5 Ekim 2022

miles-from-home-7

Amateur

Subject: Miles from Home: Chapter 7 Readers, thanks for your continued interest in this story. Feedback, comments, and questions are always applreciated and welcome ail ***************************** April Freshman Year. **** “Hey” I froze in the midst of my unpacking the second I saw the instant messenger window flash up on my computer screen. It was Pete. “You’re back?” Instantly, my heart was pounding inside my chest like a jackhammer, the sound of each thundering beat throbbing in my ears. Fucking IM. I hated my computer, I hated not knowing the tone of those three words, and I hated not being able to see Pete’s expression as he typed them. My whole body felt as tightly wound as a guitar string when I stepped across my room to my computer and typed the only response I could think of to him: “Yeah” A long minute passed. It felt like I was being run over by a dump truck. “How are you?” Cringing, I dropped my head into my hands, scrunched my eyes closed, and tugged on my hair with my fingers. What the fuck was this? We’d always been able to talk, but this… this was just bullshit. “Okay,” I typed, groping around my mind that seemed mired in thick sludge for anything else to say. Finally, I simply added: “You?” A much, much longer pause elapsed this time. Nails. Nails were being pounded into my chest, thousands at a time as I stood transfixed by the blinking cursor on my computer screen. “Can I talk to you?” I gulped for air over the boulder I felt lodged in my throat. “Yeah. Want to come over?” My heart kept pounding harder, almost as though it were throwing itself against the walls of my chest trying to tear its way out of my body. “OK. Be there in a few.” Exhaling one long breath, I buried my face in my hands again as I tried to will myself to just calm the fuck down. Standing there alone in my room with my eyes pressed closed, I felt a mechanical numbness settle over me. It was a familiar feeling of detachment, like my body and my mind going on autopilot to carry me through the motions of what I knew I had to do. It was how I’d always felt when I had to move or leave home to come here, leaving one life behind to plunge into another. Nothing is forever, I scolded myself. People, places, everything- they all just come and go. It was foolish and really fucking naïve to let myself become too attached to any of them or to believe they would stay simply because I wanted them to. Nothing is forever. Physically shaking my head, I opened my eyes and scanned around my room, trying to compose myself. I knew exactly what I had to do now: I had to apologize to Pete. But that didn’t mean I was going to try to make any excuses for myself. A lengthy explanation felt unnecessary. And I was sure Pete must’ve figured it out on his own by now anyway. I mean, I’d tried to shove my tongue down his throat. That would be pretty fucking hard to interpret the wrong way. And then when you put it together with all the jokes and the innuendos that had flown back and forth between us all year, the full meaning of that kiss would have to be ragingly obvious. Still, if Pete wanted to ask why, I knew I wouldn’t lie to him. I’d never done that before, and I wasn’t about to start now. I had to be honest, even if it would be the last act of our friendship. The blunt truth was I fucked up, and now it was time for me to face whatever consequences that would bring. I knew all this. But what I didn’t know was what Pete would do now. And that uncertainty had eaten away at me, corrosively, ever since my last night here. Things were never going to be the same between us, that much was clear. I mean, I could hope Pete would forgive me. But no matter how understanding Pete could possibly be, I’d have to be a fool to think nothing would be different now. But then again, I gulped thickly, what if… what if he couldn’t forgive me? Deep down, I knew I wouldn’t blame Pete. Really, he had every right. Even if he was just on his way over here to yell at me and to tell me I was a sick asshole who he couldn’t possibly want to be his roommate next year anymore, he’d be entirely right. I’d have no grounds to argue with him. And maybe it would at least make him feel better to say it. Fuck, I was lucky he hadn’t slugged me right then and there, or that he hadn’t-… -… The sound of a quiet knock on my door interrupted the thoughts racing through my head. I knew immediately from its familiar rhythm that it was Pete, so I allowed myself one more long, stinging breath to steel myself for what I knew I had to do now. When I opened the door for Pete, it brought us face to face again for the first time since I kissed him the night before I left. And what I saw now hit me like a sucker punch to the stomach. Pete looked different. His eyes, usually bright and alive, seemed downcast and guarded under the brim of his favorite baseball hat, one I knew he’d had since middle school. They both had dark circles underneath them, too, as if he hadn’t slept, and his clothes looked rumpled. His unshaven, stubbled face was drawn into tight, worried lines, and he seemed dulled somehow, almost ashen, like all his usual energy and confidence had abandoned him since I last saw him. Oh fuck. I felt another surge of anger at myself as I wondered, again, what the fuck was wrong with me. Out of everything I’d tormented myself with during the time I’d been away, I knew this was the worst part of what I’d done: I’d thoughtlessly destroyed a bond that was important to Pete, too. I’d wrecked everything, fucked it all to hell, and I wasn’t the only one who’d have to suffer the consequences. I caught myself dumbly staring at Pete, even though I knew I shouldn’t, as I stepped back to let him into my room. A thick and uneasy silence crackled between us because my tongue remained too frozen in my mouth to utter any kind of greeting to him. Pete’s partially shielded eyes had been anxiously returning my stare as well, but as he came inside his agitated expression began to relax slightly. It almost looked like relief. As soon as I let go of the door and heard it swing closed behind me, Pete broke the wordless tension hanging over our reunion and blurted out: “How is she?” Immediately, as though something had just punched me in the gut again, I dropped my eyes down from Pete’s, suddenly too ashamed of myself to even look at him. I should’ve known: he was worried about Juliana. No matter how stupid I was, of course Pete would still be the great friend, the great person he’d always been. I felt the full weight of everything I’d thrown away crashing down on me as I stared helplessly at my own useless hands. “She’s… alright,” I gulped quietly. “… or she will be, at least.” “You mean…? Is she okay now?” Pete asked, his voice matching the same concern I’d just seen in his eyes. “I mean, I think so…” I sighed, shaking my head as I looked at the wrinkles in his faded t-shirt rather than at his face. “… But it’s kinda hard to say. Things were always so up and down whenever I was with her.” I risked a glance up to his eyes now, but dropped mine back down when I saw all the worry still etched into them. “Yeah, I bet, but I’m sure it must’ve helped her to have you there.” Hearing that familiar reassuring tone in Pete’s voice, I wanted, suddenly, to