Fur Elise was a piece I enjoyed practicing. I don't know why, there wasn't a great deal to it, but the rhythm and melody were easy to slip into and as my fingers caressed the familiar keys my mind would wander in thought. Though I was often teased about having my head in the clouds, playing while thinking usually lent me clarity.
My mind swirled with emotions and I struggled to make sense of what I was feeling. In some ways that was depressingly familiar. In other ways...well, it was how I figured things out, I guess. I played piano and my mind would sift through random bits of my life and, somehow, work out my next step. Most of the time.
Last summer I'd been pleasantly surprised to have been invited, along with Colby, to go on this huge camping trip with a bunch of guys calling themselves the Found Family. Devyn had invited Colby and me and, I reflected, I think it would always be hard for me to say no to Devyn about anything. As it happened, the experience was really cool. For once, my relationship was the rule rather than the exception. The few straight boys who had come along were completely at ease with us, and I had been completely unafraid to show affection for my boyfriend in public.
On reflection, that might have been where my problem started. When I'd first discovered I could and wanted to be intimate with a guy, I'd been sort of wobbly about it. I mean, I really had loved kissing Devyn Kennedy, my first guy experience, and I think I'll always regret that not lasting in a romantic sense. Before he'd come along I'd figured it was me being a bad kisser or something similar as to why things hadn't worked out for me with girls. But, no, kissing Devyn showed me that it wasn't my being bad at it at all; it was that I'd been kissing the wrong people.
At some point I panicked and broke things off with Devyn. I'm still not sure why, really. I've thought about it a lot and I still haven't come up with anything that really satisfies me. Perhaps the truth is just that I got scared of not being what I'd always thought I was.—normal, in some way. I was different, still 'normal' but I couldn't see it, then. Ugly, perhaps, but likely very close to the truth. A hard fact is that the truth isn't always nice and pretty. Sometimes it reveals something ugly or unflattering. It isn't as comfortable as a pretty lie, but the truth helps you to know who you are.
When I'd met Colby, I'd felt like I had a second shot with someone who I could really get to know. He liked music, had a good personality and a nice body. And for a good while, it had been very good. After we'd gotten back from the camping trip, though, I began to notice things I hadn't before. Annoyances, in some instances. Others were just about how we were different people. We always had been, of course, but those differences were easier to see, now and harder to accept. We'd both come away from the camp with...well, that wasn't true, strictly speaking. I'd come away from the camping trip feeling like I belonged somewhere, connected to other people. I felt kind of validated that Devyn still cared for me, enough to include me in his 'family'. I wanted more.
Colby didn't feel the same way. He'd had fun, no doubt. He'd enjoyed the vacation and the sense of no longer being different and the casual way we could be ourselves. We'd been lazily intimate which was a new experience as well. However he didn't feel the urge to connect further with the group. When we came home he was ready to revert to the way we'd been before we'd left. He wasn't hostile, or anything. He'd go with me if I wanted to hang out with some of the group but he wouldn't initiate any of that kind of contact. In fact, as time wore on, he'd begun to complain.
I didn't understand his position. I didn't feel like these folks were my family, as their group name implied, but I did feel a sense of belonging when I was with them. It was deeper than a simple friendship. It was about being at ease in your own skin. Not worrying if something you did would be too gay, or not gay enough, or offensive simply when being yourself. In day-to-day living, it seemed like that was always a looming possibility, even though I didn't think I was stereotypical in my behavior.
Perhaps Colby was simply stronger than I was. He was certainly more independent and utilized the skills and confidence he'd built up through scouting. Even the fact that he chose to leave because of their discriminatory policies was, in essence, an act of courage. I don't think that he got value out of belonging to a group like I did. Colby was more outgoing than I was and, while he cared for me and I for him, I felt like we were growing apart.
I heard the faint sound of a phone ringing and realized, with a start, that I'd stopped playing at some point and had simply become lost in thought. I stood up from the piano and stretched, wondering how long I'd been sitting still while my mind had cycled endlessly.
Pulling my phone from my pocket I answered.
“Elliot? Where are you, honey?” my mom asked. Her tone sounded stressed somehow.
“I'm at home, downstairs at the piano. Why? Is something wrong?” I asked as my hand drifted over and closed the fallboard to protect the keys.
“I'm...honey I'm on my way to the hospital. It's Dad. He, oh God...”
“What? I'm on my way, Mom, but what is it?” Panic rose and my heart began burning from beating so hard. My feet, thankfully, didn't need my brain to tell them to move, and I was already climbing the stairs.
“He was at work and he collapsed. The doctor says that he...that he had a stroke. I, well,” she let out a ragged sigh. “I can't remember all the details. But he's in surgery, now.”
“I'm on my way,” I told her. By this time I was in my room and had snagged my jacket and keys.
“Okay, baby. I'll see you soon, then. Drive carefully, okay? Don't rush, there's nothing you can do.”
“Right. See you soon, Mom. I love you.”
“I love you, too, baby.”
I probably did drive faster than I normally did, but I wasn't paying as much attention to that like I normally would. My mind swirled with all the unknowns: how it had happened, why and what would happen now? The idea of losing my father was apocalyptic to me, and I wiped a stray tear from my face. I stopped for traffic at a red light and, with a sudden clarity of thought, dialed Colby's number.
“Hey, El,” he said. “I'm sort of in the middle—”
“My dad had a stroke. I'm on my way to the hospital,” I blurted and then cringed at my directness.
“Shit. Um, okay, I'll pull some clothes on and head over. I'll text you when I get there, okay?”
“Yeah. Okay,” I said, my voice dropping to a whisper.
“It'll be okay. We'll handle it.”
I ended the call and was startled into movement by the sound of the car horn behind me. I darted through the intersection with a new item bothering me: I should have felt better talking to Colby, shouldn't I? I called for comfort, right? Support? Why wasn't I feeling any relief? Or was I supposed to, actually? Was I wrong? Shit. I just didn't know.
It took longer than I wanted to reach the hospital and get my car parked. I got directions to the lounge where you wait for people in surgery. I had to follow a stupid colored stripe to a particular elevator bank, then waited for eons for one of the cars to open its doors on my floor. Going up was just as irritating; it seemed as though the car opened its doors on every floor. At last I reached the appropriate floor and followed the signs to the lounge where my mother sat.
She was leaning slightly in the chair. Her elbow was on the armrest and her hand was supporting her head, fingers splayed on her forehead. Her legs were crossed at the ankle and a crumpled tissue lay in her other hand. I crossed the room quickly.
She looked up and then stood and we fell together, holding onto each other; at last something that felt real and good. She sniffled and I did my best to keep my own emotions in check, but it was hard. I wanted to fall apart and cry in my mother's arms, but this wasn't just my tragedy. It was ours.
“What did the doctor say? What happened?” I asked as I leaned back a bit and looked at her.
“Well, I'm not sure I understood it all,” she said uncertainly and sank back into her chair. I took the seat beside her and held onto her hand.
“You said he collapsed at work?”
She glanced at me, nodding and brought the tissue to her nose. “The whole office has been under a lot of pressure. I knew he was stressed but you know him,” she said and waved an arm in the air and said, in a sing song voice, “I'm fine, Jackie! Don't worry about me, I'm not!”
I stayed quiet. I knew my father and his reassurances. He wasn't wrong a lot, either. In fact, usually things worked out. But he never took my mother's worrying seriously. In fact, he always went out of his way to make sure we didn't stress about things we couldn't control like his work load. He always said, 'There are plenty of things to worry about that we can control. No sense expending the energy on the rest of it.'
