Israel: January, ERA
Though Israel spent a lot of time reading his new books from the library — they could only check out one at a time but Israel started going after school when he needed a new book which, currently, was everyday.
On Saturday, Israel was called to Headmaster Dawson’s office to be assigned a cabin to stay in for the coming week. He hoped that, by some miracle, he would end up in Pax and Deven’s cabin, but when he arrived at the office, he didn’t know any of the guys who were there.
Headmaster Dawson introduced them, but Israel was too disappointed to be fully engaged and only managed to remember one guy’s name — Nelson. Even though Israel imagined that he hadn’t made the best first impression, the guys helped him carry all of his belongings out of his room and into their cabin — number 29 — and then barely spoke a word to him for the rest of the week.
One reason for this was that Israel spent all of his meals with Pax and his friends and all of his other spare time reading or doing homework, which he found was pretty ideal for making friends but not being tired from being around people.
When Israel’s third Saturday at East Ridge finally came around, he met Pax and Deven — the only current members of cabin 36 — in Headmaster Dawson’s office so that he could officially move in with them.
“This is everyone?” Headmaster Dawson asked, his brow furrowed.
“Yeah,” Pax said. “Our other three bunkmates moved out recently.”
“And we’ll be getting two more soon after Israel,” Deven added. “They’re turning thirteen soon.”
“Well, it’s nice to hear that you have it all figured out,” Headmaster Dawson said. “Be good friends and help Israel move his things to your cabin, will you?”
“’Course,” Pax said, and Deven led the way out of the office.
“Speaking of bunkmates,” Deven said once they were a few feet away from Headmaster Dawson’s office, “Amoni has a new friend that he wants us to meet at lunch.”
“Yeah, Iz, sorry you weren’t there when he told us about the new kid, but he’s Amoni’s age and they have a few classes together. He sounds cool, from what Amoni said,” Pax said.
“He and Amoni already got detention together,” Deven said, laughing. “It’s like a match made in heaven.”
“Just not for the teachers,” Israel said, and his friends laughed. Even after Pax and Deven lost their smiles, Israel’s stayed.
When they got to the mess hall, Amoni was waiting for them. He smiled when he saw them and looked at Israel. “Happy moving day.”
“Thanks,” Israel said, smiling back.
“Deven and I could honestly put ‘part time movers’ on a resume after this last month,” Pax said. “First we helped Alex and Jaylen move out, and now we have to help all of you move in.”
“It’s not like any of us have a lot of stuff,” Israel said as he pushed open the door to the outside and let his friends walk through. He followed them outside and Deven turned to him. “Guess we’ll just have to make this look more convincing for our resumes.” Before Israel could react, he wrapped his arms around Israel’s waist and picked him up off the ground.
Pax, Amoni, and Deven laughed as Israel tried to wiggle his way out of Deven’s arms. Before he could manage to, Deven put him down.
“Not funny,” Israel said, straightening his jacket. His friends’ laughter was contagious though, and he couldn’t help but crack a smile and laugh a little.
“See, you like us,” Pax teased, pushing Israel playfully.
Israel thought about pushing him back, but he figured that he wouldn’t be able to budge Pax and he would only embarrass himself.
Bunking with Pax and Deven was much better than bunking with Israel’s first week of cabinmates. Not only were they pretty quiet most of the time, especially when none of their friends were over — allowing Israel to continue his routine of reading and doing homework in peace — but Israel quickly got so comfortable around them that he stopped going into the bathroom every time he had to change clothes because neither of them ever did.
Israel chose the bottom bunk right next to the dresser and the door because he felt wrong taking the beds that Alex, Jaylen, and Seth had previously slept in. Though Pax still slammed the door into the dresser when he opened it, it stopped making Israel jump after a couple days. He even got used to stepping over Pax’s dirty clothes when he needed to go to the bathroom. He figured that, as long as sweaty socks and shorts covered in dirt never made it to his side of the cabin and were picked up before bunk checks, then they didn’t matter that much.
As it turned out, Amoni’s friend Gray, who wouldn’t turn thirteen until February and looked even younger than that, fit into Israel’s little friend group as if he had known them forever. The cabin always got much louder when Amoni, Gray, and Ember visited, but even when Israel didn’t feel like participating in card games or charades, he learned to tune them out and let them have fun. Sometimes when Ember didn’t want to participate either they took walks and talked about the things they were interested in or went to the library and bonded over their love for reading in silence.
Ember moved into the cabin on his birthday, January tenth. To Israel’s delight, he took the top bunk next to the bunks Pax and Deven shared, leaving Israel’s top bunk empty. When Amoni moved in just three days later, Pax asked Headmaster Dawson to check their violence records and the headmaster agreed that they could have their mirror and tank lid back. Israel couldn’t help but bite his nails as they helped Amoni carry his things from the visitation center alongside a man named Mr. Lakes, who brought their mirror and tank lid to the cabin. However, Israel worried for nothing, because when Mr. Lakes left, Amoni claimed the bottom bunk next to the bathroom.