be anywhere but here. I wanted Pete to stop being so fucking nice because it was only making me feel even worse about what I’d done to him. Then the other problem, of course, was that thinking about what had happened to Juliana was still too much like poking an open wound, and I didn’t exactly want to talk about this either. “I hope so,” I shrugged helplessly. “… But it’s not like she’s gonna be exactly like nothing ever happened or anything.” I paused to look up into Pete’s eyes, wanting to reassure him or even to just pretend everything was still normal between us. “It seemed like she was doing better by the time I left this morning at least. And her parents do finally believe her now… But it’s not like I expect this to, you know, just be magically better.” “Were you okay leaving today then?” Pete asked, sensing there was more to this than I was saying. “Am I ever okay leaving?” I said shaking my head in frustration and turning away to step further inside my room from where we’d both been hovering near the door. “Juli’s tough… And I know she’s gonna be okay and that she’ll get through this. But even though she found a counselor who can help her and she promised she’d talk to someone whenever things were gettin’ hard, I still wasn’t exactly rushing to the airport this morning…” Thinking back over my time at home, I didn’t turn back around to look at Pete again because I was afraid to let him see everything I knew he’d be able to read on my face right then. “Fuck, you know it’s never easy for me to leave home to come back here. And this just made it so much harder this time.” I then swallowed over the tightness in my throat again, no longer able to dance around the other reason why it’d been so hard for me to come back here today. I set my jaw and willed myself to turn around, face Pete, and look back into his eyes as I pushed myself to get through what I knew I had to do here. “… Then… there’s… Pete, that wasn’t the only thing we needed to talk about, is it?” Pete’s eyes widened with alarm as he looked back into mine. “Max, I’m sorry!” he blurted. “Sorry??…” I was stunned. And confused. “About what?” “I’m sorry I ditched you the night before you left. And I’m sorry I never called you while you were at home, and I-…” “…- Dude, that’s okay…” I said, holding up my hands and cutting him off. What the fuck was he apologizing to me for? “… I mean, fuck, I don’t blame you. It’s my fault because of what I did, and I-…” “…- No,” Pete interrupted, shaking his head in negation although he seemed to only be getting more and more agitated. He went on speaking even faster than he had been: “… I shouldn’t have just bolted like I did, and I’m sorry. And then that other thing… That’s my fault, too.” “But I kissed you. How the fuck is that your fault?” I asked, even more confused now. “…You didn’t do anything wrong.” “No, that isn’t true,” Pete said, dropping his head slightly so I could no longer see his eyes, only the faded lettering on his hat. “… And I know why you did that.” “You do?” I asked, fighting the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. “Yeah, I do…” Pete exhaled quietly, still not meeting my eyes as he was suddenly fumbling about for his words. “… Max,… I-…” “…- Wait, let me explain-…” I cut him off, wanting to make this easier for him and to make my apology since this whole mess was on me. “…- No, please,” Pete interrupted, lifting his head up to meet my eyes again as his voice became a little firmer as well. “You have to let me say this. I… I’ve wanted to before. And it just wouldn’t be right for me to not tell you anymore.” I nodded, silently, resigning myself to what I thought was coming. Inwardly, I braced my body as I would for a crash or a fall. “… I know you must’ve already figured this out, but I’m…” Pete dropped his head down slightly as he paused for just a moment and exhaled before raising his eyes back up to meet mine again. “… I’m gay.” My heart froze inside my chest. Everything in my body and my mind suddenly seemed suspended, trapped motionless in time, except for my eyes, which I could feel widening in astonishment as they stayed locked onto Pete’s. I saw him flinch as he stared back, and then immediately his mouth dropped open as he went on speaking faster than I’d ever heard him talk: “… Oh, shit! I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry I didn’t say anything before `cause it’s not like I wanted to lie to you. But this isn’t easy for me to talk about `cause I’ve only ever told one other person that…” Pete’s eyes were riveted onto mine as he paused to catch his breath. I still remained frozen, though, like all the wind had been knocked out of me. All I could do was dumbly stare back at him as his words continued to flood out: “… And, God, I wanted to tell you! I did! But then you must’ve already known somehow or sensed it or something and that’s why you … why you did that- because you thought it was something I wanted or expected you to do- or that it was something that you, like, owe me… But I don’t, Max. I don’t want that from you. You didn’t have to do it.” “You… don’t want that from me?” I said, fumbling to find my own voice again, but only able to lamely repeat the same words I’d just felt cutting right through me. “No!” Pete exclaimed emphatically, taking a step closer to me but holding up his hands. But his words were still rushing out more quickly than my stalled mind could think. “… Fuck, you’re my friend. And I’d never take advantage of that to try to… to make you feel like you had to do something like that. And God, I’m so fucking sorry I made you think that because I didn’t mean to, and it’s… it isn’t what I want. And then I’m sorry I didn’t say anything when it happened. But I was just so surprised! And then Mike showed up and-…” “…-Dude! Please… please just stop…” I suddenly interrupted, talking over him as my mind and my mouth finally began to catch up with what was happening. “… Stop saying you’re sorry.” I wrested my eyes away from his now, my head spinning. I needed something else to focus on so I could collect myself, and I couldn’t do that with Pete going on like he was. Seeing how worried Pete was that he’d somehow done something wrong, it was clear what I had to say now: “… You don’t have to apologize for anything.” “But I am sorry!” he returned quickly. “And I know I should’ve told you sooner. I wanted to, I really did. But I was… I was scared. And, God, I know that’s a fuckin’ lousy excuse. But I don’t want you to be pissed at me `cause I never wanted to lie to you and-…” “…- Pete, calm down. It’s okay. Seriously. I’m not mad.” I interjected, trying to make my voice as steady as I could. Even though I was still reeling from everything Pete had just said, I could tell what was happening here was much bigger than simply what had been worrying me all week. And it was clear that I couldn’t possibly tackle all of this at once either, so my mind instinctively focused in on what seemed the most pressing: Pete was fucking upset. It was more important right now to do whatever I could to reassure him than to think about how stunned I was or how much I’d been hurt by part of what he’d just said. “… And I mean it: You don’t have to apologize for anything. You didn’t do anything wrong. And, fuck, you