My mother looked down at the rumpled tissue. “I guess he was walking back to his desk from the copier. He, ah...” She paused and coughed lightly and let her gaze flicker in my direction. Her hand tightened slightly on mine. “He was in a rush to finish something and he didn't quite make it back to the desk. Ralph Martino said that your dad was complaining bitterly about a bad headache—he seemed fine when he left for work this morning; he didn't mention to me if he was uncomfortable. That would be just like him, of course, to not tell me.” She closed her eyes and took a steadying breath.
“Ralph said that your dad took a funny step like his back was going out or something and then he just fell down.” She cleared her throat and squeezed the tissue. “The doctor had him in surgery by the time I got here. A nurse came out and said he'd suffered a stroke. That was it,” she said with a vague nod. Mom sniffled and turned her face toward me, but her gaze stayed toward the floor. “The nurse said they'd know more once the—”
“Excuse me,” a woman in scrubs said with an apologetic smile. “Mrs. Lindley?”
“Yes? How is he?” my mother asked and started to rise from her chair, but faltered. The woman saw and sat down opposite her.
“I'm Doctor Hughes. Your husband is stable now,” she said and kept her smile in place. “He's being prepped for surgery. Your husband had an ischemic stroke, which means a clot formed on one of the oxygen-rich veins that go into the brain. The procedure we need to do is called an intra-arterial thrombolysis. We insert a catheter into the upper groin and feed it all the way up to the brain where we remove the clot.”
“Oh my God!” my mother said and covered her mouth with the crumpled tissue. I squeezed her hand slightly and leaned closer to her. Like she sensed my movement, she leaned toward me, as well.
“If the surgery is successful, your husband will have to spend some time in our ICU and there will be extensive rehabilitation afterward. I have to caution you that this is a very serious condition, and even if the surgery is successful, there is a chance of permanent damage.”
My mother turned to me and buried her head against my chest. I held her, dumbstruck at the news. Somewhere deep in my brain I wondered how someone gets used to delivering such news with any degree of detachment.
“Mrs. Lindley, I'm sorry to bring you news like this. However, the nurses are going to have you sign some consent forms so we can get started with the surgery.” She paused and asked softly, “Time is a critical factor. May we have your consent to proceed with the surgery? ”
My mother turned her face toward the doctor. “I...if he doesn't have it, he'll...he'd...”
“Yes, ma'am. It would be fatal. In some cases, despite successful surgery, the patient may not survive more than a few months. Frankly, what we are doing is a Hail Mary. It's the only shot he has, though, and I need to start ASAP.”
My mother looked at me and pulled her lips inward. A tear raced from her eye to her chin and wobbled.
“Yes. Do the surgery,” she said, her voice weak.
Colby arrived soon after and I filled him in out in the hallway. My mother didn't need to hear the news twice. He stayed for a few hours and then had to head for home. His parents were sympathetic but they wanted him home so he could go to school the next day. I thought that a mean decision and stewed on it, not having anything other than worry for my father to focus on.
The surgery took several hours, and it was late when the doctor came out to tell us the surgery was a success and that my dad was being moved to ICU. We could probably see him for a few minutes in about an hour, and then we should try and get some rest.
He looked horrible. There were tubes and tape all over him. Wires ran to electrodes or sensors or something, some sort of monitoring equipment. Machines hummed and displays revealed critical information, but I could only see my dad...and know I might never speak to him again. I held one hand, just as I might if we were to shake hands. An IV ran from the back of his hand and I couldn't bring myself to touch those lines. Those clear lines with saline or medicine made everything too real. My mother held his other hand and spoke to him, asking him to fight and to come back to us. It was a scene that seemed to stretch and my tired, stressed mind neared the end of my ability to cope.
We got home well after midnight and didn't go to bed immediately. Mom wandered into the kitchen and I got changed and then went down to my piano and let my fingers pick out a solemn tune. Soon, though, I went to bed. I slept fitfully.
In the morning we went back to the hospital. Around ten I began to get texts. Some were from numbers I knew I knew, like Devyn's. Others were from numbers I didn't recognize, but they were from that Found-Family group. I must have had fifteen or twenty texts of support and offers to be available for me. It was by turns odd, annoying, and endearing, and I struggled to identify what I should really be feeling. I just couldn't muster the brainpower to parse my feelings into concepts I could understand.
Around three, people began to show up. Apparently they weren't content to merely text and make offers of support; no empty gestures for them. Instead the waiting room was a shifting mass of guys who'd come to support me, to offer real shoulders to cry on. They asked my mother if she needed things taken care of at home like laundry, lawn mowing or anything else that they could do to take something off her plate. In some ways, even though they were mundane items, these offers meant the most because with them taken care of the rest of our world wouldn't crumble into disrepair while we were away from home.
My mother seemed confused and a little overwhelmed. Oddly, it was Devyn that set her at ease before I could even think of a way to explain who all these strange boys were—strange to her, anyway.
Devyn took my mother's hands in his and looked up at her seriously. Once she was focused on him, a face she knew, he tapped quickly on his phone and showed it to her. My mother took the phone and then glanced at me with an expression I couldn't read. She turned back to Devyn and nodded slowly, as if in a dream.
“Hey—whoa. What are all these guys doing here?” Colby said with a note of irritation entering his voice. He had appeared at my side unexpectedly.
“Uh, I guess they heard about my dad,” I said to him. He slipped an arm around my waist and gave me a light squeeze.
“I told a few folks at school,” he confirmed. “But I also told them,” he said, his tone firming as his gaze swept the room, “that I'd tell them when you could have visitors.”
I was confused by his tone and his words. “What do you mean, when I can have them?”
He turned his gaze to me and his face softened. “Because of the stress. You don't need a ton of strangers filling up the waiting room.” He waved his hand at the room in general. “This is a lot of activity, a lot of...noise. And this is a private time, not a time for visits and whatever else is going on here.”
I looked around the room. Austin Hamilton and his boyfriend, Derek Pellegrini, stood a few feet away with Lucien Kutsenko, and his boyfriend Robin Kirkwood. A few guys from the football team huddled nearby—Jamie Kirkwood, his brother Sean Kelly and Boomer Bennett. Of course, Devyn Kennedy and his boyfriend Griffin Douglas were there as well.
“I like that they showed up,” I said in a speculative tone. I was feeling out the situation and my emotional state and realized the sentiment rang true. I was glad Colby was here, but I also appreciated that these guys had made a point to show up and not just offer platitudes via text. It was meaning ful, even moving for me, even though they hadn't really done anything, yet.
“Hey, El,” Griffin said to me with a little wave.
“Griff,” I said, and put my hand out. He reached for my hand immediately and we shook. “Thanks for coming. It's good to see you guys.”
“We were all just shocked. I guess you really can't be ready for something like this. Um, some of our folks are making food for us to bring over so you and your mom don't have to cook. Your mom probably doesn't want strangers in the house alone, and I know Colby will be right by you the whole time,” he said, nodding to my boyfriend. “We're here, though, to talk or be a distraction or help keep your home in shape while your dad recovers.”
My lower lip trembled. “Thank you. Honestly.”
Colby cleared his throat. “Griff, how about I give you my number and I can take care of any requests El or his mom might have?”