“And then when Gray moves in,” Amoni said, grinning, “he’s going to take the top bunk.”
Israel helped Amoni make his bed as Pax and Deven dumped his clothes into one of the empty dresser drawers. “Now all we need are bunk buddies for Izzy and Em,” Deven said.
“No thank you,” Ember said from his bed, where he was studying his science book in order to complete the packet his teacher had assigned.
“If Israel and Em wanted bunk buddies, I think they would have chosen each other,” Pax said, making Israel smile to himself. Though Israel and Pax had very little in common, Pax always seemed to understand him.
The next day, Israel couldn’t get his parents off his mind. Maybe it was because they had discussed religion on English as they read Number the Stars, or maybe it was because Israel had heard a joke that he thought his dad would tell, but he couldn’t be sure. Regardless, he was on the brink of tears by the time he got to Mr. Philbin’s office for his counseling session.
“How are we today?” Mr. Philbin asked, smiling as he grabbed his pen and notepad.
Israel shook his head, not trusting himself to speak.
“What’s wrong? Did something happen this morning?”
Israel shook his head again.
Israel shook his head once again.
“I’m about out of guesses,” Mr. Philbin said, smiling slightly. “I think you’re just going to have to tell me.”
“I just —” Israel said, his voice catching. “Thinking about my parents a lot today.” A sob escaped his throat, and Mr. Philbin let him cry in silence for a few seconds.
“Why do you think the thought of them is upsetting you so much?”
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned about you so far, Israel, it’s that you always know at least one reason for why you feel certain ways about things. You’re impressively self-aware for your age.”
Israel sobbed again. He wanted to get mad. He wanted to tell Mr. Philbin to fuck off — though he couldn’t actually imagine himself saying those words aloud — because he wasn’t in the mood to talk. He just wanted some alone time. However, he knew that holding in his emotions, especially when he had no one else to talk them out with, wasn’t good for him. “I saw them on visitation day about a week ago.”
“Yes, I remember talking about that,” Mr. Philbin said. “You said that it went well.”
Israel shrugged. “I’ve gotten two letters from them since but I haven’t written back.” He sobbed again, his heart panging.
“And why’s that?”
“Because I don’t miss them,” Israel snapped. He had felt guilty for thinking it and had tried to bury the thought, and speaking it aloud made him hate himself. “I just — In a lot of ways, I feel so free here, having friends and having less pressure to sit in the living room with my parents to make them feel happy when all I want is to be alone in my room for a while. Here I can do what I want and no one actually cares one way or the other.”
“Israel, I want you to know that it is perfectly normal for someone your age to be gaining a sense of independence, or even defiance, from their parents.”
“But I’ve never been rebellious or anything like that,” Israel insisted, rubbing his eyes. “I was always a good son.”
“You said ‘was,’ as if you aren’t anymore.”
“I’m gay!” Israel said, louder than he meant to. He shrunk back into his chair, wishing that he could leave. “I can’t be a good son when my dad’s a pastor and I’m gay.”
Mr. Philbin took a deep breath and Israel braced himself. He was going to agree with Israel, and then he’d… well, he might just die right there.
“Your sexuality has nothing to do with whether or not you are a good son — or, while we’re on the subject, a good friend or a good person. The fact that you care about your parents so much and that you have spent so much time with them shows how much you love them. Just because you’re starting to grow up and have opinions of your own doesn’t mean that you don’t love them or that you’re a bad son.”
Israel nodded, trying not to cry more. He did love his parents. He always had, because they had always been there for him. They had even told him how much they loved him many times after he came out.
“Maybe,” Mr. Philbin said, “if you want to write a letter to them, you can express that you need some space sometimes. But, of course, that’s just a suggestion. My ultimate advice for you, Israel, in more situations than just this one, is not to do something that makes you miserable just to make other people happy.”
Israel nodded, an uneasy feeling building in his chest. He didn’t know how to interact with his parents if his goal wasn’t to make them happy. Or did he? He had come out, after all. But Mr. Philbin was one hundred percent about one thing, at least. Israel needed to write a letter.
As it turned out, knowing that he really needed to write a letter didn’t make it easier to write it. He avoided the desks in the cabin and instead played cards with his cabin mates, Gray, and Jaylen until there was a knock on their door.
“Shit, man,” Jaylen said, hitting Gray’s shoulder and then jumping up.
“I told you guys that you should’ve left half an hour ago,” Ember said, and Gray stuck his tongue out at him as he stood up.