don’t ever have to tell me anything you don’t want to-…” I paused abruptly, suddenly horrified by something that occurred to me as I processed more of what he just said. “… But, shit,… if you really did want to tell me, then I’m sorry if I ever… I don’t know… gaziantep travesti if I ever did something that made you scared to say anything if that’s what you really wanted to do… Fuck, I don’t want you to be afraid to trust me.” “No, that’s not how I meant it…” Pete said quickly, shaking his head as he searched for what to say next. “… I… I just didn’t want you to feel weird around me. Or like we couldn’t still joke around with each other and everything if you knew.” “Bullshit. Pete, you’re my friend. And of course this wouldn’t change that. At least not as far as I’m concerned.” “So you’re not mad at me??” Pete asked hopefully, stepping forward as the beginnings of a smile formed at the edges of his lips for the first time since he’d come over. “No!” I said, emphatically, beginning to smile myself as I could see Pete’s agitation starting to dissolve away. “I’m just… I’m just really fuckin’ surprised, that’s all.” “Surprised??” Pete asked quickly, the half-smile vanishing from his face as his brow wrinkled in confusion. “… But… Max?… You already knew… I mean, right before you kissed me you were talkin’ about how you should stop holding back and do something for me to thank me… So I thought…” Pete paused and swallowed thickly. “… I thought you had to know about me. That’s why… why you did it, right?” Pete’s voice trailed off at the end, and I could see the truth dawning on him now. He didn’t look happy, though. Instead, he looked miserable. I knew, then, that I still had to tell him what I’d planned to. Pete needed to know that he really hadn’t done anything wrong because this whole mess was still my fault. I had to take responsibility for what happened, even if it meant telling Pete the truth, that I wanted him, knowing full well that he didn’t want me. I owed him that much because here he was beating himself up for thinking he hadn’t been up front with me when I was doing the same thing to him. “No, I didn’t know,” I shook my head. “And you’re wrong about why I did it. I kissed you `cause I wanted to.” “You wanted to?” Pete repeated, stunned, dropping down to a seat at the edge of my bed and shaking his head as though he couldn’t comprehend what I’d just said. “I did…” I nodded, looking down at him staring back at me in disbelief. “… And there wasn’t anything you did that made me do it. So you really shouldn’t be sorry for what happened. It’s my fault, not yours. And I’m the one who’s sorry.” “But… Max, you’re…” Pete’s wide eyes were searching my face as though he could find whatever answers he was looking for there “… you’re not gay.” “No, I’m not…” I sighed, shaking my head, “… or, I don’t know… I’ve never been attracted to other guys before, but I am to you… And I guess I’ve wanted to do that with you for a while.” “But then you…” Pete dropped his head back down in confusion, hiding his face from my view again underneath the bill of his hat. “… you pulled away from me.” “As soon as I realized what I was doing!” I nodded quickly, even though he wasn’t looking to see it. “Fuck… I was just so fucking upset that night. And I didn’t think… I didn’t think to stop myself, and I’m sorry. And I know there’s no excuse because it’s not what you want. But…shit… please don’t beat yourself up thinkin’ you made me do it. I’m the one who needs to be apologizing to you.” I heard Pete exhale a long, slow breath before he looked back up at me. “… For kissing me?” “Yes!” I exclaimed, a little more loudly than I intended as I took a step closer to where he was sitting on my bed. “I had no right to do anything to you that you didn’t want. It was wrong. And I shouldn’t have done it because…” and then, without intending to, I blurted out exactly what had haunted me the most since that night: “… because this makes me no different from the fucking scumbag who did that to Juli. And I can’t tell you how sorry-…” “-…No! Don’t you fucking…” Pete immediately jumped back up to his feet so we were standing barely a foot apart again. “… don’t you compare yourself to that guy. What happened with us is completely different.” “It’s the same fucking thing!” I said shaking my head. “I did something to you that you didn’t want… It doesn’t matter that it stopped at a kiss because I was just doing whatever I wanted without… without even knowing if it was okay or if you wanted it. And that’s just fuckin’ wrong because-…” “-… because you don’t know what I want-…” Pete interrupted, completing my thought but suddenly appearing lost in his own as he dropped his eyes to stare down at his hands. “…-Exactly! I’m the asshole here… And I’m so sorry about what I did. And I know you don’t want anything like that from me because you just fuckin’ said so yourself… And… and I know I can’t take back what I already did, but I respect that, Pete. I do. And if I haven’t fucked everything up too much, I hope we can still be cool. Because that’s so much more important to me. And I promise I won’t ever do anything like that to you again.” Even though we were standing barely inches apart from each other now, Pete wouldn’t look at me, and an empty silence stretched out between us for a few long seconds as I tried to ignore the pounding in my heart. “… Dude, it’s your call. But I’ll… I’ll understand if things can’t be the same or if you don’t think you can really be comfortable around me anymore.” At that, Pete quickly snapped his head back up. And when I saw his face, he looked almost like his usual self again. “But that’s exactly what I want! I want us to still be the same.” “You do?” I felt myself smiling, really smiling, for the first time all day as relief flooded over me. “Yes! Of course I do!” Pete said with a genuine Pete grin that brought a light back into his eyes that had been absent until now. “… Jesus, you’ve always been the best friend I could ask for… I mean, I just told you about… about how I am, and you didn’t even judge me or turn your back on me or anything. And then here you are all worried about what I want, too…” Pete’s smile stretched a little wider now. “… Dude, no one’s ever done that for me before. And I want that. I want that so much more than anything I know we can’t have.” Right after he spoke those last few words, though, Pete’s smile slipped, just for a moment. The change happened so fast I almost didn’t think anything of it. But there was just enough of a hint of something unusual in that expression to make me wonder if there was more to what he’d just said. “Wait. What do you mean, ‘we can’t have’…?” “Nothing,” Pete tried to smile, but his eyes slid evasively from mine down to somewhere near my mouth. “I just… uhhh…” “… -Dude. What else were you thinking about?” “It’s nothing…” Pete tried to smile again, even though he was clearly scrambling for words. “… I just meant that being your friend’s so much better than… than anything else I could want us to be.” At that moment, Pete moved his eyes guiltily back up to mine, and I could tell I’d just pushed things in a direction he hadn’t anticipated. Suddenly, the ball was back in my court, and my pulse was racing again as I started to think maybe this actually