sky; it seemed to be coming from the bushes off to the left, near the back door. Squinting her eyes, Deb made out a shape, darker than the shrubs, crouched low to the ground. A dog? No, not a dog, the figure was smoking a cigarette. The red glow of the cigarette ember had caught her eye. It was probably a neighbor kid. Oh shit, it couldn't be Michael, could it? She'd caught him, and his bratty new friend Brian, smoking out behind the garage just last week. Michael had been green around the gills, sick to his stomach; he would never had tried that on his own, it was the new kid putting him up to it. Determined now to catch the boys in the act, Debbie hurried to the front door, opened it quietly and sneaked out, walking quickly and almost silently around the side of the house.
"Gotcha!" she called triumphantly, grabbing hold of the crouching figure. He cried out, jerked under her hand, and sprawled on the grass at her feet. As Deb's eyes adjusted to the darkness, she recognized Brian Kinney, grabbed his jacket and pulled him to his feet.
"Mrs. Novotny!" he croaked, "You scared me."
"Good! Where's Michael?"
Brian pulled away from her, and stood up straight. "How should I know? Asleep probably."
"Then what are you doing here?" When Brian didn't answer, she said, "I'm waiting."
"Nothing, I'm not doing anything. I was just - I was just passing by, and stopped for a smoke."
"Passing by?" Debbie repeated, sarcastically. "It's three o'clock in the morning, Brian Kinney, what the hell are you doing wandering around the neighborhood? I'm going to call your parents."
"No, no, no! Don't. Please don't!"
Debbie was surprised by the urgency in Brian's voice. Of course no kid would want his folks called in the middle of the night, but the fear - was it fear? - in the boy's voice made her pause. "You in trouble, honey?" she asked.
"No. Yes. Not really. Just, don't call them. Please. I'll go now, okay, I'm sorry and I won't do it again."
Debbie hesitated. "Come in the house, Brian. It's too dark out here for talking."
"We don't need to talk. I - "
"Oh yeah, we do. Come inside this minute, or I'm calling your dad."
Debbie turned and walked to the back door, pulled it open, and paused. "Now!" she insisted.
Slowly, slowly Brian approached the door, hanging his head; it wasn't till he passed her and entered the back door, that Debbie noticed he was limping. When they entered the kitchen, she flipped on the overhead light, and gasped when she got a good look at the kid's face. It was swollen, he had dried blood on his lips and chin, his hair and clothes were a mess.
"Honey, what happened?" she cried, reaching out a hand, but he pulled away, sharply, and backed off from her.
"Nothing. Nothing! Just a fight with some guys, no big deal."
"You're hurt, honey, come here and let me see you."
"No, Jesus, no, okay? It's nothing." He brushed the hair out of his eyes and stared back at her obstinately .
Just then they heard footsteps hurrying down the stairs, and Michael, in flannel Batman pajamas, burst into the kitchen. "Brian! It IS you, I heard your voice!" He stopped stock still, and covered his mouth with his hand. "What happened?" When Brian silently stared back at him, Michael whispered, "Was it your dad again?"
"Your dad?" repeated Debbie, shocked.
"Shut up!" Brian grabbed Michael's arm. "Shut up!"
"Honey," Deb was shaking her head, "Brian, honey, did your father do this to you?"
Brian rolled his eyes and sighed dramatically. "Of course not, Jesus Christ! It was just a fight, a fight with some boys from St. Anthony's." He edged toward the back door. "And I need to get home now, so - "
"Stop right there!" Debbie ordered. "Number one, watch your mouth, and number two, sit your little butt down right there," she pointed at a kitchen dinette chair, "Let me wash your face." Brian looked mutinous for a moment, then his whole body seemed to sag, and he limped toward the chair, sat down. "Why are you limping?" Debbie demanded.
"I fell down. Okay? I just fell down, that's all."
"Michael, get the first aid kit, would you sweetie?" When Michael scurried out of the room, Deb quickly whispered, "Brian, if your dad is beating up on you, you need to tell somebody. You - "
"He's not," Brian said quickly. "I told you." And he would say no more, though Deb kept after him for a few minutes, before giving up, in the face of the boy's unwavering stubbornness.
Michael returned with the first aid kit, and perched on a kitchen chair, fists held tight against his mouth in sympathy, as Deb gently washed Brian's face, noting the bruises on his cheek and under his eye, the split lip. She bit her own lip, to keep from crying, the poor baby, she thought. He didn't flinch, though she knew she hurt him a few times; he was one tough cookie. After much insistence, she got him to take off his jacket, his shirt, and she touched her fingers to an angry red bruise curling around his back - from a belt, she wondered? Christ, she would like to get her hands on Brian Kinney's dad.
"Have I met your parents, Brian?" she asked casually, as she stuck a bandaid over a cut on his chin. "Were they at parents' night at school last week?"
Brian snorted. "Not fuckin' likely."
"Language!" she reminded him, pulling hard on a lock of his hair. When he complained with an 'ouch!' she said, "We got a rule against swearing in this house, so cut it out." She stood back and surveyed the boy. "Well, Florence Nightingale I ain't, but I think you'll be okay."
