Your birthday’s next Thursday, right? Joel texts the next day.
He was right, but I wonder who told him.
Yeah, who told you? I ask, through my groggy tiredness of the morning.
It’s on your Instagram story from last year. He answers.
I forgot, normally only Sean, my cousins, and my few friends looked at it. They understood my personality and humour. Did Joel follow me? I would have noticed if he followed me, and thought it was a miss-click. I exited out of texts and went to Instagram to look through my twenty or so followers. Joel was at the top, he’d followed me last night after our date. I had occasionally looked at his Instagram out of boredom, it wasn’t cyberstalking by any means. I followed him back.
I set the phone down and undressed to have a shower. The phone binged again.
What should I get you as a gift? He asks.
He was going to get me a gift? Wasn’t that one of the things you weren’t supposed to do at the beginning of a relationship? I didn’t know what I wanted. Normally, I asked for books or money but he was already taking me to a movie. How much was too much?
I left the phone on the bathroom sink counter well I showered and thought about what I wanted or if I wanted anything. I heard my phone buzz a few more times well I was in the shower.
My birthday was on the 22nd of August.
If I was born two days later I would have been a Virgo.
Just so you know for next time.
I don’t know why the second line was vital but I smiled regardless. I got dressed and packed up my school bag and went downstairs where Sean was already eating breakfast. My mother was rushing around in a frenzy looking for her misplaced car keys like she did every morning, I swear every time she got home she got distracted and ended up dropping her keys in some random new place every time because she never knew where they were in the morning. My dad was sipping his coffee and watching her with a smile.
“Honey, have you seen my keys?” she asks my father.
He smiles again, he reaches up on top of the fridge and pulls them down.
“I have no clue how you left them up there,” he comments.
“Neither do I, love you. See you tonight. Goodbye, boys,” she said kissing Sean on the head and rushing for the door.
I and dad watched her run down the driveway and get in her car. She plugged the keys into the ignition, started the car up and pulled out into the street and drove off down the street.
I made some toast for myself as Sean was finishing up his waffles.
“Hurry up, lover boy,” Sean teased.
The toast popped and I buttered them. I held one slice in my mouth well I put my coat on. I did the same well putting my bag on, switching the slice in my hands back and forth as I put each arm of the coat and bag on before slipping the slice out of my mouth. I and Sean waved goodbye to dad and left. I ate my toast as we walked. We walked the two blocks and parted at the front entrance to go our separate ways to our lockers. I pulled out my phone still thinking about what I wanted. I opened my locker.
“Luka,” I heard a quiet voice.
I turned and Joel was standing beside me. He looked sad, scared and bewildered.
“Are you okay?” I ask quietly.
“I told my parents, they think it’s a phase,” he murmurs.
“They all think that at first. Give them time, they’ll come around,” I reply trying to reassure him.
He didn’t look so sure. He was right in the end, I guess, too.
“What matters is your happiness, in the end, right?” I remind him.
“Yeah, yeah,” he replies sniffling.
His arms reach up and wrap around my neck and shoulders. He looks into my eyes. I get shy and look down. I can feel people staring. Joel doesn’t seem to care though. I look back up into his eyes, he leans his head forward onto mine.
“It’ll be okay,” I whisper.
“Not wanting me to do tennis is one thing, not allowing me to like who I like is another,” he continues.
“Not to burst your bubble but we have class,” I remind him.
“You’re right,” he murmurs taking a step back.
“Text me at lunch,” he finishes. “Bye, Luka.”
I watched him walk away and everyone else did, too before turning their eyes back to me. I buried my head in my locker looking for my textbooks and notes for my classes. I kept my head low as I walked to class.
“Hey, Luka. What’s up with you and Joel?” Michel, one of my friends from the chess club and my math class asked.
“Nothing,” I replied irritated.
“People said they saw you hugging by your locker,” he continued.
“It’s none of your business,” I growl.
“Geez, man. It was just a question,” he hissed quietly in reply.
Our teacher, Mr. Scholl came in then, everyone quieted down and turned their attention to the front but I couldn’t focus on the lesson. I was drawing stars on the margins of my math workbook. I couldn’t stop thinking about Joel and his parents.
I never understood outright rejection on the part of the parents. This was your child, you loved them. They were part of you, you made them. Some people can’t even have them and you’re getting mad or upset over who they love. There are worse things they could do. Have a drug addiction, murder someone, etc.
Mr. Scholl finished the lesson within forty-five minutes and the rest of the time was supposed to be spent doing the homework he assigned. I didn’t want a gift from Joel, I wanted to make him feel better about the situation with his parents. I got an idea then.