was going somewhere I never really thought it would, either. I quietly held his eyes with my own for a moment, trying to play this opening the right way and wanting him to see I was serious. “Pete, do you ever want us to be something else?” Pete looked down helplessly, almost as if he wanted to kick himself, as my question hung in the air between us for a long minute while I waited for his answer. “Yes,” he finally whispered, reluctantly, head still down. I reached out my right hand and put it on Pete’s shoulder. He exhaled then, slowly lifting his head up until he was looking at me again. “What do you really want?” I asked while he looked back at me, visibly struggling with something he apparently didn’t know how to say. “No,… don’t,” Pete finally answered, shrugging my hand off of his shoulder and stepping away from me. “It… it doesn’t matter.” “Of course it matters.” “If you’re asking how I feel about you, don’t,” Pete shook his head defensively, not meeting my eyes. “I can’t… I don’t know how to say it… You make me smile… And I just… I like who I am when I’m around you. I love joking around with you, and watching hockey together, and seeing you put too much peanut butter on your sandwiches at lunch and then get all surprised when it oozes out onto your hands every time… I love all the stupid stuff we’ve always done together… But…” Pete paused, his voice trailing off. “But what?” “… I won’t lie to you again and say that’s the only way I think about you because I do…” Pete brought his eyes, almost reluctantly, back up to mine. “… I do wish you and I could do something like what you started that night.” My ears were ringing now for some weird reason, and I could feel my pulse jumping in my throat as my hands twitched at my sides, itching to reach out to Pete again. Something about Pete’s tone held me motionless, though. “So what you said… that you didn’t want that from me…?” “That’s still true.” Immediately, as if a vault had snapped shut somewhere inside him, Pete’s eyes were suddenly hard again, his whole face going rigid and unreadable. “I just want everything we already have because that’s what’s real. And I don’t want anything to change it.” He paused then, but I was so startled by the hard edge to his voice that I couldn’t think of anything to say before he continued: “… God, this week was the first time I’d ever been here and you weren’t around, and…” just for a second, something different flashed across Pete’s face that I could barely catch before he looked down quickly, not finishing his thought. “… But anything else…” Pete looked back up, his eyes hard once again “… that’s just a stupid fantasy.” “But, it doesn’t have to be…” I returned, trying to make my voice even in spite of the jumbled, confused thoughts screaming across my head. “I told you, I want that, too.” “No,” Pete shook his head in negation, his eyes leveled with mine. “We…” he began, but stopped, correcting himself “…I … I can’t.” “But if you want to, and I do, too, then why shouldn’t we?” In spite of what he was saying, I felt something still pulling me towards Pete. I wanted to step forward and kiss him again, to slide my hand up under his shirt, to feel his skin underneath my finger tips, to feel his body pressed against mine, to give him something that I’d seen, just briefly, that he wanted, too. “Because I’ll just hurt you.” Pete’s voice sounded so implacable and final that it felt like I had just run, full speed, into a rock wall. The impact stung me, and I responded instinctively, my voice rising as I came out swinging: “Pete? What the fuck are you talking about? I know you wouldn’t ever do that.” “But see!” Pete exclaimed emphatically, emotion quickly seeping back into his voice. “I’m already doing it now ’cause I can tell I’m frustrating the hell out of you… Dude, it doesn’t matter… It doesn’t matter that I’d rather shave my nuts with a cheese grater than do something that would hurt you `cause it’s just gonna happen anyway…” Then, looking down, Pete shook his head sadly. “… You deserve more than being dragged into a bunch of problems you shouldn’t have to deal with.” “What problems?!” I burst, no longer trying to hide the frustration in my voice since Pete had apparently seen it anyway. “Why the fuck are you trying to make up excuses to not have what you want?” “Because it doesn’t work like that!” Pete shook his head as he looked back up at me, trying to find what to say next. “You… you probably think it’s always that easy, right? That if you know what you want, then you can just figure out a way to go after it `cause that’s how it’s always been for you… But things are never that simple for me. It doesn’t matter how much I want you, how many mornings I’ve woken up still thinking about you, or how much I wish things could be different because it’s never been about what I want.” “Then what the fuck is this about??” I paused, momentarily, to calm myself down. “… Pete, that’s exactly what I’m asking you, and-…” “…- And you’re the only one who gives a shit about it!” Pete exclaimed, throwing up his hands in frustration. “Jesus, if it were that easy I’d…-” Pete stepped forward, lifting his right hand up as though he were reaching out to touch me, but he stopped himself before he was even half-way there. “… And I would’ve told you what I just did so much sooner because I hated not being able to be honest with you. But telling you the truth…” Pete paused, dropping his hand back down, and shaking his head “… that doesn’t change anything else. And even that is really more than I should’ve done… Even if you want it, too, that doesn’t suddenly make this all okay.” “But what the hell makes it not okay? This is just you and me, and we both-…” “…- No, it’s not just you and me,” Pete interrupted, shaking his head again. “And that’s the problem. I learned that lesson the hard way the other time I told someone about me… And I promised myself I’d never put anyone else through that,” Pete’s eyes became hard again as he finished, refusing to be challenged. “Not you, Max. Not you.” “Dude… what?… what happened, that other time?” “It was a long time ago,” he replied, shrugging his shoulders dismissively. “And it doesn’t matter ’cause there’s nothing I can do about it now.” I stood silently for a minute, looking back at Pete’s eyes as I made my own just as hard and determined as his. He was making it clear he didn’t want to back down from whatever lines he thought he needed to maintain, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to just sit and fold either. When I finally spoke again, I made sure my voice sounded even and calm: “It does matter if it’s still bothering you this much.” Not answering, Pete’s eyes drilled into mine for a few long seconds before he turned, took a few steps away from me, and held his back to me. I cursed silently, swearing to myself in that moment that I would never, ever do that to someone else again. I knew, though, that I would have to be the one to break the silence between us now, so I made my voice as calm as I could when I did: “Who else did you tell?” I watched the rise and fall of Pete’s breath as I wondered what he would do next. Finally, after a long minute of waiting, he answered me. “My mom…” Pete said, his voice low and thick sounding. “…. I… I told her about a