"Thanks," he muttered, ungraciously, "Can I go now?"
Michael jumped up and grabbed Brian's arm. "Mom, can Brian spend the night? He hurts too much to walk home now!"
"I do not!" Brian contradicted, but he didn't pull away from Michael.
Deb shook her head. "No, his parents will be worried if he's not home, and it's too late to call and wake them up."
Brian snorted. "Nothing would wake them up anyways, they're out cold by now."
When Deb started to ask what he meant, Michael stage-whispered, "They drink a lot!"
"Shut up!" Brian shook Michael's shoulder.
Debbie sighed, but made a quick decision. "All right, kiddo, Brian can spend the night. What's left of it. Do you want to stay, honey?" Brian shrugged, like he couldn't care less. It was not very convincing. She was sure the boy was exhausted, aside from the pain of his injuries. "But no talking!" she insisted. "Promise you'll both go right to sleep?"
"Sure, Mom, sure, Mom!" Michael promised, grabbing Brian's hand and dragging him toward the stairs. "Come on!" Brian limped slowly up the stairs behind Michael, and Debbie turned to the mess she'd made in the kitchen. She'd have a hell of a time getting herself up in the morning, much less Michael and his friend.
Packing everything back in the first-aid kit, she rinsed out the washcloth she'd used on Brian's cuts, and then paused, to pull back the curtain and glance once more at her grandmother's star. "Thanks for looking out for us, Gram," she said. "And if you get a chance, could you maybe look out for Michael new friend, too?"
Poor kid, she thought, shutting off the lights and slowly climbing the stairs. No wonder he was such a handful, if it was true his dad was beating up on him. Deb knew that in this neighborhood, a lot of kids got spanked, and worse; she knew she couldn't do anything to change that. But she'd try to keep an eye on this one, this Brian, Michael's new best friend. If it happened again, maybe she'd have a word with the priest, or the school principal.
Softly Deb eased open Michael's bedroom door, to see if the kids were awake. The sight of the two boys, sound asleep and wrapped in each other's arms, made Debbie pause. Well, she thought. Well. Oh, she knew about Michael. He was just fourteen, but she knew, she'd known for a long time. She'd grown up with Vic, hadn't she? She knew, all right. But she hadn't known about Brian. "I wonder?" she asked herself. "I wonder?"
Vic swivelled his head around and nodded as the kid, Michael's friend - what was his name? Brian - came outside and perched on the lawn chair next to Vic, who was stretched out on the chaise lounge. Vic was in swim trunks, working on his tan. He couldn't afford Fire Island this summer, so he'd come to spend his week's vacation in Pittsburgh, visiting Debbie and Michael.
Vic looked the boy over - he was beautiful, he'd be a beautiful man, when he grew out of the awkward stage of being all knees and elbows. He was going to be tall, Vic guessed; he had thick, shiny brown hair and perfect skin, hopefully he'd avoid teenage acne. He'd be a real lady killer some day. Or maybe not. Debbie had confided to Vic her suspicions about Brian; he already knew about Michael as surely as Debbie did. Vic hoped Michael would have an easier time growing up than he himself had had.
"So," Brian interrupted Vic's thoughts, "You're the gay guy, right? You live in New York City?" He took a sip from a can of soda. When Vic nodded, Brian continued. "So, what's it like?"
"What's what like?" Vic asked. "Being gay, or living in New York?"
"I don't know. New York. Or both. I guess." He shrugged; he looked bored.
"New York's great," Vic answered evenly. "Plenty of clubs, lots of things to do." He hesitated, then went on casually, "And being gay is just being gay. Like having blue eyes, or being right-handed. Except that, some people don't like blue eyes, so you learn to watch your step, keep away from them. Otherwise, it's okay."
"Hmm," Brian nodded, draining his soda and crumpling the can in his fist. He studied the can as if it were a tiny silver sculpture, and asked, off-handedly, "So, do you have, like, boyfriends and stuff?"
"Yeah. Sometimes." Vic had pretty good gaydar, but he couldn't feel anything with this kid. And he reminded himself to be careful, careful; you could get in trouble talking about sex with minors. Vic had a friend, Georgie, in New York, who had a taste for chicken, and Georgie'd gotten himself in deep shit trouble once, with an underage pretty boy. Luckily, Vic only went for guys his own age, he'd never felt that pull. But you had to be careful, most of America still thought queers roamed the streets bent on raping children.
Brian glanced up and noticed that Vic was studying him. "Yeah, well, I've got a lot of girlfriends, myself. Lots." He tossed his head.
"I'll bet," Vic agreed.
"Yeah, I like pussy. I've screwed a lot of girls at school."
Frowning, Vic sat up. He was sure the kid was just bragging, he was only fourteen, for heaven's sake. Still, some kids started young, and this one was a looker; he could easily believe the girls were chasing after this little beauty. "If that's true, be sure you're always careful. Are you using condoms?"
"Rubbers?" scoffed Brian. "Ugh."