I watched the clock tick down to the bell time and was gone once it rang. As much as my parents would dislike me skipping class, it was for a good reason and it wasn’t like I’d be able to focus anyway. I could get the notes online and email my teachers about the homework. I texted Joel to meet me by the exits in the basement by the locker rooms. They were next to the cafeteria. I had a free period right now, but Joel was supposed to be in English. I knew his parents wouldn’t like him missing class but I guess this was also a part of the test of his feelings. Would he skip class and anger his parents more, all for little old me? But that wasn’t the original plan, it was an afterthought.
Joel appeared looking nervous like he thought the assistant principal or the gym teacher would catch us.
“What are we doing?” he asked.
“Having a little fun,” I reply. “If you’re up for it.”
“Didn’t know you were the breaking-rule type,” he comments.
“Just this once, for you,” I reply.
“For me?” he questioned excitedly.
“Calm down, someone will hear you,” I continue.
“I don’t care,” he answered excitedly again.
“You will if we get suspended,” I exclaim.
“Even then, I don’t know if I’d care,” he murmured wrapping his arms around my shoulders and neck. Our noses touched, it was the closest we’d been since he’d confessed to me. “Come on,” I replied.
He took my hand and I lead him out the back exit of the school. We walked through the cold air and the frost-covered grass across the field. The gym classes were inside as it was too cold and slippery to play on the field. We crossed the field, our breath creating clouds in front of us. I looked back, his cheeks were reddening. I could feel the cold invading the heat of our hands holding each other.
We were alone and happy blissfully for a brief period before the first storm of many that would come rolling over us. I didn’t know if Joel would be willing to fight for us but I would learn how far he would go for me.
I brought him to the bowling alley, and we each got a lane and started throwing bowling balls at the pins. School, homework and parents were forgotten about for a few hours. We got lunch well we were there and enjoyed each other’s company. My parents started texting me after lunch hour ended, the school had obviously called. I explained what was going on with Joel and promised it wouldn’t be a frequent thing. They were sweet and understanding and invited Joel over for dinner. We go back to the school with only half an hour left to grab our things.
This is where our blissfully happy world, is shattered. One of Joel’s buddies, one of the jocks in his bomber sports team jacket and slicked-back, blond hair appeared.
“Hey, Joel, where have you been? We missed you in English class and all this afternoon,” he replies.
He notices me, and I get nervous. I was waiting for him to comment on my presence. He might have heard the comments about what happened at my locker this morning, too.
“I’ve been hanging out with Luka,” he replied.
“Why?” he asked like it was some crime.
“Why does it matter?” Joel asks, defeated, clearly not wanting to deal with any more homophobia today.
“He’s a freak,” the jock comments.
It didn’t bother me, there were worse things he could say. But it did tick off Joel.
“I can hang out with whoever I damn well please,” he growled.
“Joel, let’s just go,” I start quietly, nodding in the direction of my locker.
“No, I will not have people calling my boyfriend, a freak,” he emphasizes the last part of the sentence.
“So, you’re gay now?” the jock questions somehow confused even though Joel’s statement was quite clear. “Is this a joke?”
It was bad enough we’d skipped class, we didn’t need to get into it with this guy, too.
“Joel, he’s not worth it,” I continue taking hold lightly of his bicep. He looks at me and back at the jock, he places a hand over mine and takes it before nodding and turning his back on the jock.
“This will be all over the school by tomorrow,” he shouts after us.
“That’ll just prove what you are, an asshole, bully and no goddamn friend of mine,” Joel retorts back. “I never said I wasn’t gay. You just all thought I was normal and that I would follow you to the ends of the earth to preserve my reputation. I don’t want to have that kind of reputation, and I don’t want to be a homophobic prick and deny who I am. So, you can go screw yourself, Mark.”
We walked away from him standing stunned, towards the hall my locker was in. I got my coat, books, and homework out. We went upstairs to where Joel’s was before we went out to the student parking lot where Joel’s silver Toyota Camry was. This time I didn’t have to direct him toward my house.
I was surprised by his outburst but I guess he was done with everybody’s bullshit then. After that, he slowly distanced himself from the jocks he used to hang out with and the model, pretty girls who used to throw themselves at him. He came to chess club and math club meetings. He was there when I took third place in the chess tournament, and I was there when he took his Tennis team to State Finals.
He was a completely different person by the end of the eleventh grade. I could tell he was happy but behind the scenes, his parents’ relationship with him was falling apart. He showed up at my bedroom window one summer night. He looked as white as a ghost, clearly hadn’t been getting any sun at the beach or working under any kind of sun and he had a black eye. He said his family was going on vacation and I hadn’t seen him in a few weeks, we texted infrequently and clearly whatever had happened to him he hadn’t thought to mention over text.
He climbed inside and I brought him into my bathroom to get a better look at his eye. When I looked closer I noticed how bloodshot his eyes were.
“Stay here,” I said quietly and went downstairs to get some ice for his eye.
He looked thin, like he’d lost weight well on summer break rather than put it on well he wasn’t playing Tennis.
I gave him the ice and he put it on his eye.