week before she died.” Pete paused and exhaled slowly, lifting off his hat with one hand, and running the other through his sandy blond hair before he replaced the hat, crossed his arms, and continued: “… I knew she was really going downhill because she looked awful after gaziantep masaj salonları all the chemo and everything… And I just kept thinking that my mom…,” and now Pete’s voice cracked, “… my mom was going to fucking die and I didn’t really know her or anything about her. And she didn’t really know me either, and… And then that was just gonna be it because she was gonna be fucking gone… And I just kept wondering if it was because I’d never tried hard enough or been enough for her or…” Pete paused, shaking his head and dropping it down as I took a step closer behind him, stopping when he started up again. His words came much more quickly this time: “… So I was alone with her in the hospital one day because my dad wasn’t around much, even then. But she was awake and we were actually talking, like we hadn’t ever really done before… And it felt kinda nice to do that with her, so I thought I should say something when she started talking about the kind of girl she wanted me to marry… I mean, I was only fourteen back then, so I was just figuring things out. But I pretty much knew. And I didn’t want to go through life knowing my mom died with me lying to her face when I really did have the chance to tell her…” He exhaled. “… So I did it, and…” Pete trailed off there, sounding lost in his thoughts. “What did she say?” I redirected, softly, standing right behind Pete now but still not touching him. “She said she was ashamed of me… That being gay is disgusting and only about slutting around and doing drugs and spreading disease. And she said I’d never be happy or have the kind of life I wanted if I ever told anyone… And, God, she was just so fucking relieved I’d never said anything to anyone else … Because she told me that if I ever did, it would just be selfish of me- that it would wreck everything she and my dad had ever built. And she told me no one would ever respect me if they knew… That my dad would hate me… And that if I didn’t change it’d ruin everything not just for me but for him, too, because… Because I’m…” Pete shuddered. “Pete…-” From behind, I saw something shift in Pete as he lifted his head back up and straightened his shoulders. When he continued he sounded detached and almost matter-of-fact: “… -And, you know what? It fuking sucks, but she was right… I know my dad wouldn’t accept me if he knew. And I already felt like I was living under the microscope as it was… But then if people knew I was gay, it all would’ve been so much worse. People would’ve talked about it, it would’ve ended up on the fucking internet, and then it would’ve become something that hurt my dad when he was running for reelection the next year…” Pete turned back around to face me then, and when he looked at me his face had an odd half-smile on it. “… And I know what you’re probably thinking `cause I was upset, too, when mom said all that… But that doesn’t make any of it less true.” Pete snorted under his breath for a moment. “… She was right, Max. Not everyone is like you. A lot of people would judge me if they knew… And it really could have consequences for my dad that would be my fault. I mean, I know the assholes who fund his campaigns. Half their strategy for winning elections is convincing voters that gay people are like this huge threat to the country. So it’s not like they’d be happy to be backing a candidate with a gay son.” Inwardly, I was holding my breath, curling up my toes inside my shoes, balling my hands into fists, and doing anything I could to keep myself from exploding with all the fucking outrage I felt threatening to burst out of me. “But it shouldn’t matter what the fuck a bunch of assholes think about-…” “…-No, it shouldn’t matter,” Pete agreed quickly, holding up his hands. “… But sometimes it really does… I mean, if it were just up to me, I wouldn’t be wasting so much time trying to hide who I am since I really don’t want to care what most people think about me. But my parents and ‘most people’ are two different things…” Pete went on, shaking his head again, “… and I’d have to be really fucking stupid to say it doesn’t matter what they think. Because coming out or not… decisions like that haven’t ever been mine to make.” “But why the fuck not?” I asked, trying to contain myself, even though I was sure it was obvious I was doing a lousy job of it. I didn’t know how the fuck Pete could be so collected and level-headed about this. “It’s like my mom said,” Pete shrugged. “It really would be selfish of me to just say the hell with everyone and do what I want because it actually could hurt my dad… I mean, I don’t agree with what he’s done with his career, but that still doesn’t give me the right to fuck it up for him… And I’m the only family he has left. If he knew about me, then I’d be ruining that for him, too-…” I opened my mouth now to interrupt Pete, to tell him that his dad would be the one fucking up if he was foolish enough to not accept him, but Pete cut me off before I could even start. “…- He’s still my dad, Max,” Pete said, his voice suddenly hard again. “He may not be perfect, but he is my family. And I… I can’t turn my back on him or put this other wedge between us. I really do owe him better than that because I’m all he’s got.” “But you should be able to-…” “…- I know,” Pete interrupted again, shaking his head dismissively. “… I know things shouldn’t be like this. But they are.” Pete paused for a second, and his expression softened a little and became more conciliatory as he apparently noticed how angry I was. “… Look, I’ve told you I’ve learned a lot about how the world works from my dad. And one of those things is that I know I’m still in no position to outmaneuver him. I definitely wasn’t back then when I told my mom and she said all that to me. And I know I’m still not now, either-…” “…- But-…” “-… No, I’m serious. It’s always been them deciding what’s best for me. And it doesn’t matter how much I fucking hate that `cause the only thing I can ever really do is just comply with what they want.” “But you’re not a kid anymore,” I countered. “You don’t have to just go along with them all the time…” Pete laughed dryly for a second as he responded. “I’m not exactly given a choice about any of this… I was serious when I said you’re the first person who’s ever bothered to ask me what I want or what’s important to me. I mean, my parents certainly never have. And they’re the ones who’ve always gotten to call all the shots,” he shook his head. “God, if it really did matter what I think, then I would’ve gone to high school back in Montana, and there’s no way I’d be going here now.” “They can’t make-…” I protested, until he overrode me again. “…-They did.” Pete locked his eyes seriously on mine. “Max, mom died three weeks before I was supposed to start high school back home. But the day after I told her I was gay she went behind my back and made my dad promise her that he’d put me in school in DC where he could keep an eye on me…” Pete paused to half-laugh under his breath again. “… Mom damn well knew that dad hears about everything that happens in that fucking