If you think about it, amazing is the word that comes to mind when I think about anyone getting together. It's so hard to find the combination of a person you can love and be attracted to their outside as well. A combination of just the right things has to happen, and I've often thought that many people settle. They just don't want to be alone so they go with 'close enough', and never reach a happy place or they keep cycling through partners, maybe forgetting what they were looking for in the first place.
Hal hit some of my physical buttons, being shorter than I was with a smaller build. He was also intelligent, and despite being attractive his ego wasn't out-sized. I liked that family was important to him, and that he'd done the right if difficult thing in coming home to take care of his sister. I liked the unusual way he blushed, just the top of his cheekbones coloring. I liked the way I felt around him, and I think I'd been afraid to let myself feel that because I didn't think I'd be the kind of guy he'd like. It can be tough to be older and gay, especially if your tastes run toward younger men.
Two years after Ray and Amber died I'd started trying to go back to some of the bars and hangouts that Ray and I had enjoyed, but I found as a single man I had somehow passed my 'sell-by' date for too many men. They would sneer, roll their eyes or give me a pitying look and it became too much to bear. I tried dating men my own age, but we all look alike - a combination of some sort of belly, receding hairlines and gray enough to call distinguished. I have a little belly going on, my hairline is holding steady, but there are a few areas starting to go gray as a for instance. It's natural, it's what happens and some people find it attractive - I don't.
Of course my goal is to fall in love, deep and pure so that when those physical inevitabilities come along, they don't matter. I had that with Ray. After ten years together, when we both were starting to sag a bit, he was just as beautiful as ever. I figured maybe I'd had my one chance and it had passed, but now Hal was opening up possibilities. It was exhilarating and refreshing to feel a mental wind blowing through areas of my mind and heart I'd thought doomed to be filled with nothing more than echoes of my time with Ray.
Amber was something else. We'd adopted her through a distressed distant relation of Ray's. I think a person does better with parenthood when they go through the months of build-up, the anticipation. For us, it was a 'boom, here she is' kind of thing. Instantly our lives were chaos, and I shamefully admit I resented it a bit. The broken sleep, the diapers, the hell that is potty training...it takes a toll. We were no longer energetic enough to go out, to enjoy things we used to before we'd had Amber. Eventually we adapted into a new normal, one so deeply rooted it had nearly killed me when they'd died. In a way that experience made me afraid of Isaac. He was the perfect example of a good kid in a bad situation. In my mind he was doing remarkably well, and his father was a fucking idiot for not having stayed for him. It was sorely tempting to say I'd step up and take on that role, but I wasn't equipped and it was a temporary situation. Mona would come strolling back from wherever it was she'd buggered off to, and he would go back and that would be that.
I glanced back at the text messages and thought of Hal's kiss. My heartbeat tripped over itself. Sometimes it was amazing to consider the wonder of possibilities.
Isaac and I picked up the house, did laundry and went grocery shopping early on Saturday. He was a little prickly to start with, but once he was fully awake he proceeded to grouse. I ignored him for the most part as I didn't enjoy the chores either, but I also recognized the need to let out that displeasure by grumbling. He didn't grumble at me, just in general. One pleasant surprise, though, is how good a job he did with his tasks. I let him choose a meal out as a reward, without telling him it was a reward and that's how we ended up having burgers - something loaded with enough calories I wouldn't need to eat the next few days.
I traded a few texts with Hal, and later Travis sent me something to tease me about Hal and Isaac. You'd think he'd have enough in his own life to amuse him, but maybe with Dawn and presumably both boys being sick, he was desperate. Travis called about three in the afternoon.
"Save me," he said, his voice quivering. "Three people on the verge of puking and they keep moving the mop and bucket near me. I'm coming over."
"Uhm, yeah, sure," I said. It wasn't uncommon for Travis or Dawn to show up when they wanted out of home life for a few hours.
"Call Hal. I'll grab stuff and we'll cook out on your little overhang thing."
"Uh. Sure, why not?" I said before disconnecting. My apartment had a sliding door with a tiny, tiny balcony that Travis refused to call a balcony. There was enough room for a small grill and a single chair, but I'd made good use of it. When Ray and I had our house we'd had a deck with a large grill, an outdoor patio set and an above ground pool. We'd had some fun afternoons.
