“So tell me.”
“Not here. Outside.”
Ten minutes later, we were leaning against my car. Stone was munching on a roast beef sandwich. I took a big gulp of soda, bit the bullet and blurted it out. “I’m gay.”
Donny choked on his sandwich and looked at me in horror. He wheezed and coughed with a hand in the air until he could yell, “What the fuck?”
“Dude, please don’t be like this.”
“How the hell should I be? We’ve been friends since fourth grade and suddenly you’re…” He shook his head slowly. “You’ve been lying to me this whole time, haven’t you? Have you ever even screwed a girl before?”
“Of course I have. I thought I was bi, but it’s been more one way than the other lately. I didn’t wake up this morning and turn gay.”
“You’re like a brother, man. Why the hell didn’t you tell me? I would’ve understood.”
“Maybe you’re right. Maybe you would have been cool about it, but what about the other guys? How do you think they’d handle the news? Look at how they treat Max—like a fucking leper.”
“Holbrook?” Stone laughed. “The fag factor isn’t the only thing wrong with him.”
I was livid. “Fag factor? Wrong?”
He realized his mistake and back-pedaled. “I didn’t mean it like that. You’re my best friend. Of course I don’t think you’re wrong.”
“But Max is?”
Donny was flushed with anger. “Oh, so you’re all righteous now, huh? What about all the shit that you’ve given him?”
“Yeah, I have been horrible to him. I think it was more about fear, though. I apologized to him this morning.”
“I bet that made his day. He crushin’ on you now?”
I’d passed my breaking point. “Fuck you. This is exactly why I didn’t tell you.”
My best friend sneered and said, “‘Scuse me for being freaked out that my best friend’s a homo.”
“No way!” said a breathless voice behind me. I turned around and saw Steve, the catcher, standing behind me, mouth gaping. I wanted to throw up. I’d been outed. Now that Steve knew, it was only a matter of time before the whole school knew. He took off running, pulling his phone out of his pocket at the same time.
Fighting back tears, I glared at Donny. He looked genuinely upset. “Fuck, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to tell him.”
“Whatever,” I mumbled, with no more strength left to be pissed. I walked back into the school, already hearing snickering and laughing in the halls.
The deserted bathroom on the third floor seemed like a good place to hide. Hardly anyone ever went up there. I sat on the toilet in the last stall and sobbed. I hadn’t told my parents about my sexual preferences, and I’m sure it would get back to Mom before I got home from school. I was completely fucked.
Michael and Philip appeared next to me. I went off on them. “This is all your fault! If you’d just left me where I was…”
“You came out to your parents right after you graduated, so why are you so angry?” Philip asked.
“Because the whole school knows!” I yelled. “I was never out to anyone from high school. That’s why I went to college half-way across the country. Everyone’s already laughing out there. I can’t do this. Take me back up there. It’s too hard to be an angel.”
Suddenly, the bathroom door opened with a loud squeak, and my heavenly guests vanished. I prepared myself for a bashing, figuring that the jocks were going to be gunning for me, but only one person came into the room before the door banged shut.
“Trace? You okay?”
I knew the voice at once. It was Max. I couldn’t talk to him at that point, so I sniffled and said, “I’m fine, thanks. I’ll…be okay.”
The sound of digging through a backpack echoed off the tiled walls, and then a small piece of paper was shoved under the door. “Here’s my number. And I’m not hitting on you. I only want to help if I can.”
“Yeah. Thanks, Max, but I just want to be alone right now.”
Max said softly, “I did, too. Just don’t stay alone too long. And I’m sorry for being such a jerk earlier. I slammed you when you didn’t deserve it. So, I’ll see ya later.”
“Thanks,” I mumbled.
I skipped the rest of my classes and went home. It would be another three hours until my mother got home from volunteering at the hospital. The seconds ticked by so slowly that I almost went insane until finally, I heard the kitchen door open.