Griffin turned his gaze to Colby and nodded. “Sure, Colby. I'll give you everyone's number that you don't already have. Just let me get my phone back from Dev—his died and he's being stubborn about replacing it,” he said with a smile and roll of his eyes. He stepped away and Colby leaned toward me.
“I wish they'd back off. Do they think you're going to ask them to come over and do the dishes or something?” he said, his tone laced with scorn.
I turned toward him. “Colby, why are you being like this?”
His eyes widened. “We barely know any of these folks, except your ex. Right now you need your family and some privacy to handle what's happened. Not some...sideshow or whatever these guys think they're doing.” Colby frowned. “We went away with them for one weekend and we've not really seen any of them since then, but now they're family? Come on.”
“Everyone has their own life, Colby,” I said, not really understanding why he was hostile about this. “When it counts, they are showing up to be supportive.”
“Being supportive is an 'every day' thing, not a 'only in emergencies' thing,” he replied, scoffing as he did. “Health problems are private. I didn't even tell them exactly what was wrong with your dad, but they found out somehow and made it their business to invade the waiting area and—”
“Show support? Offer to help? Jesus,” I said, holding up my hands and shaking my head. “I can't have all this, now. I need your support, not whatever this is.”
He pursed his lips. “I'm sorry.”
I sighed. “Let's just forget it, okay?” He nodded, but I couldn't help but notice him frowning as guys approached me to offer their help. Lucien stood by Robin who told me his older brother was coming to town Friday and had promised to make food for us to freeze and have ready as needed.
“I heard some of the guys say their folks were cooking. I'm glad my mom won't have to and she also won't be punished with my cooking. Grilled cheese and boxed mac and cheese are about the limit of my skills,” I told them.
“Kale likes to cook; thinks of himself as some sort of gourmet. He feels bad he can't get here right away, but the college guys are going through finals. Last one is Friday morning for him. He and Chase will be home Friday night; I think Lucien said something about Saturday for his brother and brother-in-law,” Robin replied. “Look, though, we're going to clear out.” He nodded at Colby. “Holler if you need anything.”
I thanked Robin and each of the other guys in turn. I admit it was something of a relief to have the room empty out, though there was a sense of loss as well.
The next few days unspooled in a way that's hard to really put a name to. My mom and I mostly stayed at the hospital while my dad was in the ICU, only heading home to sleep, shower and change clothes. We ate when we came home, and it was a small blessing to be able to eat at home and not delay with a stop to a restaurant or to have to cook for ourselves at home. Frankly, I didn't have the extra energy to spend trying to appear normal in public.
Dad improved enough to leave the ICU after four days. He still didn't seem very coherent and we didn't know if it was the effects of the stroke or if we were seeing side effects from the medications. The doctors had given us a wide range of things that potentially lay ahead, including him only surviving a month or two. Even with a successful operation, they'd said, the possibility of dying was still high.
These long days at the hospital had been marked with long stretches of doing very little but thinking. While Dad was in the ICU, we could only see him for short stretches. Once he was in a room, we were pretty well camped out in the visitors' chairs, waiting for him to show some sign that he was still there. My thoughts led me to dark places, like wondering how much he'd know about what had happened to him or what was happening? Would his mind be active enough to know he wasn't able to communicate with us?
I did manage to do some schoolwork, which broke up some of the waiting. Colby brought my work and I fielded text messages and visits here and there from the guys. I stopped mentioning the texts to Colby; he'd just frown when I brought up any of the group. I didn't have the energy to fight with him about it, but it slowly wore on me that such a small thing was such a burr to him. They were helping, after all, and we could use that help.
Saturday morning Griffin showed up at the hospital. I had been sitting in the room with my mom since about eight and was beginning to get a bit restless, so I was doubly glad to see him. For a long time I'd wanted to hate him for having Devyn when I couldn't, but eventually I was able to admit that wasn't fair. It had been easier to wallow in my self-pity and blame him for taking Dev than my own shortcomings. It was hard to stay angry with him, too, considering how happy my Devyn seemed to be with him.
“Good morning,” he said as he entered the room. My mother smiled at him and told me that I needed to stretch my legs.
I greeted Griffin and, as we exited the room, I asked, “Weird to see you without Dev. Where is he?”
“He's planning to come over, too,” Griffin said and gave me a lopsided grin. “But one thing my boyfriend is a sucker for is working on that stupid bus with Lu. I don't even know what they're doing—and frankly it wouldn't make any sense to me if they told me.”
We chuckled at that as we arrived at the elevators and rode down toward the lobby and the cafeteria.
“Dev wasn't into car repair when he and I were dating. When did that happen?” I asked.
“Last summer. His dad got him a part-time job over at that car lot he works at and they kind of mended some fences. His dad has come a long way.”
“I guess so,” I said. “He and his dad had a crappy relationship back then. I remember those pink socks of his,” I said with a smile.
“I love pink on him,” Griffin confided with a smile and a little laugh.
We got in line and picked up some coffee and a few pieces of fruit. The line moved quickly enough that we didn't pick up our conversation until we'd sat down by a large window that looked out over the parking lot.
Griffin sipped his coffee and cleared his throat. “You know, one of the things I pride myself on is being honest with family. I know that this might be a little awkward between us, given our histories with Dev—”
“You know,” I said, interrupting him. “Devyn is one of the most unique people I've ever met. I, uh,” I laced my fingers around my cup and took a breath before lifting my gaze to Griffin's face. “I was heartbroken after I woke up and realized what I'd lost when I broke things off with him. He...I, um, tried to blame you. Tried to hate you, even. But...” I spread my hands out, “He seems so happy with you. In the end...I still feel like it was the biggest mistake of my life, so far. But I can't deny that his happiness is more important than what I...well, it's what's important.”
Griffin stirred his coffee idly and studied my face. “That was a lot to say. Have you...?”
I sighed and leaned back in my chair. After sipping the coffee and picking up an apple to roll around in my hand, I glanced out the window and spoke.
“One of the things people say about me, if they say much at all, is that I always have my head in the clouds. A dreamer. A thinker.” I turned my gaze back to him and said, “I've had all kinds of time to think the last several days. I know, most folks probably think all my thoughts should be or were devoted to my dad. I guess my mind wanders, though, and I've thought about a whole bunch of things.
“One of them was Devyn. It's old territory for me. What if this and what about that is usually what I ask myself. But, you're wondering why I bring this up now? I'm not sure, to be truthful. At this point all I can do is guess. Do you mind if I do that?”
“Please,” Griffin said, leaning forward and turning his coffee cup around by the rim with the tips of his fingers.
I leaned forward, placing my hands around my cup again and letting the apple roll drunkenly back along the edge of the plate. “It's this whole family notion. When Dev first asked Colby and I to go last summer I was confused. Even though we all knew each other, we'd never gone out socially or anything, so you can understand my surprise.”
“Well, we'd played together in your basement. Had a few jams. I thought we, well, I thought we liked each other well enough,” Griffin said with a trace of uncertainty.
“I do, for my part. I said my piece about how he and I ended and what I think of your relationship. I guess...outside of music, we didn't really get together, you know what I mean?”
“Yeah. Yeah, you're right, of course,” Griffin said with a sigh. “I think, at least at first, I was a little worried he'd go back to you. He's always been up front about how much he cares for you and for a while I felt a little threatened by that. But...” Griffin shrugged and smiled. “Devyn is like that with people he cares about, and I can see why he cares about you. You're decent and kind, and you speak the same language we do.”