“What’s going on?” I asked quietly.
“My extended family wasn’t the most accepting of me having a boyfriend,” he answered sarcastically.
We’d been together for a year, I knew it wasn’t some cruel joke, and Joel knew his feelings were real and not some phase. Joel had never brought me to his house because he was worried his parents would go off on me about turning their son gay or something.
“Maybe I should meet them, maybe they’d like me,” I offer.
I was willing to take the risk if it would make it easier for Joel and his family. He leaned his sweaty forehead on my shoulder.
“I wish I believed that would work but I don’t,” he murmured.
I was saddened by the fact that he didn’t believe his parents loved him enough to change their views of him but he was right in his thinking as far as I’d seen at this point.
I hugged him.
“Are you hungry?” I asked trying to distract him.
He smiles sadly but nods.
“Let’s go get you something to eat,” I whisper, taking his hand and leading him downstairs.
It was late, my parents were in bed and Sean was in his basement bedroom doing whatever he does late at night. I raid the cupboards holding up different types of junk food, trying to find something he wants to eat. I heard the basement door squeak open and saw Sean look towards us rubbing his eyes, clearly, he’d just woken up.
“Hey, Joel,” Sean yawned.
“Hey,” he replied.
Sean didn’t seem bothered by his presence here late at night, maybe he could sense or see Joel’s state. I was grateful for him being a nice supporting brother and not ratting me out to my parents for having a boyfriend over late at night without permission.
Sean went on his way to the bathroom upstairs which was the only inconvenience about the basement bedroom.
“Is he going to say anything? I don’t want to get you in trouble,” Joel asks quietly.
“Sean can be a pain in the ass when he wants to but he supports me. Don’t worry about it. I’m not sure they’d be that mad about you being here considering what you’re going through,” I answer honestly.
“You’re lucky they support you,” he continues.
“I’m lucky to have you,” I reply.
He smiles weakly before deciding on some Oreos and milk. I steal one of the four cartons of two-litre milk we have in the fridge and the half-empty opened box of Oreos out of the cupboard. I hand Joel the cookies and get a plate down from the shelf. I carry the milk and plate up the stairs well Joel carries the Oreos. We walk past the bathroom in the hall, the yellow light is glowing under the door. We go back into my room and sit on the floor in front of my TV. I hand Joel the controller so he can find something he likes to watch. He settled on a marathon of Sherlock that was on for some obscure reason.
We get into a debate over whether Sherlock and Watson are supposed to just be partners in solving crimes or more. I argue they’re just partners in solving crime as the original stories were written in the eighteen-hundred when homosexuality was still very much unapproved of.
“It would be a good cover though,” Joel exclaims.
I mention the age difference between the two.
“They’re only six or seven years apart at most,” Joel replies. “It's more likely three or four but some evidence says more.”
I go back to arguing with the time period as my main point since it is concrete and I don’t actually know either of their ages accurately as well as John’s marriage to Mary and the child that they ended up having.
Joel went on to say that didn’t mean he didn’t feel anything for Sherlock. Maybe he loved Mary more. I pulled a pillow off my bed and laid it against the dresser and lay down. We were starting the third episode and the sun was rising. Joel clearly wasn’t going to sleep any time soon but I was tired. I passed out and woke hours later to my bedroom door squeaking open. I saw Joel first and he looked terrified. I turned to see what was scaring him. My father was standing in my bedroom doorway with a surprised look.
I got up and led him out of the room to explain. It wasn’t like he found us kissing or having sex. I realized soon it wasn’t anger on his face but worry.
“He showed up. He didn’t have a good vacation and considering his eye I didn’t think you’d mind,” I explained myself quietly.
“I don’t care that he’s here. I trust you, and I trust him. I'm concerned about why he’s here and with a black eye,” my father answers.
“He just told me the vacation didn’t go well. His extended family doesn’t like that he has a boyfriend,” I explain. “I don’t know who gave him the black eye.”
“Just be careful, okay?” he continues.
“I will, dad. I promise,” I reply.
“I think I scared him a little, can you tell him I’m sorry and that he has nothing to worry about?” my father asks.
“I will,” I continue.
I go back to my room.
“It’s fine. Just like I told you. He’s just worried about your eye. He’s sorry he scared you,” I explain quickly.
“I’ll be fine,” he answers.
He told that lie often, more so I didn’t worry about him as much as I should have. The next year was about the same. He’d show up every once in a while, sick and tired of his parents’ bullshit and sleep at my house for a few nights before going back to his own.
During college, we roomed together to his parent’s dismay. By then, they had no power over him and he was an adult. He got a teaching degree on a tennis scholarship and I went into software development and computers.
He graduated after six years and got a job as a gym teacher at the local middle school. Shortly, after he asked me to marry him, but the excitement was short-lived. This was when he first started getting headaches and blurry vision.