“Yeah?” I replied quietly. I wasn’t sure if she’d heard my news already from a friend or nosy neighbor, so I played dumb.
“Why aren’t you at practice?” she called.
“Oh. I…uh…I’m not feeling well.”
My father got home around five. When his car pulled in the driveway, I rushed to my window. I hadn’t seen Dad in twenty years and I tried to play it cool, but I couldn’t. I raced downstairs and burst into the kitchen as soon as he stepped through the door.
“Dad!” I cried.
He was startled when I threw my arms around him and squeezed. My mother yelped. “What’s wrong with you today?”
I cleared my throat and let my father go. He raised one eyebrow and took a step back from me. “Get hit in the head, sport? How was practice?”
“I, uh, didn’t go.”
Mom put her hands on her hips. “Well you look better now—” The telephone cut her off and she looked at the number. “Oh, it’s Steven’s mother. I wonder what she wants.”
Oh. Shit. That bastard had taken no time to spread the news about me even to his mother. I mumbled an excuse and went up to my room.
Fifteen minutes later, my father called up, “Trace? Come down here, please.”
I really didn’t want to face them, but I figured it wouldn’t make it an easier by putting the discussion off. I trudged down into the living room, where my parents sat stiff as boards on the couch. I slumped into a chair and studied the pattern of the carpet. When I’d come out to them the first time—before I’d died and been resurrected, so to speak—they had been supportive. I’d had the time to sit them down and break the news gently. This was altogether different.
My father sighed. “I’m sure you know what we need to talk to you about.”
I sniffled and nodded. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I hadn’t told anyone ’til today. I told Stone, and then Steve found out and he told the entire school, and now everybody hates me!”
Sobbing hard, I curled up and brought my feet up onto the chair. Mom knelt on the floor next to me. “Trace, honey. We still love you just as much as before. This doesn’t change how we feel about you. You’re my baby.”
I came out of my crouch and blinked my tears away. “Really?”
“Of course,” Dad replied. “I’m just sorry that everything happened this way. We don’t want to see you hurt.”
Mom handed me a tissue. “How would you like some cake? Or maybe a brownie sundae? I’ll go make you one.”
She flitted off into the kitchen and dad laughed. “You better watch out, or you’ll weigh nine hundred pounds.”
A few minutes later, Mom brought me a huge bowl of ice cream and warm brownies. “So, tell us what to do,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, what do we need to do to be supportive? Is there any special food you want?”
My father rolled his eyes and said, “For God’s sake, Sara. How about sushi and drinks with little umbrellas in them. What do you think?”
“There’s no need to snap.” She glared at him, then turned to me. “Do you know how to have sexual intercourse with a man?”
I inhaled a mouthful of brownie and hacked violently. Even my father was speechless—he stared at mom with his jaw nearly falling off. When I could speak again, I yelled, “Mom! Can we not talk about that? Ever? As in, at no time in the future do I ever want to discuss this subject with you. Stand back. I think I’m gonna hurl.”
“Sorry,” she mumbled. “But I just want—”
I shook my head. “Don’t. Please. Just know that I am…responsible.”
“Oh good,” she said with a relieved smile. “Well, do you have a boyfriend?”
“No. No one. And no friends anymore, either. I’m gonna go upstairs.”
She hugged me tight. “Night, sweetheart. Remember, this is the beginning of your life. Go on from here and meet people who will love you for who you truly are, not just because they’re popular.”
Dad hugged me, too, and I took the chance to look at the spot on his arm that would one day take his life. “Hey, Dad, have you seen this? It looks strange. Maybe you should see a doctor about it.”
He drew his eyebrows together and shrugged. “Nah, it’s nothing, just a mole.”
Mom scratched at the spot with her finger. “You never know what might be dangerous. You need to have your cholesterol levels checked anyway. Why don’t I make an appointment and you can let Dr. Ainsley take a look at it? You should have a prostate check, too.” With a little shutter, she added, “Ooh, that must be so uncomfortable.”