The corners of my mouth tugged upward. “Music.”
It made me feel good that Devyn had told his new boyfriend I had a place in his life, that he cared for me. Considering how Devyn was so in love with Griffin, it also made me feel good that he liked me as well. “Anyway, I had a great time camping.”
“Wasn't it the best?” Griffin said enthusiastically. “I'm not much for the whole concept of camping, if you want me to be honest, but that whole weekend was just...a little trite, maybe, but magical.”
“Even the Hobbit part?” I asked with a grin.
“They were lucky it was their wedding day,” Griffin said seriously and pointed a finger at me before chuckling. “I used to hate the teasing in grade school but...there's something different about it with these guys. I mean, stupid thing here,” Griffin said with a gesture of his hand. “But Robin likes to ruffle our hair—Dev or me, whichever of us is closest. Now, normally, I'd get a little salty about that. I'm not a pet or something, you know? But from Robin...it's tolerable. These guys tease to show belonging and affection, not to make you feel bad or put you down.”
“There was definitely something in the air that weekend, that's for sure. But, to my point and why I just blurted that out...those guys kept repeating the word family. Tossed it around like everyone should know and accept it. Now,” I said, placing a hand flat on my chest, “I didn't buy it, but I enjoyed the feeling that was generated that weekend. I felt comfortable and if they wanted to use that word? Well, whatever makes them happy, right?
“But then you sit down here and say to me you pride yourself on being honest with family. My first impression was a personal story was coming, but then you jumped right into the fact we both have a history with Dev. And if I add in how that 'family' reacted when they heard my dad was sick and how they turned out for my mom and me...well, I think I'm kind of buying into it a little. I kind of thought, in a flash, that if you were calling me family like I think you were...then maybe I should be just as honest with you. If that makes any sense.”
“Mhm, it does,” Griffin said with a nod and a knowing smile. “Once Robin and Lu got their hooks in me, I knew I was part of their family. I mean, I realized they were giving their strength to me even though I tried to pull away from them, at first. Some people don't really get involved with us as a whole—I mean some of the other gay kids in school. It's not because they aren't welcome, though. We're not for everyone. Even I struggle sometimes, being a fairly private person.
“But I meant it, Elliot,” he said and spread his hands open on the table. “Dev's always been clear where you fit for him and what you mean to him. Nothing crazy, just that he'd be there for you and he is confident you'd do the same.”
“I hope I would. Sometimes,” I said with a shake of my head, “I wonder how well I really know myself. After all, it took Dev to open my eyes about my sexuality. What else am I missing?”
Griffin waved his hand dismissively. “Nothing major. Devyn always said you were a kind and decent person, as well as a great kisser,” he said with a laugh. “I think anything you have left to discover about yourself will be positive.”
I nodded slowly, not sure what to say, and sipped my coffee. Griffin picked up an orange and began to peel it as he spoke.
“Honestly, I'm glad you said what you did. I wasn't sure about broaching the subject but I felt like the issue of Dev had to be settled between you and me before we could get on with being family, you know? I mean, yeah, we talked about it in front of people at camp but this is different, right?”
“Sure. Why was it important, though? You're dating him, I'm dating Colby. Dev and I are over, have been.”
He popped a slice of orange in his mouth and chewed. I picked up the apple and bit, waiting for him to reply.
“One thing I like about the family is that we don't keep secrets. Sometimes Lu wishes Robin would, but that's a whole other story,” he said with a grin. “But you and I are different because of Dev. I want to be here for you during this thing, but part of my motivation is because of Dev and how he feels about you.”
“I, uh, didn't realize Dev still..um.”
“Yeah, he does,” Griffin confirmed. “Not romantically, not that he's ever said. But what you guys have...it's special to him. It makes me curious, because he's a good judge of character. Have you met his cousin, Nate? Talk about a diamond in the rough! Devyn saw it right away, though.” Griffin shook his head with a look of mild wonder. “He stuck right by Nate as he struggled with everything that's come along in the past year and a half and the kid is just about the greatest thing.”
I frowned lightly. “Nate? Wasn't he...him and Sasha's brother? I thought I heard something about that.”
“Oh, Nate has a kissing history with a lot of folks,” Griffin said with a giggle. He sobered quickly and said, “Um, Nate's mom, though...she's not well. She might not last much longer. Cancer.”
“Oh. I didn't know.”
“Yeah. Poor kid, he's been really all over the map, emotionally.” Griffin looked off into the distance for a moment and then turned his attention back to me. “Anyway, I wanted to air everything because, well, we're family. Colby's been kind enough to take all the food everyone's made—he must be such a help to you right now.”
“What? Oh, yeah, of course,” I said. Something turned over in my head that both Colby and Griffin had said and I let my mind examine it for a moment.
My mind shifted away completely from the hospital and Griffin. Instead of the cafeteria I was back on the beach with a roaring blaze going and Alec pacing in front of us like a fire and brimstone preacher at a Deep South tent revival. He was talking to us about family and then asking how some of us came to be there. I was thinking of different people standing and telling the group which person there had brought them into this family and why.
Griffin had been quite moving in explaining that people there had done what we all hoped we'd do when a crisis came along. Too many people are willing to overlook things that are inconvenient to deal with or perhaps don't affect them directly. But Griffin, I knew, had been horribly abused and that group had stepped in and...healed him, I guess. My mind flipped through Colby and myself speaking and Phillip, who had broken down in tears, and many others who had emotional tales of what the group had meant to them.
Then I recalled Griffin's earlier words about how he'd initially resisted joining them, accepting their bond, and that there were others who never had come into the circle.
“Griffin,” I said slowly, my focus resolving itself back into the here and now. “Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?”
“Okay,” he replied.
“I was just thinking about what you said earlier,” I told him thoughtfully. “You said something about how you hadn't initially accepted the help of this group? And that others at school didn't either? Why was that?”
Griffin leaned back in his chair and blew out a breath. “Well, not everyone feels like they can be themselves in a group, you know? I can't speak for the others, I can only guess that they get what they need from their own families and friends.
“As for me, it was fear. At first, anyway,” he said and bit his lip for a moment. “Royce was jealous and I knew for a fact he'd beat me six ways from Sunday if he saw me talking to another guy, much less gay ones. So, at first I was afraid to hang out with Robin and Lu. But...they kept the door open. Held their hand out, so to speak, and let me come to them. And I wanted to,” he said, fixing his gaze to mine. “I wanted what they were offering. I went to their homework group and I just...I was at peace. They were my kind of people and I suddenly wanted them for myself more badly than I'd wanted just about anything.
“They were such good people that I got the courage to go with them.” He paused, licked his lips and cleared his throat. “I had to distract Royce in order for him to agree to let me go, at first. He knew I had to get my grades up. But...his jealousy won out pretty fast. When he tried to...he was in my home, waiting for me. Austin fought him, they all came in and Robin talked me down from shooting Royce with my dad's gun.”
“Yeah,” he said and let out a breath before smiling at me. “But, for me, it was because I was afraid. Why do you ask?”
I slumped in my chair and picked at the apple core in front of me. “Something's bothering me. I told you, even after that weekend, I didn't really buy into the whole family deal,” I said and glanced up at him. He nodded for me to go on.
“Well, once the texts came in, I thought to myself, 'That's nice. They remembered me.' Then, when everyone started showing up, the hugs, the offers to do things at my house, the food the...whole...thing. I just...” I glanced around, anywhere but at Griffin and said, “It felt...good. Real.”