"'Ugh' is better than getting some girl pregnant."
Brian nodded and looked away, over the fence. The conversation stalled, and Vic shifted, started to lie down again, when the kid asked casually, "So, um, did you like, decide to be gay when you were a kid, or what?"
"You don't 'decide' to be gay," Vic replied. "You just eventually recognize that you are, deal with it, and go on from there."
"Hmm." Brian looked immensely bored, but Vic wasn't fooled. Something was definitely up, he now was sure of it. The kid was intently studying the crumpled soda can in his hand, turning it over and over, as if trying to read the scrunched-up label. "So," he said at last, still looking at the can, "So, umm, how do you, like, recognize it?"
Vic hesitated, then decided to be blunt. "If you're sexually attracted to guys instead of girls, that's a big clue," he said. When the kid said nothing, Vic went on. "Brian. . .Brian, are you worried that you might be gay?"
"Me?" Brian's held flew up, he stared at Vic with wide, scared eyes. "Me? Fuck no! Me? Ha ha!" Brian laughed loudly and stood up, tossed the can in the air, caught it, and flicked it over his shoulder onto the grass. "I like pussy. I told you!"
"Okay," Vic said soothingly; the kid was definitely freaked. "Okay, Brian."
"I was just - just making conversation, you know? Just being polite, you know? Jeez, you say one thing and people get all over you."
"Sorry," Vic said quietly. "Sorry, I misunderstood."
"Yeah. Well. I've gotta go now. See you around." Brian threw one last wide-eyed look at Vic, and hurried over the lawn toward the back alley; by the time he reached the garage, he was running.
Just then Michael came out of the house and the screen door banged behind him, making Vic jump. "Where's Brian?" he asked.
"He had to leave."
"Oh, no!" Michael cried, bereft.
"I like pussy," Brian reminded himself, once he'd stopped running and, breathless, threw himself down under a tree in the park. He did, too. He liked girls, he liked them plenty. And they liked him, they were always after him. He'd messed around with some of them, kissing them and rubbing their private places. It made his dick hard, just thinking about it. Or anyway, it did at the time, he remembered. He was no queer.
'What about Mr. Hawkins?' a tiny voice inside his head whispered. Mr. Hawkins. The P.E. teacher. Always wearing those tight shorts in gym class. For some reason, some stupid reason, Brian could hardly keep his eyes off Mr. Hawkins. He was tall and muscular, he worked out, some of the guys had asked him about it before, and Brian overheard. Free weights mostly, he'd heard Mr. Hawkins say, before he was out of earshot, walking quickly away from the others. Mr. Hawkins was married. He had a pretty wife. Brian had seen them together at school dances, chaperoning the kids.
"Are we queer?" Brian had asked him, afterwards. After he'd walked into the shower, got down on his knees, and sucked off Mr. Hawkins. How had he known how to do that? He didn't know. He didn't know. But he'd never do it again, that was for sure. It was a mistake, some kind of mistake.
Mr. Hawkins had helped towel Brian off; took him into his office and let him sit on a hard wooden chair in his damp clothes, waiting for them to dry.
"Are we queer?" Brian asked again.
Mr. Hawkins laughed. "Nah," he said confidently. "Just horny. My wife says all men are pigs, and you know what? We are." He laughed again. "Don't worry about it, son, okay? It's no big deal. Men just grab sex wherever we can get it, sometimes. But," and then he'd grown stern, fixed Brian with a hard-eyed stare. "But don't EVER tell anybody. We could get in a lot of trouble. BOTH OF US. You know?"
"Yeah," Brian agreed. He'd never tell anybody, he was sure of it.
A few minutes later, his clothes mostly dry, Brian had gotten up to leave the teacher's office. "Well, goodbye," he said.
Sitting at his desk, Mr. Hawkins was intently studying some papers. He mumbled, "Mmm-hmm," and casually waved a hand, without looking up.
Lying under the tree in the park, Brian stared at his arm, stretched out on the grass. A light breeze rippled the leaves on the tree, creating a shifting shadow-play of light and shade on his bare skin. Brian remembered how he'd felt, walking out of Mr. Hawkins' office last month. He'd wondered if the teacher would treat him any differently, after what had happened between them. And Mr. Hawkins had treated him differently, in a way. After that day, Mr. Hawkins ignored Brian, never cheering him on in class any more; never patting his shoulder like he did the other guys, when he shot a clean basket or made a good free throw.
Brian picked up a small white pebble lying near his shoulder in the grass. One side of the rock was thin and sharp. He lightly scratched the sharp edge across the back of his right hand. He scratched it again, harder. Brian watched as tiny droplets of blood formed on the edge of the cut. Another scratch and the drops pooled together, like raindrops on a windowpane. Another scratch, and the red pool flowed down the side of his hand, into the grass. It didn't hurt. Not really. Things didn't hurt you, if you didn't let them. Briefly Brian wondered if the scratch would leave a scar. He hoped it would. He wanted a permanent reminder that what had happened with Mr. Hawkins was no big deal.
Posted to ATP September 2001