I rang Hal. "Hi," he said, his voice warm in his greeting. "What's up?"
"Travis is coming over and we're going to grill a few things. I thought I'd see if you were busy. Or hungry."
"Uh, sure!" he said, sounding surprised. "Um, is it all right that I bring my sister?"
"Of course," I replied. "I'm sorry, I should have said the invite was for you both."
"Great. Um, what can I bring? And it's laundry day, so...."
After we rung off I started gathering some stuff to make a quick and dirty pasta salad. I employed Isaac, who seemed to enjoy anything involving food.
"We're having guests," I said to him. "Travis and Hal from work, and Hal is bringing his little sister."
"Is she pretty?" he asked.
"I have no idea," I said, and refrained from stating that if she were anything like her brother, she definitely would be.
"Should I dress up?" he asked.
"Just nicely, not fancy."
"Well, wear your khaki shorts and that nice long sleeved white tee you have. The shirt looks soft, goes well with the little tan you have going on."
He looked at me awkwardly. "Um, thanks."
I sighed. "Don't read into it."
He shifted and leaned back against the counter. "If you're gay, doesn't it just mean you're attracted to all guys, though?"
"No," I said. "Are you attracted to all girls?"
"Uh. I guess I never thought about it," he admitted.
"I think that a soft, clean white looks good against tan skin. It's not a sexual thing, just a subjective preference. Just like I think styled hair looks better than that mess you've got going on."
"Hey!" he said, running his fingers through his hair. "I need a haircut."
I looked at him critically. "Yeah, maybe so. Guys your age don't usually take very good care of their hair, so short is better."
He frowned lightly. "Does taking care of your hair make you gay?"
I raised an eyebrow at him and he blushed. "Being attracted to the same sex makes you gay. Not how you dress, speak, walk or wear your hair. Look at famous people, how well put together they are and how many of them are straight."
He nodded his head and seemed to contemplate that for a minute. He looked up and asked, "Can I ask you a really, really awkward question?"
I nodded slowly. "If you like. If you're trying to bust my stones, better be careful, though," I replied and smiled at him.
His face adopted a more neutral expression and he said, "Remember that guy who was pounding on my door? Not the rental guy, the other one?"
"Yeah. He seemed shady."
"He was," Isaac said. He cleared his throat. "So, um. He likes, like, young guys. Like me. Isn't that gay?"
"No. That's pedophilia," I said. I stopped what I was doing and turned toward him. "Human sexuality is complex, but I'll try to keep it simple. Heterosexuals, those people attracted to the opposite sex, homosexuals, those people attracted to the same sex, and bisexuals, those attracted to both sexes, those are the big three 'umbrellas' you can loosely put out there for a basic talk about human sexuality."
"Uh, seems like that covers everything."
"I know, but it doesn't. Let's just use them as a starting point, okay?" He nodded and I continued. "Those are all normal, naturally occurring attractions in nature. It isn't uncommon for people to think kids can be cute or attractive, but not sexually. There is a difference between attractive and sexually desirable. Pedophilia crosses that line because the person is attracted to and sexually engaged by a child or adolescent." I hesitated and then said, "Sometimes the desire comes more from a need to control rather than actual desire."
He frowned. "So you're saying if a guy likes little girls, it doesn't make him hetero, it makes him a pedo?"
"You seem to kind of have all the answers on this," he said slowly.
I looked at him steadily. "Isaac, you're very smart. If I give you a few minutes to really think about it instead of be suspicious, I think you'll have the answer."
I ferried a few bowls of chips to the living room and then went back to work on the pasta salad. I was surprised, for some reason, when Isaac spoke.
"I actually can't see what you think I'm going to figure out," he said, sounding a little disappointed.
As I worked I said, "People make fun of people who are different. The other. Being gay is different, so people will attach all kinds of untrue things to a minority. Like saying gay people are after children or it's all about sex."
"How is it not all about sex?" he asked.
"Because love isn't sex, Isaac," I said patiently. "I can love someone for who they are and want to spend my life with them just like anyone else. Being gay is an orientation, something that tells you who I'll be attracted to. It's not just who I want to sleep with, no more than you enjoying hanging out with a girl means you want to sleep with her."
"I think I get it."
"What does this have to do with the guy at your door?" I asked, dreading the answer.