“Do you not like that or not want that?” Griffin asked quietly.
I shook my head and brought my gaze back to his. “It's been really nice. A comfort.”
“Then what's wrong?”
“It's Colby,” I said and pursed my lips. “You mentioned you're kind of a private person and Colby keeps saying what I'm dealing with right now with my dad is a private thing. I mean, I guess it is and it isn't. But.” I held my hands out in confusion. “I thought maybe you'd have a clearer understanding. I'm kind of happy to have everyone right now and he's kind of...not happy.”
“Wow. Um, privacy is kind of a weird thing, I guess. I understand a little where folks are coming from with privacy issues. You just have to know the whole town is aware Royce treated me like a slave to understand why.” He shook his head slowly. “I guess I could understand more if it were his parent, but this is about you—excuse me for saying so, I don't want to cause any trouble between you and Colby.”
I waved him off. “No, not at all. I'm struggling to understand it myself. I just thought I might benefit from another perspective, since all my pondering hasn't helped.”
From there the conversation drifted off into music. Griffin expressed excitement at my getting into Juilliard and then my phone buzzed to let me know Colby was there and looking for me. Griffin excused himself and said the guys would like to check in on me later, and I told him I'd look forward to it.
I went upstairs and found Colby standing outside of my dad's room. He didn't look pleased to see me, and I sighed internally; things with him seemed to be getting more difficult by the day.
“Hey. I was surprised you weren't in the room,” he said.
I stopped in front of him. “Griffin stopped in. I went down to the cafeteria and had a coffee and a piece of fruit,” I told him.
“Why was he here?” Colby asked, his voice edged with demand.
“Just to visit,” I said and then sighed. “What's up?”
“Not much. I stopped at your house to grab the mail; I gave it to your mom. I also put away even more food that people have dropped off with me. These people seem to think you're broke. You have enough food to last until you leave for college at this point.”
I frowned and he sighed at me, placing his fingers on the bridge of his nose. “I'm sorry. I just wish they'd leave you alone.”
“But I don't want them to,” I said quietly.
He looked away and then said. “I can't stay. Do you need anything?”
“No,” I said with a shake of my head. He walked away, and with a sense of sadness growing in me I felt as if he were doing more than leaving me at the hospital.
I woke Sunday morning from an odd dream. I was struggling to remember it, but there were just wisps of it, and the more I tried to focus, the more they slipped from my grasp. I rolled over and picked up my phone from the nightstand to check the time. Six forty-one. I sighed, knowing I'd get no more sleep and got up. One unusual feature of my home is the private bath attached to my room. I think the previous owners had the bathroom added on for a relative who'd lived with them, but now it was mine. I think we were one of the few houses in the area with three full bathrooms.
I cleaned up and dressed before heading out to the kitchen. My mother was at the table with papers scattered in front of her and a look of concentration on her face. She looked from one to another and then seemed to realize I'd entered the room.
“Good morning, baby,” she said with a soft tone. “Couldn't sleep?”
“I had a weird dream that I can't remember. I was too awake to go back to sleep,” I told her and let out a small yawn. I went to the fridge to find something to eat and nodded at the papers on the table. “What's all that?”
“Oh, just statements. Bills.” She sighed. “The bill for Dad's surgery came already, and his being in the hospital is getting more expensive every day. The doctors want to move him to a facility to recover, and the closest one is almost an hour away. They aren't cheap either.”
I took a seat at the table. “How bad is it?” I asked her gently.
Her jaw began to tremble and she sniffed. “Oh, baby. It's wiping out our savings, and with your father not able to work...we'll have to file for disability, but it's always a fight from everyone I've ever heard who had to go through it. Even then it won't hold a candle to what your father earned. I'm just trying to figure out how we're going to manage it all.” She patted my hand and whispered, “At least the company is keeping his insurance going for us. It's a help. The deductible is...well, it's a help. Something.”
I stood and wrapped my arms around her. She let out a fluttering sigh and held me as well. My parents had always done bills together; I knew everything was starting to wear her down. I felt it, too, since I was feeling low on energy and plain old give-a-shit.
After a light breakfast I went for a run. Running doesn't clear my head, not like playing piano does, but my body needed something more than my fingers moving today. It had been a little while since I'd run, and I felt it as my body struggled to find a rhythm. My breathing was ragged, and I slowed until I braced myself against a tree and heaved up my breakfast.
I spit a few times, trying to get the vile taste from my mouth. Glancing around I saw no one and was a little pleased no one had witnessed me, but it was short lived. After all, who really cared? I started to walk and slowly built my way back up to a run, focusing on regulating my breathing and looking for a steady, manageable pace. This time my body responded and began to fall into old patterns; the steady cadence of my shoes hitting the sidewalk and my even breathing were all I could hear.
I suppose I shouldn't have been, but I was surprised to find myself heading down Devyn's street. I slowed my steps and came to a stop in front of his house, my chest heaving like a bellows as I tried to gain control again. I lifted my arms above my head and walked in small circles as my body slowly came back down to normal levels of breathing and muscle motion, then I turned toward Devyn's home.
It wasn't much to look at. This section of town was very blue collar. While sturdy, the home wasn't anything special except for the people inside it. Unsure of myself, I climbed the small stoop and rang the bell.
The door opened momentarily revealing a handsome boy with light brown hair on his head and wide shoulders and evenly tanned skin on his exposed neck and arms, even this early in the year. He was as handsome as I remembered him from camp, where he'd scampered from guy to guy, figuring out what he liked.
“Hi, Nate,” I said with a nod. “Is Devyn home?”
“Yeah. Come on in, Elliot. I'll get him,” he said warmly and stood aside to let me in. I stepped into the entryway and had a sense of vertigo as the place was the same, yet different since I'd last been there.
“Is he upstairs? I know the way,” I said.
Nate smiled, another handsome feature. “I forgot you guys dated. Of course you know. Yeah, he was doing some homework or something. Griffin went to a thing with his parents.”
“Thanks, Nate,” I said and then paused as I recalled Griffin's words from the day before. “How's your mom doing?”
The light in Nate's eyes went out and he looked away. “Not so good. Thanks for asking, though.”
I felt a kinship for him, the pain of a parent in peril, and I placed my hand tentatively on his shoulder. He looked up in curiosity and I tried to give him a smile, something positive.
“I've come to realize this family thing is real. I know you have a lot of support with Devyn and Griff and who knows who else. I'm not in great shape myself but...if you ever need me, Nate, well, I'm there for you.”
A fat tear formed in one eye and he wiped it away quickly. His emotions were obviously closer to the surface than I'd realized. “Thanks, Elliot.”
“Yeah,” I said softly as he turned and headed deeper into the house. I wasn't sure that had been the right thing to do, considering I made the poor guy cry. I climbed the stairs until I reached Dev's room and tapped on the door before opening it slightly.
He lay on his stomach, knees bent and his feet swinging aimlessly in the air, with a textbook laid out before him. His head was up and he was looking at the doorway as I waved and stepped into his room. He smiled widely and hopped off the bed and gave me a huge hug, but backed off as he realized I was sweaty.
“Hey, Dev,” I said apologetically. “I was out for a run. Did I interrupt you?”
He waved away the idea and picked up the book and closed it, then patted the bed for me to sit. He climbed up and sat cross legged, and I moved over and sat on the edge. He picked up his boogie board and wrote quickly before turning it to me.