Her words settled onto the three of us like ash from Vesuvius. I cleared my throat. “Well, this just got awkward beyond imagining. I’m gonna disappear now.”
I rested against the headboard of my bed and considered the future. It had been so much simpler for the old Trace. For Trace 2.0, things were proving far more complicated. Loneliness and anger slammed into me and I growled in frustration. Then I remembered I had a Spanish paper due the next day. I hadn’t even started it.
“Shit!” I hissed.
My phone beeped with a text from a number I didn’t recognize. I looked at the message and laughed, realizing it was from Philip, my angel mentor.
Philip: stp swearing pls! + find “Span Paper” on yr lptop.
P: no probs
Me: whose cell do u have?
P: the king’s
Me: God has a cell phone???
P: no. but Elvis does. TTFN
I searched for the file name and was thrilled to find a completed Spanish essay. I printed it out, and then did a little more homework before falling into a dead sleep.
The next morning, I convinced my mother to let me stay home and asked her to drop off the paper to me. A few hours after she handed it in to the school, I got an email from Señora Degas.
Trace, I’ve heard what’s going on, and I wanted to tell you that you can come to me if you need anything. However, after reading your essay, I was concerned. I’m not sure if it was the stress of the situation or some other factor, but it’s definitely not up to your usual excellent standards. I’ve set up a tutoring session for you with Max Holbrook. Maybe he can help you edit the paper and turn it in again. He said you have his number. Take care, see you soon, Sña D.
I fumbled for my cellphone and texted furiously:
Me: Your span paper failed!
Philip: That was the idea.
P: *taps foot* That better mean “where’s that flower?”
Me: I’m serious! My teacher’s making me get tutoring with Max Holbrook.
It struck me that it was the plan all along.
Me: Very cleaver.
Me: Clever. Angry cant type.
P: I’m sirry I made you mud.
Me: For an angel, yr annoying.
I scrounged around for Max’s number and punched in the digits. He picked up on the third ring. “Hello?”
“Max? It’s Trace Worthy.”
There was a scuffling noise and a quiet bang, as though he’d dropped the phone. “How’s it going?”
“Not bad so far. I stayed home from school today so we’ve yet to see.”
“I can’t say I blame you. I saw your mom and I was going to say something to her, but I didn’t know if she knew and—”
I scoffed. “She knows. She and Dad were upset that it happened like it did and that I was hurt by my friends, but they were very accepting. My mom even asked if I wanted any kind of special diet or anything, like I was becoming a vegan.”
Max laughed out a groan. “Oh my god, that’s classic! My parents kinda always knew that I was gay. Dad doesn’t like it, but only because he thinks it makes life hard for me. Mom loves that I’m an uninhibited spirit. Her parents were hippies, so she embraces the whole free love thing.”
“They sound great.”
“They are. Kinda overwhelming sometimes, but I’d rather have that than have them throw me out of the house or something.”
There was an awkward silence before I said, “Well, I’m calling because of my—”
“Spanish paper. I know. What was up with that? You normally do really well.”
No way was I going to tell him that I failed because a meddling angel wrote the paper. “It’s a long story,” I confessed, “but I would really appreciate some help.”
He sounded hopeful. “Sure! I mean, yeah, that’s fine. Do you want to come over here? Say… seven-ish?”
“Awesome. See you then, bye.”
The Holbrooks lived a mile back into the woods on the east side of town. The evening sun barely filtered through the trees, turning the long driveway into an eerie wooded tunnel. The large home looked as though it had been carved out of the surrounding forest. It was multi-leveled, following the natural landscape. The siding was rough wood, punctuated with large panels of glass. I’d never seen anything like it before.
I knocked on the door and almost crapped my pants when a deep, loud quasi-bark erupted from inside. Unlike the sharp warning calls I’d heard from other dogs, this animal emitted a breathy boof, boof like it a wolf with asthma.