city, so she made sure I’d be in a place where I couldn’t get away with anything, even if I wanted to…” He shook his head. “… She won. And there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.” “Fuck, that’s-…” Pete spoke over me: “… -But then, after that happened, I made this deal with myself that I’d work my ass off so I could earn a scholarship either for my grades or for tennis and then go to a different college- any college- where I wouldn’t need to depend on dad’s money to pay for it, where no one would know my dad or my last name, and where maybe it wouldn’t matter if I slipped up or if someone found out about me.” “And it didn’t work?” “God, I was so close…” He dropped his eyes again. “… I was getting tons of recruiting calls. And I was all set to go for this one in California. But then dad was so fucking obsessed with me coming here and carrying on our whole family tradition that he went over my head and conned my counselors and teachers into only signing my recommendations if I applied early decision here.” “Seriously?” “Yeah, seriously,” he snorted. “… And now being at this school is just the same damn thing as before because he knows everything that goes on here, too-…” “…-That’s fucking-…” I blurted, my breath ragged as I struggled to control myself. “…-Max, settle.” Pete’s eyes looked almost grateful for a second even though he steadied me with them, too. “…Being angry about it doesn’t fix anything,” he said, shaking his head. “… I mean, I’d still be here. And it wouldn’t change anything or make it any easier for me to be honest with people. It’d just mean I’m pissed at my dad… And, really, being mad about it doesn’t get me anywhere different.” “But, Pete-…” “… Look, don’t get me wrong. When I found out about what he did, I was mad, too, for a while.” Pete shrugged. “… But then I just had to accept that it’d take me a little longer before I could really be independent from him. And I knew if I wanted that to happen, I’d have to start doing something about it now.” Pete’s voice was becoming harder, more determined as he went on: “… That’s why I’ve been working as much as I can at all those jobs here. I want to have something of my own saved up by the time we graduate so I can move somewhere far away on my own, without any of dad’s money, and just do something that has nothing to do with him… And then, finally, I can stop lying to people like this.” I dropped my eyes down from Pete’s face now, overwhelmed, outraged, and searching for the right thing to say to him. “Shit, I’m… I’m sorry you ended up here, and-…” “…- Don’t be.” Pete’s voice sounded light, but there was a tightness to it that made me think he was just trying to sound reassuring. “It’s not that bad…” and I heard him chuckle as though something funny had just occurred to him. “… It’s kinda like high school again, actually. And since I’ve been through this all before, I know how to deal with it.” I looked back up at Pete now and saw his mouth was smiling at me reassuringly, but that expression didn’t match what I saw in his eyes. He was watching me, carefully, and I knew he could tell how upset I still was. “But…” I stammered, shaking my head and racking my brain for what to say to him, knowing full well I’d just been thoroughly out-played. “…What about… what about you and me, though?” At that, Pete dropped his head down guiltily, and I found myself staring at his hat instead of his face once again. “I didn’t count on this,” he whispered. “… I didn’t count on meeting someone here who… who I’d want to be with- really be with- `cause that never happened in high school… I mean…” Pete shook his head but lifted it back up to look at me again. “… I honestly thought I was defective or something. That I couldn’t… that I wouldn’t ever feel like this about anyone. That maybe I’m just like my parents. And, God, I definitely never thought you would too, about me…” There was a kind of helpless sadness in Pete’s voice I’d never heard before as he said that. But it was gone quickly, replaced by his usual determination, when he continued: “… But I’m sorry. There’s just no way. There’s no way anything like that could work between us.” “But how the hell do you know that if we’ve never even talked about this until now?” “Because I can’t be that selfish,” Pete shook his head in negation. “… And I can’t just ignore what that would do to you. I’ve never been with another guy before. Ever. And even though you have me up on some kind of pedestal or something, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing… I mean, I feel like I’d need some fucking training wheels or something for this kind of thing…” Pete said that all quickly, but his voice slowed and went lower as he dropped his eyes from mine again and went on. “… But I’m pretty sure having to ask you to keep everything a secret, like it’s something you have to be fucking ashamed of too, would be no way to start things off right… And then if my dad ever found out how I really feel about you-…” “…-What??” I challenged him angrily, bristling at the very suggestion that Pete’s father would dare to fuck with me, too. “Your dad couldn’t do anything to me.” “Yes, he could.” Pete lifted his eyes back up to mine, dead serious once again. “This school has always rolled over and done whatever he wants, so he could… He could do a lot of things- trash your name with the alumni network so you couldn’t find a job when you graduate, or have your financial aid pulled, or maybe even find some bullshit reason to have you thrown out altogether…” Pete shook his head again, his eyes still leveled with mine. “… He may like you now, but he’d turn on you in a second. And I know it’d be ugly `cause I’ve seen him do it before.” “Your dad doesn’t scare me.” I retorted, defensively, even if that isn’t all I wanted to say. I couldn’t tell Pete that what his parents had done to him was monstrous, that they had no right to make him feel this way, that these shouldn’t be choices he had to make. I couldn’t tell Pete that he didn’t have to take this bullshit from anyone, no matter what he thought he owed them, and that his loyalty to his family was destroying him because they had no loyalty to him. And I couldn’t because I didn’t want to be just another one of the people in Pete’s life who told him what he should think or what he should feel. “Maybe not,” Pete smiled at me faintly, but then turned serious once again. “… But you and me… Max, it would just complicate your life in ways you shouldn’t have to put up with. These are my problems… And I’m sorry, but I can’t- I won’t- drag you into them.” Pete’s eyes were rigid once again, and I could tell this wasn’t something he would let me argue with him. Instead, I just swallowed down any protest I felt coming up inside me and dropped my eyes away from his. Pete waited a second, but then spoke again, his voice earnestly apologetic this time: “… Jesus, I can’t tell you how much I wish I could make you smile like your family does. You have to believe that. But you deserve so much more than what I can give you…” Even though I wasn’t looking at his face, I heard Pete pause to swallow something in his throat. “… I’m sorry. I really am.” I nodded silently in acknowledgement, knowing that anything I could say right now would probably just burden or