'It's great to see you, what's up? Is it your dad?'
“It's great to see you too,” I told him. I glanced around his room. “I never thought I'd be in here again. Uh, you know, Griff stopped by yesterday and we talked about you.”
His stylus made noises as he guided it on the boogie board and I read: 'I know, he told me. You should have known you'll always be special to me, El.'
I smiled at him. “It really makes me glad to hear that. You know...I never told you but I always regretted how we ended. I'm sorry; I wasn't ready.”
He shook his head and wrote quickly. 'It all worked out and we're still in each other's lives. I think we always will be.'
“I hope so,” I said softly. I looked away for a moment. “I'm not sure why I came here. I went for a run this morning and I...my mind was just filled and I couldn't figure out what to focus on. I guess part of me must have known to come here, but I don't know why.”
Dev tapped my forearm and I turned to him. He was holding up his board. 'Is it about your dad? How is he?'
I shook my head. “Everything is about him, now. He's still stable but he can't really say much. It's kind of garbled. The doctor says he has a ways to go but I hope we can talk to him, soon. I mean, have a conversation. I'm not sure how much of...him is left in his head.”
I shook my head and looked back at him. He gave me a sympathetic look and put a hand on my shoulder.
“My mom was looking at the bills and I guess things are going to get really tight. Given that and how much help my dad might need and how much my mom will need to take care of him...I think...I'm thinking about not going to away for school.” As I said it I realized the thought had been slowly coalescing in my head. It felt right. Juilliard was an honor and I loved music, but it would be a strain on my parents at best and bankrupt them at worst. Or it was the worst I could think of for now.
Dev pushed me with his board and I looked down at his writing.
'Are you sure? Do you know everything? What does your mom think?'
“I...I'll have to talk to her about it, I guess,” I told him and smiled slightly. “My dad is going to need me. Both of them will. My dad has always been there for us, working hard and providing even when I was ungrateful about it. I can't imagine leaving my mom to care for him. No matter what he might think, she'd be taking on his care and losing me at the same time. That would be hard for anyone, don't you think?”
Dev nodded and wrote again. 'You thought it out. You're such a good person, I know your dad was proud of you.'
My eyes blurred a bit and I nodded as I wiped them. I was surprised, but pleasantly so, by Dev hugging me from the side. I gratefully leaned into it and sniffled a little.
“It's sort of funny,” I said as I straightened up. “When I got here I remembered Griff saying Nate's mom wasn't doing well and I asked him about her. I told him I wasn't in great shape and, of course he's got you and Griff and all, but I said I was there for him. I can't even be there for me.”
His stylus squeaked and tapped across his board. 'Of course you are. Look at how you're altering your plans to take care of people you love. If Nate needed you, you'd be there.'
I gave him a half smile. “You always saw the best in me, Dev. Well,” I said with a sigh, “I should probably get home and shower. I have to talk to my mom about this and, I guess, I should tell Colby.”
He placed a hand on my arm and then scribbled quickly. 'You haven't talked to Colby about this?'
“Uh, no.” I stood and rubbed my hands on my shorts. “Things are a little tense with us right now. It's not a good time.” I paused and let my hands go limp. “Actually, things have been kind of tense with us for a while now.”
Dev stood in front of me and waited.
I looked up at the ceiling and sighed. “We're just growing apart, I think. I have to talk to him but I feel so tired. It's my fault, really. I don't stand up for what I'm thinking and he's pretty confident, so completely sure of himself. He doesn't need to belong as much as I do, I guess.”
Dev patted my shoulder and I shrugged. He gave me a quick hug and a chaste kiss on the cheek and walked me out.
“Bye, Elliot,” Nate said from a seat on the couch.
I turned and smiled at him. “Bye, Nate. Remember what I said.”
With a final nod at Dev I headed out the door and started a slow jog back home.
Monday I went back to school. I'd missed a lot and I had plenty of work to turn in. Mom said she was going to be making arrangements all day to get Dad transferred to a rehab facility, because it was a lot less expensive than the hospital and he still needed care. Several people expressed sympathy for me and my situation and it was, frankly, tiring. There was no possible way to avoid it all. I know they meant well but, depressingly, it made me think of how I'd brought Nate's mom up to him and brought him down.
After lunch I had a study hall and stayed in Mr. Norris's room to play the piano. I had been the only member of band to brown bag it today, and that was fine. I lost myself on the keyboard, letting my fingers take me away from my troubles. It's interesting how familiar things can provide comfort. My mother can't play any instruments and she says that when she tried it was so difficult for her that it was anything but peaceful. As I played, though, my mind drifted away from my father's sudden sickness and the withering Colby and I were going through. I didn't have to think about the pitying looks or, perversely, the people that were irritated with others paying attention to me. I suppose it wasn't very grateful to be avoiding people trying to express support, but the weight of it in the school hallways was so oppressive. Not at all like the warmth I felt with the family.
“That's pretty, but sad. What is it?”
I blinked and my fingers faltered on the keys. “Nate?” He stood in the open doorway of the classroom. Nate was a jeans-and-T-shirt kind of guy, and today was no exception. His clothes fit him well and weren't worn, though I can't say why I noticed that.
He smiled. “I was on my way to my general music class across the hall and I saw you playing. Mrs. Roberts is out and the sub let me come listen to you. I think she's in love with your keyboarding skills.”
The corner of my mouth lifted in good humor. “It's the fingers, Nate. Always gets 'em.”
He chuckled and crossed the room to lean on the piano. “I heard you say something like that over the summer. So, what were you playing?”
Hmm. What had I been playing? I let my fingers go and they picked the tune out again as if they'd never stopped and I shook my head. “It's by the Beatles. It's called 'Yesterday'.”
“Sounds sad. Pretty, but sad.”
I nodded and started again, “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away. Now it looks as though they're here to stay. Oh I believe in yesterday.” I sang the whole song and as I finished up Nate smiled at me.
“That was sad, but pretty like I thought. It's amazing how you play.”
I shifted on the bench. “Do you play an instrument?”
“Nah. I'm better with mitts and bats than I am with music.”
“Well, you must have coordination then,” I reasoned as I played a flourish. Seized by an impulse I said, “Come here, we'll play together.”
He lifted his eyebrows. “Really?”
“Yeah. Come, sit here,” I said as I scooted over. The corner of his mouth pulled up in a smile and he rounded the piano to sit beside me. I walked him through the two fingered version of 'Chopsticks' and, once he had it down fairly well, I began the more complicated accompaniment to it, then improvised that with flourishes and arpeggios and chord inversions. We kept playing together, each pass growing faster and faster until his fingers would stumble and we'd laugh and then start all over again.
“Ugh!” he groaned with laughter as his fingers came down on the wrong key. “I keep screwing it up! How can you play so fast and not make a mistake? And be hitting all those keys when I have only two?”
“Lots of practice. Just like I'm sure I couldn't hit the ball for a touchdown.”
He gave me a sour look. “You know that wasn't right.”
I grinned. “Says you.”
The bell rang to sound the end of the period and we both stood to leave.
“Hey, thanks. I needed the distraction. Everyone keeps asking me, you know? I mean, it's nice they care enough to ask but....”
“Yeah, I understand, me too. Anytime, Nate.” I paused. “Um, about that. I'm sorry if I kind of brought that back to you yesterday, asking after your mom. Shitty timing, I know, to bring it up again now when we were just saying....”