Deven hopped up and went to answer the door, where one of the night guards had come to lock them in.
“Sorry,” Jaylen said as he and Gray slipped by the guard.
“What are you doing?” the guard barked. “Don’t walk, run! We have other things to do than make sure you’re in your cabins!”
“Well, we’re all here,” Deven said loudly, gesturing to Israel and the others. They waved as the guard leaned in and checked their names off of the list on his clipboard. “Have a good night.”
Deven closed the door behind him, and a second later they heard the click of the lock. He sat back down on the rug between Pax and Israel. “One more game?”
“Sure,” Pax, Israel, and Amoni agreed.
Ember stood up. “I’m good.” He went to the bathroom and locked the door.
“This has been such a good day,” Amoni said as he dealt cards to everyone. “Living here is so much better than the stupid visitation center. Hell, I’d live here with you guys until I was eighteen if I could. But I know you guys won’t even be here that long and I doubt my uncle could afford to keep me here that long.”
Israel picked up his cards off the floor and pretended to study them as thoughts of his parents invaded his brain. With how he felt right now, he wouldn’t mind staying here until he was eighteen, either.
“Left of the dealer,” Deven muttered. “That means you, Iz.”
“Sorry,” Israel said. He tried to focus on his cards, but his heart wasn’t in it. He put them down. “Sorry guys. I think I’ll actually pass on this round.”
“What’s wrong?” Pax asked.
Israel kept his eyes on the ground and got up to go to bed.
Someone whispered something as he lay down, but he couldn’t tell who had said it or what had been said. Then the bathroom door slid open. “Is the game over already?” Ember asked.
“Never started,” Deven said.
“Is he okay?” Ember whispered loudly.
“I’m fine,” Israel snapped, keeping his eyes on the wall and resisting the urge to pull his blankets over his head like a little kid would.
“You’re obviously not,” Pax said.
Israel started to say, “Am too,” but his voice caught in his throat and ended up coming out as a sob. You idiot, he thought. If you just would’ve written this letter, none of this would have happened.
The floor creaked as someone walked over and sat down next to Israel’s legs on his bed. More footsteps followed, and Israel did his best to bury his face in his thin pillow. This couldn’t be happening.
“You can talk to us if you ever need,” Pax said softly. Others murmured in agreement. “We’re all here to help each other.”
“Sorry if I said something —” Amoni started, but Israel cut him off. “Not your fault.”
“Well,” Amoni said, “I think we all know that sometimes counseling days can be a bitch.”
Despite everything, Israel laughed.
“For real though,” Pax said, also laughing. “Is that what’s going on, Iz?”
“Kinda,” Israel said, his laughter dying out. He pulled his face away from his pillow and sat up, trying not to blush too hard as his friends watched. He reached up to make sure that his hair wasn’t sticking out everywhere. “I’m just trying to figure some stuff out, I guess.”
“Hey, we’ve all been there,” Deven said. “And, I mean, some of us are still there, obviously.”
“But we can still help,” Pax reminded them. “What else are friends for?”
Israel shrugged and managed a smile. It was hard not to smile when he looked at his friends. Maybe he didn’t know them very well yet, but he could still let them know him, couldn’t he? “I guess there’s one thing I should say. I mean, not should, that I want you guys to know.”
“Did you —?” Ember began, but Deven cut him off by punching his shoulder. Ember glared at him and rubbed his shoulder.
Israel took a deep breath. Then another one. “It’s just, I don’t know. I think you guys should — I mean, I want you to know that… that… that I’m gay.”
The silence nearly killed him. Looking back, Israel was sure that it hadn’t been that long, but in the moment, the space between his last word and Pax touching his arm and saying, “Good for you, man. Takes guts to say that kind of stuff” seemed infinite.
“Don’t worry, I got nothing against that,” Amoni said.
“You know, humans aren’t the only species that experience same-sex attraction,” Ember said. “We’re just the only ones who act like it’s a big deal.”
“Oh yeah, ’cause that’s what he wanted to hear right now,” Deven said, rolling his eyes.
“But it’s true,” Ember insisted.
Israel smiled to himself. “Hey, thanks guys. It really means a lot.”
Pax smiled at him and clapped him on the shoulder before standing up and walking away. The rest of Israel’s friends followed Pax’s lead and began getting ready for bed. Israel, though he wasn’t ready for bed at all, sat on his own bed, dumbstruck, unable to wipe the stupid grin off his face. This was what it felt like to be loved. This was true acceptance.
The next day after afternoon workouts, Israel and Ember headed to the library. While Ember read, Israel wrote a letter to his parents, bolstered by the confidence that coming out to his friends had given him.
Dear Mom and Dad,
I’ve done a lot of thinking since we saw each other last. For a while I felt bad about some of the thoughts I was having, but the friends that I’ve made have made me realize that they’re not things I should feel bad about.
