Hope

an excerpt



Chapter One

Friday 8:04 P.M.


I held Steve tight and whispered, "Shhhhsh, shhhhsh."

Through his sobs, I heard him say, "I won't go back. I won't go back. No one can ever make me go back there." Between words and tears there were a lot of sniffles, snorts, and hiccups. The shoulder of my T-shirt was soaked.

I wasn't sure what to say or do. I'm not sure a lot of people would know. I guess maybe a therapist would, but I wasn't one of those. I was a high school senior who got pretty good grades, but I was holding the boy I loved, and he was in a lot of pain.

I knew I was going to hold him for as long as he needed me to. The poor guy. We'd been dating a few months. My parents had come around and were pretty okay with me being gay. He and I had talked about him coming out to his mom and dad.

Both sets of parents knew Steve and I hung around. I'd helped rescue him from some terrible people. He'd been through some hideous moments but wasn't given to tears and hysterics. Or hadn't been until now. I was really worried. Most of the time he was quiet and shy except when we managed to find time to ourselves alone.

I didn't call it dating in front of my parents. Why rub it in? We were still in high school after all. His parents fawned over me when I saw them. They saw me as the savior of their son.

They were big on Saviors being members of the largest fundamentalist church in Riverside, California. His dad was the pastor of the Witness for Jesus conglomerate.

I didn't urge or discourage Steve from coming out to them. I'd told him no matter what he decided, I'd be there for comfort and support.

No question, it's gotten better for gay kids in general and for me in particular. I'm just not sure it's always easier. When I'd come out to my mom and dad, they had been a little nutsy at first, but they'd come a long way since then. They had even attended the last few local PLFAG meetings.

It was night, and Steve and I were on a bench in Fairmont Park down by the river in Riverside, California. Moonlight shone through the leaves of a vast pepper tree under which the bench we sat on rested. A ring of huge old jacaranda surrounded our tree making it as secluded a spot as we would like in the middle of the city.

We'd come here before. If we didn't have a movie to go to or a place to be, we headed for this corner of hidden serenity. It was quiet, and we weren't likely to be disturbed. We could cuddle, and we did that a lot. Sometimes through the branches and leaves of the trees we just sat and watched the moon rise and the stars begin to shine over the mountains to the east.

I heard footsteps on the path about twenty feet on the other side of where the tree's shadows ended. It sounded like a couple murmuring to each other. I heard a soft giggle. They moved on and gave no indication they were aware of us.

A gentle wind rustled the leaves. The weather was warm so we didn't need jackets right now. The night would cool enough for that later.

Half an hour ago, all his message had said was, "At Fairmount Park. Please come at once." We'd planned to go out that night so it wasn't a big change of plans. Sometimes we texted about what we wanted to do instead of calling, so getting a text wasn't real odd. As soon as I'd joined him under the tree, he'd flown into my arms, which had caused me to stumble a few steps backwards. Once I'd steadied us, I'd eased him onto the bench.

When he calmed down enough but his head was still resting on my shoulder, I asked, "What happened?"

"I walked into the house after you dropped me off."

I'd picked him up from the downtown library where he'd been while I was at baseball practice. We didn't kiss when I dropped him off. It was too public, too risky being right out in front of his parents' house.

He took a deep breath then lifted his head.

"When I walked in, my mom and dad were both sitting on the couch. Each of them held a Bible. They just sat there. So I began to go up to my room. Then my dad commanded me in his most pissed from the pulpit voice, ‘Come here young man.' I didn't know what was going on. His tone kind of scared me, but what he said next for sure scared me."

"What'd he say?"

"He did that raise his right arm, shake his index finger at me. He does that from the pulpit when he's describing and denouncing great sinners. Then in that deep, disdainful, rumbly voice, he asked, ‘Have you been dating that boy?' When he said the word ‘dating,' I knew that tone he said it in. I'd heard him use it from the pulpit when describing all kinds of sins. He made it sound like filth and perversion." He gulped. "I didn't know what to say."

Steve moved his head and looked me in the eyes. "I finally just gave this real pathetic nod. I wish I'd been braver."