"Um. There's this message board. You can talk to people and some of them will buy you things if you post pictures and stuff." He paused awkwardly. "Like, from a wish list."
I closed my eyes. "Isaac," I said softly. "Did you do that?"
There was a pause. "I didn't take my clothes off," he said, sounding like it was very tough to admit.
I nodded slowly. "That's good. Please don't do that again."
"I won't," he said, his voice soft. "But, um, that guy? He sent me a new laptop in exchange for, um, a pair of my underwear."
"Jesus Christ," I said and covered my eyes with my hand. I looked at Isaac, who looked very small and vulnerable in that moment.
"I, um, guess he got my address when I sent it to him. Uh. Kind of stupid, I guess."
I wiped my hands and held my arms out to Isaac, who stepped uncertainly into my embrace. I held him so he couldn't see the anger on my face, the worry at what could have happened to him. He needed to know, though. Just because he'd said he wouldn't do it didn't mean that would stick - especially over time.
"Isaac, that man...he could have hurt you. He could have waited for you to come out and taken you. No one would know to look for you. Do you understand me?" I pushed him away, though it pained me to do so, and held him in place by his shoulders as I looked in his eyes. "Do you understand how dangerous that was? You're playing with fire."
He swallowed and his eyes looked wet. "I didn't...the laptop seemed like it was so cool. I'm sorry."
I pulled him close and his thin arms wrapped around me. "Isaac, Isaac, Isaac," I said softly. "These men will say they want to take care of you, but they want to use you. They will hurt you, Isaac. I...don't want to see you hurt."
He shuddered and I felt a wet spot on my shirt. I'm not really sure what he was crying about, or even if he knew. It might be just stress sloughing off. Kids of fourteen aren't meant to be left alone to fend for themselves. He'd been lonely and mistrustful, and God alone knew what horrors would have befallen him if that creep had gotten his hands on him.
"Okay," I said and patted his back. "Okay." He backed up and sniffed. "Why don't you go wash your face and get changed, all right? We'll grill out and have some fun relaxing tonight."
He nodded and turned away. I felt a stirring in my heart for him, this boy who was struggling toward manhood. Perhaps he wasn't warm, but he was lovable. I needed to guard myself, as his mother would return and put a pin in this little bubble I had going on.
Within an hour Travis showed up with meat for the grill. He took Isaac under his wing effortlessly and was showing him how to cook out. He had the same easy grace with his own kids and it was kind of a marvel to see. Shortly afterward Hal arrived with his sister, whom he introduced as Keri. She was tall, in contrast to Hal, and dark haired. She had the same smile, even though she seemed hesitant. Hal was very dressed down in gym shorts and a tee that fell below his waist.
"Isaac?" Kari asked, looking at Isaac in surprise.
"Oh, hey Kari," he said, waving a single hand.
Travis started complaining that Isaac abandoned him once he started playing a video game with Kari. It seemed Kari was kicking his ass, too. It was nice to have the laughter of a group of people filling my little space. There was a lot of competition on the game system, much boasting between all the adults and both kids. Travis ended up leaving about seven-thirty as Dawn needed some medicine from the pharmacy, so he had to run before they closed.
As he left he snickered and said, "Besides, they were all lying down when I left so I figured that was a good time to get out for a few hours. Time to go take care of the sick ward."
Isaac and Kari started watching a movie and Hal followed me into the kitchen to help with the clean up. I put a few things away, and as he stood at the sink I moved in behind him, wrapping him in my arms and he leaned back into me.
"Well, hi there," he said with a chuckle.
"Hi. It was really nice to have you here today."
"Glad you didn't mind my laundry day ensemble," he replied.
I growled a little and pushed my nose into the back of his neck and placed a kiss on his warm skin. "It's actually a good look for you. I like you relaxed."
"I'm not very relaxed right now," he said teasingly. He turned in my arms and placed his wrists behind my head in a loose embrace. "Can I also say I like that you're moving right into the touchy-feely stage?"
"Oh, yeah?" I asked with a grin and leaning forward. He met me halfway and we enjoyed a slow, steamy kiss.
"Hey - Oh for Christ's sake!" Kari exclaimed. "Hal! Seriously?"