We had a lot of good times when I was living at home, don’t get me wrong, but being on my own without you guys has made me realize how ready I am to have some freedom. I’m not saying that I’m ready to spread my wings and leave the nest for good, of course, I’m only fourteen! But I’m ready to tell you that I’m okay with the fact that we don’t always see eye to eye. I know how badly I need to be me, all of me, whether I have your support or not.
I know that I’m going to make decisions that you don’t like. I’m going to embrace my identity as a gay man (I know I’m not really a man yet, but gay boy sounded weird) and even though you don’t agree, I know I’m loved anyway. Even if you don’t accept me, I have friends and other adults in my life who do accept me as me so I can confidently say that I feel validated enough in my identity to not keep it hidden. Of course, I would feel better if you guys would support me, but if you keep asking me to hide this part of myself, you will face resistance. I’m so tired of hiding. After all, you taught me not to lie, so I’m not going to live a lie. If you have a problem with that, you can take it up with God. Be aware, though, that he doesn’t like liars either.
While Israel waited for a response, sometimes in agony and sometimes with the confidence that he had felt when writing the letter, the talk of baseball became more and more prevalent inside and outside of his cabin. Instead of playing cards for hours, Deven, Pax, Amoni, and Gray spent more and more time down at the baseball fields, despite Amoni and Gray’s insistence that they were not going to try out.
“If you’re not going to try out, why practice?” Israel asked them at dinner when they once again couldn’t stop talking about baseball.
“We’re not practicing anything,” Amoni said.
“Except being cheerleaders,” Gray said, grinning.
“And running,” Amoni added, “as if we don’t already practice that enough. We’re just ball boys, man. If Pax and Dev wanna practice hitting, we practice fetching. If there’s a pick up game, we cheer. It’s always a good time.”
“They don’t cheer much, they mostly antagonize,” Pax said. “You should’ve seen Alan Kerwood’s face today.”
“Who?” Ember asked through a mouthful of macaroni and cheese. Israel shrugged at him, feeling just as lost.
“And Liam’s yesterday,” Amoni said, slapping his thigh. “Gray called him a ‘cockatoo’ and he nearly blew his top.”
Deven laughed, “Oh my God, I remember that. And then he got hit by Owen’s pitch ’cause he turned around to yell at you guys.”
“And Owen tried to apologize and Liam literally just growled at him,” Pax said, laughing so hard that he could barely get through his sentence. Deven, Amoni, and Gray also dissolved into laughter, their faces turning red. Deven even wiped tears from his eyes.
Ember rolled his eyes at Israel and Israel rolled his eyes back, smiling.
When Israel finally received a response from his parents, he tore it open and sat down on his bed, expecting a long letter. However, all there was was a half-sheet of notebook paper that said:
Dad and I will see you on the second for visitation day. We can talk about whatever is on your heart then.
“Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” - Romans 12:12
Israel crumpled the letter and dropped it on the floor, anger rising in his chest. Then he stood up and kicked the crumpled letter for good measure. It barely moved, but Pax looked up at Israel from his own bed, where he had been reading a book for school. “Bad news?”
Israel shrugged and sat down, letting his head drop into his hands. All of that waiting, all of that worrying, and for what? For Mom to act like he would feel differently when he saw them on visitation day? Fuck that.
I really have to stop that, Israel chided himself. All of the cussing around him day in and day out was worming its way into his head, and he hated it.
“It’s just me. We could talk,” Pax said.
Israel heard his bed squeak and looked up to see Pax walking over, picking up the wadded letter on the way. “Don’t read it.”
“Wasn’t planning on it,” Pax promised, holding his hands up in surrender. He threw the ball of paper onto Israel’s bed. “Can I sit?”
Israel scooted to one side and Pax sat down. “This have anything to do with what you told us a week or so ago? Whenever it was.”
“A little,” Israel admitted. “My dad’s a pastor.”
Pax nodded, grimacing. “Religious people can be pretentious assholes sometimes. Not all of them of course, I know there are some good ones out there, but… Ah, you get me.”
“I do,” Israel admitted, wishing that he didn’t and hoping that he was one of the good ones. “Sometimes my parents just treat me like I’m still a little kid, you know? And a dumb one, at that.”
“I totally understand,” Pax said. “Mine do that too. Probably because I really pushed the envelope when I lived at home, but hey. Hindsight is 20/20.”
Israel smiled and glanced at Pax, wondering what he had gone through to make him such a natural at this kind of thing. He seemed to take everything in stride.
“You don’t have to tell me any more if you don’t want, but I’m here if you need me, you know?”
“I know,” Israel promised, smiling. Pax returned the smile and headed back to his own bed.