"You were doing the best you could. I know even that nod must've taken a lot."

"I was scared shitless."

"Then what?"

"His voice got real quiet which was almost scarier than the rumbly angry voice. He's learned to change his voice to great effect."

"What did he say?"

Steve shuddered. "He said, ‘Get out. Don't come back until you have confessed to the Lord and begged his forgiveness.' I started to say something. I'm not sure what I was going to say. I didn't know what to say, but I didn't even get a word out. At the first sound that came out of me, he was on his feet bellowing at the top of his lungs and ranting about God and Jesus, sin and perdition, and burning in Hell."

A light breeze ruffled the leaves for a few moments. A few stray purple petals from the nearby jacaranda trees skittered by our feet. I heard the hum of a couple of cars on Market Street.

"Did he say who told them?" I asked.

"Not him. I stood there for his ranting. When he finally drew a breath, it was my mom who told me in her mousy voice. I hate that mousy voice."

His mom was this real plain woman, gray hair, gray complexion, kind of always sort of gray clothes. She never said much when I was around and even then she spoke in pretty much a whisper.

Steve went on. "She said that the neighbors told them, the Bazniks. That it was embarrassing that they had to hear it from someone who lived next door to us." He shook his head. "The Bazniks are prominent in another church called Heaven Sent. They're my dad's big rivals. They're always smiling to each other's faces, but my mom and dad hate them."

"Not very Christian of them."

He gave the briefest hint of a smile as one side of his mouth lifted a half an inch. He continued, "My mom spoke so calmly, almost like a recitation. It was spooky. Zombie like. It bothered me more than my dad's ranting. She went on and on about what the damn neighbors would think. She actually said that. ‘The neighbors. What will they think of us?' She talked about how she knew they'd gloat about our family harboring a nest of sin."

"You're a nest of sin?"

"I guess so."

"How does that feel?"

"If I'm in your arms, not bad."

"How'd the neighbors find out?"

"She said the neighbor's son, Harold, saw me kissing ‘that boy'. He'd taken a picture with his phone. She showed it to me. It was of us in your car in the parking lot after a night baseball game. Remember? We thought everybody was gone."

Was Harold jealous? A closet case? Or just a teenage religious whack job with too much time on his hands?

"My mom finished with, ‘We thought he was a nice boy.'" Steve took a deep breath. "At that point I lost it. I yelled at her, ‘He is a nice boy. I love him.'" He pulled in another deep breath, let himself calm down, then resumed. "After that it got really quiet. I felt bad right away for yelling at my mom. I shouldn't yell at her. She puts up with enough from my dad. She looked like I'd slapped her, and saying I loved you to them was also a mistake."

Another deep breath. "My dad started screaming, ‘Love! You don't know what love is. Has he touched you? If he has, it's rape.' He gave this big shudder, but when he started again he was still screaming. ‘Touching another boy!' He advanced on me. I was just frozen to the spot. He loomed over me. He belted me with his right hand." Steve began crying again.

He'd rushed into my arms when I arrived, and I didn't get a close look at him in the dim light. When he was once again calmer, I lifted his head and saw his left cheek. From his ear to his nose was red and a darkening purple dotted the area nearest his eye.

"He hit you!"

More tears fell. I held him tight.

When Steve finally stopped sniffling, got himself under control, and blew his nose, I asked, "What did you do?"

"I rocked back on my heels. I may have taken several steps back. I had to brace myself on the coffee table for a few seconds to keep from falling. When I finally stood back up, he swept his arm toward the front door and just kept screaming, ‘Get out! Get out! And never come back!'

"I ran all the way downtown to the library. I hid in the reference section in back on the second floor. I didn't call you because I know your family doesn't let you take calls while you're eating dinner. One of the librarians saw me crying and he asked if I was okay. He's always nice to me. I said I was fine."

"He might have seen your face."

"Is it really bad?"

"It looks like you got beaned with a baseball several times around the same spot."

He wiped his nose. "When I was finally calm enough, I came here and texted you. I was too upset to talk, and I was afraid someone would see me crying."