We had jumped at her voice, and Hal stepped back slightly, but I maintained my grip on him. "Did you need something, Kari?" I asked.
She seemed flummoxed that I replied to her rather than her brother doing so. Isaac stepped into the kitchen to see what the fuss was, and smirked at Kari, though she couldn't see.
"Ugh. Old people hugging," Isaac said and pretended to puke.
"Did you just call me old?" I asked, staring at Isaac.
"You're ancient! And Hal is a freak!" Kari said, her voice somewhere between scornful and fearful.
"Hal is a very intelligent, very attractive man." I paused for effect. "I happen to be attracted to intelligent, attractive men."
"But you're old!" she said.
"Kari!" Hal snapped, finally having enough. "You're being rude!"
"I just wanted a drink, not to see...that!" she replied. "I want to leave. Now."
"In a minute," Hal said firmly.
"Whatever," she muttered and flounced from the room. Isaac gave me a last look, sort of smiled, and followed Kari.
"I'm sorry about her," Hal said.
"Don't be," I replied as I turned my gaze back to him. "It's been a long time since I valued the opinion of a teenage girl, especially on the subject of who I can date."
Hal smiled and let out a breath. "One reason I'm happy about being attracted to older men is they usually don't have time for drama and other people's crap."
"Is that a fact? You were always attracted to men older than you?"
"Yeah. Huge crush on a teacher from high school. Total sexual awakening," he said sexily, looking at me with doe eyes.
"Oh? What did he teach?"
Hal smiled slyly. "Computers." We looked into each other's eyes like a bad romance novel. It was exciting, sexy and had my blood pressure rising. He knew it, too. He moved in closer, and I tightened my grip on him, savoring the delicious feel of his warm body tucked tightly to me.
"I'm leaving!" Kari hollered and the front door slammed shut.
Hal closed his eyes and muttered darkly under his breath.
"See you at work tomorrow?" I asked, realizing he had to leave sooner rather than later.
He opened his eyes and smiled at me. "Yes, you will. How about we do lunch tomorrow?"
"Love to," I said, feeling giddy and silly for being so excited. He leaned in and we kissed once more before he regretfully headed for the door. I glanced at the mess in the kitchen and decided to leave it for the moment. I went into the living room and flopped into my chair. I glanced at Isaac who quickly adopted a serious expression.
"So I think we need a system. Sock on the doorknob okay with you?"
I raised an eyebrow and started to chuckle. He joined me and soon I was laughing hard.
Monday went by like a breeze. Travis was lightly teasing about Hal, but he seemed pleased that I was pleased with how things were going so far. I told him about Kari's reaction and he said he'd have probably done the same thing, except throw himself on the floor and really have a fit. That guy. Hal and I managed to have lunch, and we avoided Kari's outburst in favor of enjoying each other's company. I was amazed how quickly I'd gone from putting him on a mental shelf to dating a really special man.
Tuesday night saw the first real big drama for the week. I came home and Isaac was extremely restless, and it took me most of the evening to get him to talk.
"Freaking Kari, that's what the problem is!" he finally said, spitting her name out. "First she told everyone I'm living with a fag - her word," he said, holding his hands up. My temper flared, but I held it in check. "Then she started busting my nuts for being in that classroom and calling me a SPED."
I nodded and took a deep breath. "I'm going to tell you one of the great truths of the world, Isaac." I leaned in. "When given the choice between being kind or being an asshole, a significant group will choose to be an asshole. Empathy means caring, and some people view that as weak, and that it makes them vulnerable."
"And you're going to say that's wrong?" he asked with a snort.
I tilted my head. "Being alone, being held to other people's ideas of what is and isn't acceptable is what makes us vulnerable and weak. Then who we are and what we are allowed to like is decided by someone else. I know some people will look at me offering you a place to stay as some kind of plan to corrupt you. I chose empathy for your situation and helped. Does that make me weak? I don't think so. I think having had this relationship with you makes my life better. You're a good kid, a good person. I am, too. It makes us both stronger."
He shifted in his chair, blushing slightly. "Still. That doesn't help much when she's opening her fat mouth."
"Is she a good student?" I asked, leaning back.
"She's okay, I think."
"Well, by the end of the marking period, you'll be an honor student. Fuck what she thinks."
He looked at me dubiously. "I haven't ever been on the honor roll."