A voice inside called, “Come here, Gio! We’re not under attack.”
The barking subsided and the door opened to reveal Max struggling to restrain one of the most massive dogs I’d ever seen.
“Oh, holy fuck!”
Max yanked on the beast’s collar. “I swear, he’s fine. Just excited to see visitors. He’s very gentle.”
Its face was so wrinkled I couldn’t see the eyes hidden in the folds. When it began to pant, I was amazed at the size of its mouth. I put out a hand to pat his head and a giant tongue emerged to cover it with slobber. I stared down at the slime and scowled. Max bit his lip. “God, sorry! Come in and you can wash your hands.”
We walked into the kitchen which was surprisingly modern compared to the exterior of the house. I noticed a half-door on my left with a sign that read “Giovanni.”
“What’s that?” I said, pointing to the door.
“That’s Giovanni’s room,” he replied, pointing to the slobbering canine at my side. “It’s his version of a crate.”
“What kind of dog is he?” I asked, as I scrubbed the drool off my hands.
“A Neapolitan mastiff. My father’s part of a rescue group.”
“It seems like Giovanni could rescue himself.”
Max shrugged. “It’s mostly about people wanting these cute, wrinkly little puppies and then realizing what a huge mistake they’ve made once the dog gets to be a hundred and eighty pounds.”
“So how old is this dog? Like twelve or so?”
“Actually, he’s two. Just about full-grown.”
My mouth fell open as I compared the size of the beast from the old country to the size of my tutor. Max was pretty small, maybe five-foot-seven, but he looked like a dwarf next to Giovanni. The dog’s head came up to just below Max’s chest. Max herded him into his room and threw in a two-foot-long rawhide bone. I guessed the treat would probably last for five minutes.
“‘Now he’s penned in,” Max said, “can I get you something to drink?” He turned to an industrial glass-front refrigerator and yanked the door open. “Oh, hmm. I only have organic pomegranate soda, goat’s milk or iced vanilla-honeybush chanakara tea.”
“Wow, those are some different kinds of drinks.”
Max blushed. “Yeah, my mom’s a hippy nutritionist. Mostly, I drink water.”
“Water it is.”
He grabbed two mismatched pottery tumblers from the cupboard and filled them straight from the tap. He handed one to me and we smiled at each other, then fell into an embarrassed silence. Finally, he cleared his throat. “As lame as this sounds, are you doing okay considering what’s happened?”
I shrugged. “Even though I’ve been bi for a while, I didn’t really act on it. There were a couple little hook-ups, but nothing led anywhere. I feel so clueless! I don’t have any friends that will accept me now. I don’t know where to go.”
As hard as I tried to hold them back, tears rolled down my cheeks. Max handed me a napkin. “I could tell you everything’s going to be okay, but that’s bullshit and you know it. Things are gonna get rough for a while, Trace. It’s hard to find a place to fit in around here.” I slumped further into my self-pity pool and frowned. Then Max jumped up from his stool and declared, “The city’s got an amazing scene, though! Do you want to go after we’re done with the paper?”
“Hell yeah. It’s Friday. We’ll go later. The clubs don’t really start to pick up until after ten.”
Astonishment nearly bowled me over. I hadn’t thought Max would be the excitable club-kid into which he had just transformed. It made a difference, though. The severe frown that he displayed at school was gone, replaced by a bright-eyed smile.
His raw enthusiasm brought me out of my funk and I spoke before I thought. “Sounds great.”
Max clapped and did a little dance of victory. The movement of his hips drew my attention to the nice ass and hips hiding under his jeans. I could easily imagine curving my fingers around his pelvis and rubbing his lower back with my thumbs.
Whoa! Down boy!
Suddenly terrified of those thoughts, I hauled my eyes away from temptation, hoping Max hadn’t seen me checking him out. He was bent over the counter, reading my Spanish paper, though, so I was in the clear. He had a nervous habit of tucking his hair behind his ear. I watched him do it and smiled. I could get used to looking at this boy on a more regular basis.