Steve and I were pretty out as a gay couple at school. Most of the more prominent homophobes were in jail or on probation or kicked out of school or cowed enough not to try something openly against either of us. The biggest and most blatant homophobes from school had murdered an unfortunate gay kid a few months before. I was part of helping find out who did it. Steve and I had almost got killed ourselves in the process. It had been a harrowing rescue. After everything calmed down, we began dating.

Kids are kind of benign these days about gay stuff. Most of them anyway, but all it takes is one and at that time, there were more than a few.

In terms of his family finding out, I realized we probably should have been more careful. That kind of teenage hubris, we'd studied that in literature class last semester. Or was it teenage obliviousness? I thought I had less of that than most. I guess I had as much to learn as any other teenager. We should have been more discreet, should always have kept in mind the danger of our being a couple hurting Steve's relationship with his family. It was a tough barrier for two high school kids dating each other even though I was a senior, graduating soon, and he'd be a senior next year.

Normally we didn't do public displays of affection and were careful when we did. Obviously not careful enough. Angry or jealous people were following us around, maybe taking pictures with their phones as if we were the victims of some kind of demented high school paparazzi. At the moment that didn't seem too paranoid.

A lot of times I just wanted to hold his hand, like straight couples did, as we walked down the halls, or a peck on the cheek as we each left for our separate classes, or have him jump into my arms after the team won a game. Or, hell, make out like some straight couples did when the lunchroom supervisors weren't looking.

He'd just told his parents that he loved me. Those words echoed in my brain. We actually hadn't said "I love you" out loud to each other even in a romantic moment.

I wanted to show the world I loved him, to show him I loved him. Saying "I love you" to him was kind of a big step I had been waiting and hoping to take.

I'm realistic enough to know love in high school doesn't have a big chance of lasting forever, but I wanted to give whatever we had as much of a commitment as I could for as long as I could. Sometimes I thought about a huge marriage ceremony with the two of us all dressed up in tuxes. That would be cool. Someday. If we're lucky.

Right after he'd had an awful fight with his parents, and he was stuck in a horrible, rotten situation, didn't seem the right moment to discuss the romantic state of our relationship. I was too concerned with helping him through this than with my need to express my feelings, which I wasn't as good at as I wanted to be.

He was still in my arms, gazing up at me while we talked. I rubbed my fingertips between his shoulder blades. I knew he liked that, and it soothed him when he was stressed.

He sighed and lay in my embrace for a few minutes, but then he shook himself and stood up. "What am I going to do?"

I leaned forward, put my elbows on my knees, and looked up at him. "What do you want to do?"

"Erase the afternoon."

"I left my time warp at home."

He gave the briefest of smiles. "That would work."

We'd watched the Rocky Horror Picture Show together on my computer a month ago. He'd said he thought Rocky was hot, and that I had the build of the actor who played him. I agreed that the guy was a stud, but I thought it was a bit much to say I resembled him. Nice, but exaggerated.

Steve began pacing around under the leaves of the trees. Puffs of the breeze reached us in our shelter. We could hear the distant rumble of traffic on Highway 60.

I stood up and went to him. We hugged for a few minutes, then he stepped back. "I guess the first thing is to figure out where I'm going to go now, for the night. There aren't any relatives that live nearby who I'm close to. The ones that do live nearest are all as loony religious as my parents. Some worse, if you can believe that."

I didn't know the right words to say. The only thing that came to mind was that for the moment we needed some kind of adult intervention. I said, "I guess for now, come home with me."

"Can I stay with you?"

"You've gotta have some place to stay. We'll talk with my parents. We'll begin to put the wheels in motion to deal with this. Your situation is more than a couple of teenagers can handle."

As I drove, I wondered what my mom and dad would say. They liked Steve, but a houseguest for an indefinite period of time? And one with issues? I guess we'd see.

We stopped at In-N-Out Burger on the way home. He hadn't eaten dinner. He still ate like the entire starting infield of the baseball team combined including the pitcher and the catcher but never gained an ounce.