emotionally torment him. He’d been through enough already, and I had been so blindsided by everything that had happened here today that I saw no way to argue my way out of this, no matter how wrong it felt. “But we’re still buds though, right?” Pete asked anxiously. “I mean, I’m glad I could gaziantep escort bayan finally tell you all this, but this can’t change other things… You and I… we’re still gonna watch all the NHL playoff games together, we’ll still be roommates next year, and I’m still gonna come visit you at home this summer `cause three months would be way too long to go without seeing my evil twin….” Pete rushed all the words out quickly, but I was only half-listening to them, too absorbed in my own thoughts to be really attentive until I heard the pause in what he was saying. “… Right, Max?” Looking back up at Pete, I forced a smile onto my face. “Of course we will, stupid.” “So you’re okay?” Pete asked quickly, starting to smile in relief. “… And we’re still buds?” I rolled my eyes, even if it was with a levity that I didn’t really feel. “Shit, get over yourself. It’s not like you’ve got the only pretty face around here.” Pete laughed, gratefully, at what felt like a familiar humor between us. “Right.” We stood there, silently, for a few heavy seconds. Even though we were smiling at each other, there was still a nagging undercurrent of uneasiness floating between us until Pete spoke again: “So are things with Juliana really okay?” I knew the gracious thing to do now would be to pretend not to notice Pete changing the subject, so I decided to just answer his question and not make a big deal out of the shift: “As much as they could be,” I shrugged, shaking my head a little as my thoughts temporarily wandered away from everything that had just happened here. “… Fuck, I was thinking that going out there I’d be doing it, you know, for her because I thought I could help her and that she needed me. But that’s just bullshit.” I laughed, silently to myself as I thought of how long ago that all seemed now. “… Juli doesn’t need me, not really. And she would’ve been okay without me… I mean, what happened to her was fucking horrible, but that bastard’s not gonna win. She’s not gonna be beaten by all of this because she knows how to take care of herself… I’m proud of her- really, really proud of her,” and I felt myself smiling, genuinely, too, as I thought about it now. Pete smiled back at me. “So you’re okay, too?” “I’m fine,” I nodded. “… Seriously, don’t worry about me.” Pete had enough on his shoulders already, so I smiled because he certainly didn’t need to be worrying about what I thought, too. “Cool.” Pete grinned again, his eyes lighter now, too, as I saw them look past me towards the alarm clock near my bed. “… Shit, I gotta head down to the gym. I’m already late for meeting my coach.” Pete brought his eyes back to mine as he asked, hopefully: “I’ll see you later, though?” “Yeah. Sure.” I agreed absently. I probably would’ve agreed with just about anything he said at that point since I felt like I’d just watched a person with one leg ride circles around me on a bicycle. How the hell was Pete handling all this? Pete smiled again as he headed towards the door. As he was opening it, though, he paused and turned back to meet my eyes once again. “Max? Thank you.” I nodded, but I think Pete was already out the door before he could see it. Exhaling slowly, I turned around to look back at my room. I then collapsed, dazed, on top of my bed and stared up at the ceiling, not caring that I was late for my own track practice, too. I didn’t know what to think anymore. I felt like I’d been beaten up, tossed around and battered so much that I couldn’t even tell which way was up. I was so relieved Pete and I were still talking, still friends. All that heavy anxiety, and some of the guilt, were gone now. But they’d just been replaced by all the fucking outrage I felt at everything Pete had unnecessarily had to put up with. It made me overwhelmingly grateful for my own family and for how much easier my own life had actually been when on the surface Pete’s had always seemed so perfect. Of all the confused, jumbled thoughts racing through my mind, though, I kept circling back to one of them: I was amazed that Pete had wanted me, too, that everything I’d tried to ignore all year had actually been real all along. The very idea was so overwhelming that I almost couldn’t comprehend it. Not once, in all the time I’d brushed aside thinking, wondering about Pete had I ever seriously thought this could be possible. But now, to find out that it was not only possible, but true, too… I was too stunned to even really grasp it. And for a moment there, it had seemed so close, that maybe we even… But then it had disappeared again, like a mirage in the desert, just because… I suddenly sat up in my bed. …Just because… Before the thought even completed itself in my head, I was on my feet, bolting out the door, thundering down the stairs, and running out of my building. There were two ways to get down to the gym from my dorm. Quickly projecting which way Pete probably would’ve gone, I took off sprinting in that direction. A minute later, as I rounded the corner of the last building before the athletic center, I saw Pete walking alone, just a few steps in front of the entrance nearest his team’s locker room. “Pete!” I called out, wanting to stop him before he made it inside. Hearing his name, Pete turned around, at first simply looking surprised, but then alarmed when he saw me running towards him. “What is it??” he asked anxiously as I skidded to a halt in front of him. Panting, I leveled my eyes with his before I spoke. “I lied to you.” Pete raised his eyebrows in surprise and quickly opened his mouth to say something, but I beat him to it: “… I’m not fine. And I’m not fine with us just going on like this.” “I’m sorry!” he blurted. “I-…” “…- No, cut that out.” I held his eyes steady as I cut him off. “… I didn’t come here because I wanted you to say you’re sorry. We’ve done enough of that shit already. I came here because I want you to listen to me.” “Umm, okay…” Pete replied, warily. “This is just fucking stupid,” I shook my head in frustration. “And I just… I can’t do it. I can’t pretend that everything we just talked about didn’t happen because it’s there… Like it or not, it’s there. And it’s silly to act like it isn’t-…” “-…But-…” he tried to interject. “-…No, dude, hear me out… I know you said you didn’t want to complicate my life or expose me to all your problems. But, fuck it, it’s not that simple-…” Pete opened his mouth to interrupt me again, but I raised up my hands this time, silently asking him to let me finnish. “…-And it’s not that simple because somewhere along the way this year we’ve already become each other’s problem… I mean, you remember how this all started last week, right?” “Yeah…” he nodded. “… You were all worried when you thought something happened to upset me. I didn’t ask you to do that, Pete… I didn’t ask you to go and wait for me out by that bench because you thought maybe I’d show up there. And I didn’t ask you to care about what happened to Juliana. You did all that yourself. And I’m pretty sure it didn’t matter that I thought I could handle it on my own or that I