He shook his head slowly. “You're good, El. I know you mean what you say. Some of these people just look at me like I'm someone to feel sorry for. I'm not dying, my...mom is. I just...” he paused and I waved my hand quickly and touched his shoulder, and from either my own movement of his, my hand ended up trailing down his arm.
“I know. You don't know who really feels for you and who is just eating up the drama, even though they'd never admit to it.”
“That's pretty much it,” he agreed glumly.
“Well. Hey, I, uh, come in here for lunch. If you have lunch just before this last class, feel free to come play with me.”
He smiled and nodded before we parted ways. He paused before he reached the door and turned. “Hey. I have a game this afternoon. Devyn and Griff are coming and my friend Dylan and maybe his boyfriend. If you're not busy or need a distraction, maybe you could come.”
I thought for a moment. “You know, it might be a good idea. Thanks, Nate.” He bobbed his head and left. I reflected that perhaps I didn't have a lot to give anyone else right now, but maybe it was enough.
Colby was in my next class and he gave me an odd look as I arrived. When I sat beside him he leaned over.
“I didn't know you were back in school today.”
I nodded slowly, kicking myself for not telling him my plans. That had been happening more and more, an unconscious habit. “Mom is making arrangements to have dad moved to a rehabilitation facility. She wanted me to turn in all the work you brought me and try to get back to something normal.”
“Seems like you could have told me,” he muttered.
He was right, of course. “I need to talk to you about something after school,” I said. As I did I felt a sense of calm rush over me, a coolness I was unfamiliar with. I shivered.
I finished my classes for the day and met Colby by his car. I stopped a few feet short, before he'd noticed me, and took him in. He was a nice looking guy with blond hair and strong features. His body was solid from exercise—he liked hiking and camping; I wasn't quite as big on either. I'd accompanied him a few times and seen his endurance firsthand. A part of me started to mourn what we'd once had but, I knew now, it was dying. He turned and saw me and cocked his head. Time was up.
“Hey,” I said as I approached him and leaned against his car.
“Hey. So, what's the deal?”
I looked away, across the parking lot as people made their way to their cars or started their walks home from school. Out on the diamond, the baseball team was milling about before their game, taking their time to warm up or get organized and I entertained the idea I could see Nate out there, perhaps with Devyn and Griff.
“Colby...do you still love me?”
“What kind of a question is that?” he snapped.
I let my eyes drop down and sighed. Clearing my throat I said, “I feel like things between us have been...different for a while. Since my dad got sick you've been really...short. The people that have been stepping up to make things easier for me and my mom, well, you've been pretty snarky about that even when I told you I liked it.”
“Colby,” I said softly, stilling his retort. “What is going on?”
Unexpectedly Colby's face crumpled and tears filled his eyes. He looked away and wiped his face quickly.
“I'm being unreasonable,” he stated. “I know that. I...this isn't a good time for this, I know.”
“Go ahead. Just tell me.”
He looked at me, his face a mask of misery. “I do love you. But I'm not in love...anymore. I...I feel like we're going two separate ways. I do things you don't like, even though you go along with it. I do the same thing for you. To a point it's compromise but...we don't seem to like to do many of the same things, do we? Is it just me?”
I shook my head. “No. I hear what you're saying.”
Colby crossed his arms in front of his chest. “When we get to New York City it's going to get worse. You'll be surrounded by all those artistic people and I'll...I hate the idea of going there. I hate the idea of being in that huge concrete and glass cesspool and I wish to Christ I'd have....”
I winced. “You were only going there for us, weren't you?”
He sighed and shook his head. “I wanted to be the good boyfriend and be supportive. But...I love the woods and trees. Hiking and trails and camping, that's my idea of heaven. Being locked up in that city is...wearing away at me. And the worst thing is...I'm resenting you for it.”
I coughed and cleared my throat. “Money is going to be an issue. I think I'm going to be staying home, come fall.”
Colby looked at me in alarm. “But Juilliard! Elliot this is your chance! You can't pass up on a golden opportunity!”
I shook my head. “It costs over fifty grand a year. Even with help my dad can't work anymore, and his medical bills are huge. It's not going to happen and, you know...I'm okay with it.”
“How can you be okay with that?” he asked in amazement.
I sighed and gave him a one shoulder shrug. “My dad has always been my hero, even when I didn't realize it. He's worked so hard to give me everything I have—both my parents have. Now, they'll need me to help them.”
“But Elliot, your future....”
“Colby,” I said softly. “That future is gone. I have no past without them, I can't just leave even if I wanted to. And I don't.”
“Shit,” he said and shook his head slowly.
“Hey, silver lining is you don't have to go to NYU,” I told him. “Not for my sake, anyway.”
He snorted and shifted his feet. “I applied to the Environmental Science and Forestry school at Syracuse. I, um, was accepted.”
I nodded and smiled. “That's good, Colby. You'll get to do what you love.”
He sighed. “So. This is it then?”
I took a breath. “I don't want us to hate each other, Colby. I care about you a lot and I don't want what's happening to us to get any worse. I can't handle this right now, the way it's going.”
He nodded and wiped his eyes and leaned toward me. I met him and we hugged, both of us feeling just a little emotional. It hurt to know what I felt coming was here and that it was true; our dating relationship was over. I was glad on some level to have it ended mutually and without me slinking away like a coward, denying who I was, but it still hurt to have it end. I'm not sure how long we tried to comfort one another, but it was enough. It had to be.
The stands of any sporting event would be unfamiliar to me, and so it was at the baseball game. I looked around in mild confusion. When I'd spoken to my mother earlier she'd encouraged me to go to the game, as she'd be home late anyway. I'd considered going to the hospital but, selfishly, I wanted some time away from the whole horrible mess. My father couldn't escape it, but I could, and that made my guilt even worse. Still, I knew I had to take care of myself in order to be of any use to my parents or anyone else, so I made the decision to go to Nate's game and that was that.
“Elliot! El! Over here!”
I turned and saw Griffin waving his hand. I waved back and made my way over to him. He sat in a group with Devyn and Nate's friends, Dylan and Crispin, who were dating.
“I'm surprised to see you!” Griffin said and smiled as I approached.
“I'm surprised to be here,” I said with a chuckle. “I saw Nate in school today and he invited me.”
“We come to almost all his games,” Griffin explained as I sat down with him and Devyn on one side and the other two on the other side. “Devyn explains the game to me and Cris manages Dylan's ignorance.”
“Willful ignorance,” Dylan corrected. Smiling at me he clarified, “I come for my cute friend and cuter boyfriend. Outside of that I couldn't care less about sports.”
“Hey!” Cris complained and I laughed at his put upon expression.
“I don't know anything about it; sports aren't my strong suit. But Nate came in and I played piano with him this afternoon, so I figure fair is fair.”
I turned to face Devyn who had grabbed my shoulder to turn me toward him. He quickly tapped on his phone and showed me his screen.
'Nate played piano?'
I nodded. “Yep. I was hiding in the band room for lunch,” I said without a trace of shame. “He had general music and heard me playing during class change. He stopped in and we had a nice chat and I had him play Chopsticks with me. It was a lot of fun.”
Devyn chuffed out his laugh and typed, 'Who knew he could be taught music? He's never shown any interest to me.'
“I don't know that I'd call it interest,” I demurred. “It was pretty much spur of the moment.”