"With this class, you will. Other kids, their parents make them go to school either to get them educated or to get them out of the house - either one nets them having their kids in school. Your mom made a different choice, and it has had consequences with respect to your education. I've seen how smart you are and I know how smart your teachers think you are. Everyone wants to see you do well, and once you actually do achieve that? I think you're going to be impressed with yourself."
He shifted again and looked around the room. "What about the other thing she said?"
I smiled. "There is an old saying. It's better to be thought of as a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. You live with your gay uncle. So what? She lives with her gay brother. So what? Yes, she pointed the finger at you today, but people who do that are soon forgotten. You may have some people say something here and there, but that's not a criticism of you. They don't understand your class, so it's just easier to make it an insult. They don't know me, or the relationship we have, so it's easier to make it an insult." I paused and said, "You can't react to every dumb thing some idiot says or that's all you'll ever do."
"Easy to say," he said with a sigh.
"I know. Everything is easier said than done. But being fearful of what someone might say or does say won't make people like you any better, won't make you friends and it only hurts you. This time in school...it's a cesspool of bullshit where you're supposed to learn how to behave as a functioning member of society, but unless you grow and break away from the fears the small-minded will place on you, you won't ever reach your potential."
I raised my eyebrows and smiled. "Didn't know you had any?" I laughed at his expression. "I think you'll find that by the end of the quarter you'll discover you're not who you thought you were, and that's just scratching the surface."
"What do you mean?"
I leaned back in my chair and stretched, changing the subject. "It doesn't excuse Kari, but it may help you to know she's a very angry girl, right now. She just lost her parents and Hal is her brother. He came home from college to try and help her finish school. It's a tough situation for her, and she's hating things right now."
"Hal seemed okay. I mean, it does suck about her parents, but I didn't do anything to her."
"Sometimes people in pain lash out indiscriminately. It's not right, but it's the truth. I doubt she has any anger toward you in reality; you're just something to swing at." I smiled at him and asked, "How has the class itself been so far?"
He frowned lightly. "All my work is done. I kind of hate that they're always hovering around, but it makes it easy to ask a question. I guess it's just different and I'm having some...trouble adjusting."
I glanced down at my hands. "I heard all your back work is done already. That whole week of work you had piled up, toast."
"Yeah," he said, unsure what I was getting at.
I looked at him and smiled. "No teachers pestering you for work or giving you a hard time for not turning stuff in. Isn't that sweet?"
He glanced down and away for a moment and then back at me. "I guess I hadn't thought of it. Yeah, I hate when they call me out in class for not having something."
Later I let Hal know that his sister was pretty fired up about our relationship and taking it out on Isaac.
"Shit. Shit, shit, shit. I'm having a hard time getting a handle on her," he admitted.
"She's fourteen and she lost her parents. She's angry. Did she know you were gay before?"
"Yeah. She never knew my attractions, but it wasn't a secret or anything."
"She may just need time. I figure the more she sees us together, over time, the better off she'll be."
He sighed. "I'm sorry she upset Isaac. He seemed like a good kid."
"He is. He's doing really well. I'm proud of him," I said, feeling pleased.
The next few weeks were filled with ups and downs. Isaac struggled with the social issues raised by him changing classes, but they weren't as many as I'd feared, though it definitely threw him off his game. He really liked not having any homework hanging over him, though, and his teachers were very vocal about how pleased they were with his work and how much better he was doing. I gave him small rewards, too. This Liz Bishop girl invited him to the movies with a group of friends, and I made sure he had enough on him for his ticket, but also to buy her snacks and things - which is not spare change, let me tell you.
He also needed some necessities like socks and underwear, not to mention sneakers. He talked me into a haircut before the movies. Soothing his feelings over his rough social standing was expensive, but it was worth it in the long run. I got to see him smile now and then, too.
Things with Hal were going so well it left my head spinning. Every time I saw him I felt a field of butterflies take flight, my lips curved into a smile involuntarily - hell, if I were a cartoon character my eyes would bug out with hearts beating in the center. I can't be certain, but I felt as though he was reacting the same way. The tips of his cheeks would flush pink, and he smiled automatically when we encountered each other. We went to lunch together most days, but our conversations were very normal. We talked about Kari and the ongoing struggles to help stabilize her. We researched and found a good therapist, and he made an appointment to try and help her.