When we were done, Max took me upstairs to his room. He began rooting around his drawers and closet until he’d assembled his “club” outfit. Five minutes in the bathroom, and he reemerged like something out of my wet dreams. Dark blue jeans slung low on his hips and a scarlet red, button down shirt that clung to his frame. As he shuffled his hair into place and checked his reflection in the mirror, I asked, “So, what club are we going to? Do they have underage clubs in the city?”
Max laughed. “Not where we’re going.”
“Max, we’ll never get into a club.”
He raised one eyebrow and smiled like the devil. “Trust me.”
I took my car home to change into something more appropriate for a club. After searching through my drawers and closet—and cursing myself for being such a slob—I was able to pull together a clean pair of nice jeans and a dark blue shirt. The outfit, however, had more wrinkles than a Sharpei puppy.
My parents were watching TV when I came down. My mother asked, “Where are you going? Nowhere in that shirt, I hope.”
“I know,” I said miserably. “Where’s the iron?”
She scoffed. “So you can burn my house down? I’ll do it. Take it off. Pants, too.”
Stripped down to my boxers, I followed her up to the laundry room. She expertly ironed my shirt as she tried to be sneaky and figure out what the hell I was up to.
“So…is this a date?”
“No, mom,” I said with a scowl.
“Who are you going with?”
“His name’s Max.”
“Is he…like you?”
I rolled my eyes. “Yes, he’s gay.”
After a few minutes, she handed me my shirt and asked, “Where are you going?”
“Into the city.”
“Where in the city?”
“Mom,” I warned.
“Fine. I get it. Here are your pants. Should you shave?”
I yanked the pants on and said, “Goodnight, Mom.”
“Bring a coat.”
“Don’t take any pills from anyone.”
I fled down the stairs and called, “There is such a thing as being too supportive, mom!”
Dad was outside bringing the trash cans in from the curb. I reached for one, but he stopped me. “I think I can handle it for one night, sport.”
Max’s car pulled into the driveway and I said, “See ya.”
“Trace, wait a minute.” He took forty dollars from his wallet and said, “Most clubs have cover charges.” I blushed, knowing I’d been busted. Dad laughed. “It’s fine, Trace. Just don’t get drunk. Even if you can trust Max, there will be a lot of men there who won’t be interested in your safety.”
The fact that my dad was warning me of the dangers of a gay bar was almost comical. I put the cash in my wallet and smiled. “Thanks, Dad. For everything. I love you.”
“Love you too, sport. And as patronizing as it may sound, please call me if you need me to—”
“I will. I promise. Gotta go.” Mom opened the door, and I hurried to the car before she could try and introduce herself. I shut the door and sighed.
“Hey,” Max said, backing out onto the street. “Fun times in Parent-Land?”
I laughed. “My mother had to iron my clothes. And then I went through the Spanish Inquisition. Christ! She even warned me not to take drugs from anyone.”
“Have you ever done drugs?” Max asked quietly.
I nodded. “Smoked a joint once with the guys, then got violently sick. They ribbed me about that forever! What about you?”
His mouth twisted to one side. “I took E once. It’s not really worth it, though. Yeah, I felt great, but I had no idea what I was doing. I ended up at some orgy.”
My mouth dropped open. “No shit! That must’ve been an experience.”
“Don’t know,” he said. “As soon as I figured out what was going on, I was outta there. It sucked, too, ’cause I had to call Dad to come and get me. When I told him and Mom what happened, Mom went into a big lecture about safe sex and gave me a box of condoms. God, it was so embarrassing.”
An image of Max rolling a condom down over his dick popped into my head and fire raced to my groin. I shifted slightly and changed the subject. “So, where are we going? Hopefully nowhere too over-the-top.”
Max merged onto the highway and chuckled. “Most gay bars aren’t exactly under-the-top, Trace.”