The announcer interrupted as he welcomed the crowd to the game and made announcements about the concession stand specials, an athletic fund raiser, and then began reading off the lineups for each team. To my surprise I had fun talking with my companions, eating concession food that was probably horrible for me and cheering Nate on. I thought he was pretty good as he got a hit every time he got up to bat and made some impressive plays out in the field, at least impressive to me.
After the game, a 7-4 win by our team, he joined us. There was a glow about him after his competition, something I thought I could identify with. I frequently felt elated after a performance, some kind of musical high, and I thought I was seeing something similar. He seemed genuinely pleased I'd come to his game, and I complimented his performance. He played it down but my assumptions were proven correct when Cris slugged Nate's shoulder and told him to stop being so modest.
Nate asked me if I'd come to another game and the other guys expressed enthusiasm. Dylan said he'd appreciate someone else there who didn't know anything about the game and his boyfriend tickled him in revenge. I swapped numbers with Nate, Dylan and Cris and agreed to try to make it to more games. I left feeling, for the first time in a long time, relaxed and content. Something had gone well and I'd enjoyed it. It felt weird since I should be more upset over the end of my relationship, but it hadn't come up and therefore hadn't had a chance to throw a pall over the evening.
Besides, I'd mourned the death of my relationship for a while, now. Today just made it official. Perhaps I could think about dating soon.
At home my pleasant mood left me as I spoke with my mom. Mom didn't like my decision, but eventually she accepted it. She reluctantly told me she'd wrestled with the school about our changed circumstances and had tried to arrange for financial aid or student loans, but I was totally against the loans. All I've heard is stories about people having huge loans that they are still trying to pay off after they retire. Not for me, no way, no how.
Later that week Nate's mom died. I spent the majority of the day going to the funeral and then the reception. I mostly stayed with Dev and Griff, but I did shake hands and give Nate a small hug. He seemed lost and my heart broke for him. I told Colby about the funeral but, as I expected, he declined to go. It hurt a little; they'd been nothing but kind to him, but I guess he just didn't want what they had to offer.
Graduation came and went. My dad was present, but not the man whom I remembered. Going out was hard for him, and his motor skills had been eroded quite a bit. The rehab place did a pretty good job and Dad did what he could, but I wasn't clear if he understood that I wasn't leaving for school in the fall. I tried to talk to him about it, but he just shook his head in a wobbly fashion and waved a hand at me that was forever curled into a claw-like shape. Sometimes he just smiled and garbled something unintelligible but cheerful. I couldn't make him understand, but then how can I understand his position? How must it feel to be a father who lived for his family and then have his own body betray him and take the legacy from his son that he felt he deserved?
That was assuming I understood what he was trying to tell me. He was so changed that I interpreted much because his speech and motor control was so poor. My mother told me I was making myself guilty by interpreting his actions the way I did, and I guess she could have been right. I certainly did feel guilty when I looked into his eyes, that was true enough.
I'd heard that Nate had had a small fling with Nikolai, but it had flamed out before school ended. I talked to Griffin and it came up in conversation; apparently there was a lot of concern on the part of Nik's family about how Nik viewed the role of sex and his own self-respect and self-worth. The bigger news was Devyn and the trip to see about restoring his voice. I was ambivalent about it, personally, because his being mute actually was part of his charm. He could make himself understood without speaking using gestures, facial expressions, and body language. Kissing had been a language in itself for him.
I understood why he wanted to, though. There were plenty of reasons to want that or even need it. I was texting with Devyn the day they left, and he was telling me the trip was just for evaluation and that Griffin was against the whole thing. There wasn't anything Griffin would risk Devyn for and I understood what he meant. He said Nate was with him and being very supportive. I smiled because I'd seen Nate and Devyn together and it was obvious to me just how much Nate looked up to his cousin, figuratively.
I'd been going to almost all of Nate's games. It had turned into a great distraction, and I would meet with Devyn and Griff as well as Dylan and Cris. We would talk about a great many things while taking in the relaxed pace of a game that took place in lightning bursts of action surrounded by swaths of waiting. I never felt bored with the conversation around me and grew to look forward to the games. Between Dev and Cris I actually learned what was going on out on the field, and I enjoyed being part of Nate's cheering section.
Devyn's dad, Nate's uncle, frequented games as well. Away games were harder for him to get to due to work, but it was fun to cheer Nate in an opposing school's stands. Shortly after school ended and graduation had come and gone, I was surprised by Dylan texting and asking to meet up at the car wash he worked at. He wasn't busy when I arrived and he darted inside to his locker and brought me a small bundle.
“Hope you like surprises,” he said. I lifted an eyebrow in amusement, wondering why Dylan would be getting me a gift at all.
“Nate's jersey?” I asked as I unfurled the uniform top and let it hang in the slight breeze. The school uniform brought pleasant memories of Nate and his games rushing to the front of my mind.
“Yup. Sports people are always wearing jerseys from their favorite players. It's some weird...sports thing,” he said with a laugh. “I stole Cris's and I figured you'd feel out of place with no gear – unless you want Nate's hat. I can totally snag that.”
“Um, no, not a hat fan,” I said with amusement. “Won't Nate notice it's gone? Doesn't he have to turn it in?”
“Pfft. Unless he was going to wear it to play, not a chance. He will, however, notice when you wear it to his games this summer.” Dylan grinned and then said, “And the team is getting new ones next year so they got to keep the old ones.”
I decided to let pass the assumption I'd wear the jersey. I mean, me? A sports jersey? What's next, a beer gut? “Nate's playing this summer?”
“Yeah. He and Cris are both into summer leagues and I'll need you to keep me sane. The only bases I care about are the ones I reach when I'm alone with Cris!” he said and burst out laughing. It was impossible not to join him. As it was I'd begun to grow fond of Nate. He was kind of unassuming and didn't really seem to understand that he was one of the good guys. Devyn explained that Nate was very hard on himself and it was a constant workout to keep him from making himself miserable.
At any rate, I'd been texting with Devyn the morning of his ride. He was reiterating that Griff wasn't in favor but trying to be supportive of this evaluation. He was tired of the difficulties he had communicating in the most common way to people around him and there were also the potential emergency situations where calling for help would mean the difference between life or death. He also told me a major factor was his fears for Nate and that being able to call him and actually speak might make a huge difference to his cousin.
I smiled to myself, satisfied that I'd been correct in assessing how much they valued each other. I was a little unprepared for the rest of the conversation, though.
'Hey. I know not everyone knows about your decision concerning school. Since you're going to be local and Nate seems to like you, can I ask you to keep an eye on him?'
I knitted my eyebrows together. 'What about Dylan and Cris? He spends his time with them, doesn't he?'
'Sure. But they are boyfriends. Even though they think Nate's cute, I don't think Nate is open to sleeping with them.'
I laughed at the idea. 'Oh, so Nate wants to sleep with me then? Is that the idea?'
'Your fingers, El. Like you say, it gets them all.' He tagged on a smiley face and I shook with laughter.
'How is Nate doing?'
'Ask him. I think he's done texting Dylan.'
I smiled. I could look out for Nate as a favor, and it wouldn't even be difficult. Nate was as nice as can be and his games were getting me out of the house. I enjoyed hanging out with the other people in the stands and Nate seemed to be pretty good at the game.
'I wouldn't want to interrupt,' I replied.
'For you? I don't think he'd mind.'
I raised an eyebrow and my imagination may have run away with me.