We also talked about Isaac, who was proving to be easier that Kari, so far. We spent a few nights going to have dinner at each other's homes. It was funny, Kari and Isaac got on okay in those situations, but they avoided each other in school. She didn't seem to warm much to me, but I figured that was her choice to make.
Hal began joining us on Wednesday nights, and that lead to frantic make-outs in the car or pressed up against the wall of the pub out in the alley. It was not quite satisfying as we had to stop, but I know it was whetting my appetite to get him between the sheets. I'm not as made for the backseat of a car as I used to be, but I was starting to get desperate.
When things are going too well, you can either spend all your time trying to guess what will go wrong or enjoy the ride until something smacks you in the face. I went with the face smack, and it was a doozy.
I came home early on a Thursday afternoon. Mrs. Okoye had called me at work to tell me that Isaac's grades had dramatically improved and his eventual getting on the honor roll now looked like an attainable goal, if he kept up the progress he was making. I was elated at the news, and wanted to celebrate with him. When I climbed from my car I was sure I heard Isaac yelling, and I called out to him as I headed around to the back side of the building. What I saw was a nightmare come to life, and it chilled me.
"Let go!" Isaac screamed, wiggling hard as the man who'd been at his door tried to force him into the trunk of a car. I ran as fast as I could, being aided by adrenaline, fear and anger toward this man daring to come after my kid. I let out a yell as I got close, Isaac still struggling wildly, and the man turned his head to see me bearing down on him. He started to turn and I ran into him, a complete lack of finesse and my only purpose to get him to let go of Isaac. I hit my head against the lip of the trunk lid, and, semi-stunned, turned toward the man.
"No! God damn it!" The man wailed and shoved me. I was teetering a bit from the blow to the head. I fell backward, bouncing my butt off the back bumper, and tumbling to the ground.
"Brandon!" Isaac yelled, and the stress in his voice stirred me to action. I forced myself to my feet. The man must have seen something in my face because he rushed past me and I heard a car door slam as I worked to stay steady on my feet. The car lurched out from under me, and I spun, barely keeping my balance. I stared at the license plate, only getting the first two numbers before it was too far away.
"Isaac?" I called, turning in a panic.
"I'm here!" he said urgently, appearing at my side.
"Oh, God! Isaac," I said, pulling him to me. He wrapped his thin arms around me fiercely. I held him tightly until my heart rate slowed a bit, and then held him away from me so I could see him. "Are you okay? Are you hurt anywhere?"
"No, no I'm not hurt," he said, his voice hitching. I think the real fear was just setting in for him, now that the panic of the attempted kidnapping was over.
"Thank goodness," I said and pulled him tightly to me again. I didn't let him go for longer than was necessary for me to feel he was safe again, but I knew we had to do something dangerous that only made me want to hang onto him just a fraction of a moment longer. When I did release him, I looked him over again, despite his assurance that he was okay.
"Are you okay?" he asked. "You look like you're kind of wobbling. And your forehead is bleeding"
I touched my forehead. It was wet, but just that, not running of dripping blood. I explained the wobbling, saying, "It's the adrenaline," I said, waving him off. Actually more than adrenaline, it was the stark fear of having seen him in peril, but that wasn't helpful for him right now. "We have to call the police," I told him.
His face clouded. "Why? He's gone."
I sighed and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Isaac...he tried to kidnap you. He's come to your door, he knows where you live and he may know where you go to school. If we don't get the cops involved, he'll try again - and this time he may succeed."
Isaac's eyes filled with moisture. "I should never have - damn it!" he said forcefully.
I nodded. "Lesson learned, right? We still have to call the cops. We'll figure this out. I'll be right there with you all the time you're talking to them."
We made our way into the apartment and called the police to report an attempted kidnapping. I popped a couple of aspirin as my head ached from hitting the trunk lid. The police responded faster than I'd expected, and at first I felt comforted. They were attentive, taking me to the kitchen and interviewing Isaac in the living room, my promise to Isaac notwithstanding. Another officer headed to the rental office to see about their parking lot cameras. They were hoping they got the full license plate. They asked us to come down to the station to look at some images of potential suspects, and I was more than willing.
In retrospect, riding in the police vehicle should have been a clue.