didn’t want to drag you into all my shit, either.” “But you-…” “-…No, I’m serious… The same thing’s happening now, too. I know now that something’s upsetting you. And I can’t just not care about what you told me, about how much bullshit you’re dealing with… And you can’t really tell me to just forget about it either.” “But you don’t have to-…” “… -I can’t do that. It’s fucking bullshit… I can’t just turn it off like a fucking light switch because it still matters to me if something’s hurting you, even if it’s not something that I, or you, or anyone can really fix.” “But you don’t need to worry about-…” Pete countered until I spoke over him. “…-It doesn’t matter. I know I will anyway… Fuck, we don’t get to choose how we feel- and I’m pretty sure you should understand that. The only thing we really can choose is whatever we do from there. And that’s why I want you to listen to me now.” Pete looked at me guardedly from under the bill of his hat, but I could tell what I just said was sinking in. “Okay…” he agreed, evenly, even though it was obvious he was reluctant to give this another round. “It wasn’t realistic of me to say I’d be okay with us going on like we were before. And it wasn’t really fair of you to ask me to do that, either…” I said it all quickly because my nerves were catching up with me now. And even though I knew Pete might not like some of what I had to say, I also knew this was something I had to do. “But I-…” “… -And actually, you didn’t even give me that choice. Because you did exactly what you said has hurt you: You chose what you think is best for me, just like your parents have always done for you… And I fucking hate it, too. I hate that you just decided for me.” Pete’s face fell in dismay as I said that, and he looked for a second like I’d just kicked him. “Max, I’m sorry…” he answered feebly. But then, just as quickly, he recovered and set his jaw, making his voice harder again as he went on: “… But I told you, it’s better this way. Being with me would just fuck up your life and-…” “-… Maybe you’re right…” I agreed, sensing this wasn’t the point to argue with Pete right now, but keeping my eyes steady on his all the same. “… But you never even gave me the option of whether I wanted to deal with that or not… Fuck, I don’t want you to protect me or tell me what will or will not hurt me. I’ve been doing that for myself my whole life, and I’m not gonna suddenly stop now. I mean, if I honestly thought this was such a bad idea, I wouldn’t be here throwing myself at you like this…” I stopped for a second to give Pete a moment to consider that. Shit, had I considered that? “… But, Pete, we are not just about me… And I’m not sure if you’re even thinking about whether or not what you’ve decided is going to hurt you in the long run. And that’s important to me…” I said, catching his eyes with my own when I could tell that he was about to look away from mine. “… And it damn well better be important to you, too.” “I know, but-…” Pete was looking agitated and confused now, almost like he had when he’d first come over to my room today, so I interrupted him to stop whatever train of thought he was on: “… -Look, of course I want us to still be buds and to be there for each other like we always have been. But I also want us to stop pretending there isn’t something else between us too.” Pete looked at me skeptically now, as if he wanted to argue with what I was saying but couldn’t think of how to do it. So I just pressed on: “… And I hope you know me well enough to know I don’t want to pressure you or push you into anything you don’t want,” I said, shaking my head. “… It doesn’t have to be all serious or like this big fucking deal. All I’m asking is for us to just be you and me and to be honest with each other.” “But I…” Pete stammered, shaking his head in negation. “… I still can’t… Not with all these people around… And I can’t ask you to have to hide from everyone like that.” “But you haven’t asked me to do anything,” I said, holding up my hands. “…I’m just telling you what I’m willing to try. I mean, fuck, whatever happens between you and me is between you and me. It’s no one else’s Goddamn business. And, really, I’m fine with keeping it like that. I’ve always been private about this kind of shit anyway.” “But,…” Pete fumbled, dropping his head and scrambling for what he wanted to say. “… We can’t just start something now… I mean, summer’s only a few weeks away. And then next year we’re gonna be roommates and everything… You don’t just start something with someone, then not see each other for months, and then suddenly move in together… Things don’t work like that.” “How the hell can we know that unless we actually try?” I said, hoping I sounded calm and rational even though that’s not at all how I felt. I waited, too, for Pete to bring his eyes back up to mine before I said anything else. “Pete, let’s just see what happens… If it doesn’t work, that’s okay. At least neither one of us will have to regret not ever giving it a chance or have to wonder what could’ve happened… I mean, we’re both smart enough to be able to realize if something’s going wrong and then stop it if that’s what we need to do.” “But…” Pete gulped, his eyes trapped and fixed onto mine. “I… I don’t want to screw things up between us. You’ve been a better friend to me than anyone ever has been. And I really don’t want to mess with that.” “Neither do I,” I agreed quickly, holding my hands up again. “… Whatever happens, it’s not like I’m gonna stop being your friend or stop caring about you… I mean, Juliana and I aren’t together anymore, and you know I still care about her. So please don’t worry about that.” Pete looked away from my eyes again, biting his lower lip nervously, but my heart was pounding heavily inside my chest again. I didn’t want to blow this now and stumble on one of the last hurdles in this race. “… Look, I just came here to ask you to think- honestly think- about what would be best for you… Not for me. Not for your dad. Not for anyone else. For you, Pete. Just you…” I paused, watching Pete’s eyes on me and took a deep breath. “… I think you know what I want. So now I’m asking you a simple question: Do you want to try?” Pete started to shake his head slightly, but his eyes didn’t budge from mine. “But it’s not that easy…” “I didn’t say anything about it being easy or not,” I replied seriously. “… And I can’t really say whether this is gonna work. But I don’t think at least giving it a chance would hurt.” I stopped, feeling like I was so close. My heart was thundering louder and louder through my ears when I continued: “…Look, I can’t… I can’t tell you what you think or what would be good for you… So I’m asking you…” I paused, nodding almost to reassure myself that this really was the right approach to take “…I’m asking you if you’re willing to-… to just drop all the bullshit and the pretending…” Pete’s eyes felt like they were glued onto mine, but they weren’t hard anymore. They looked deep and inviting as their different shades of warm color seemed to pull mine in even closer. “… Pete, can we please just be you and me and see what happens?” My question hung in the air between us for a minute, and I felt my pulse start to race as I suddenly wondered if I’d read this all wrong or if this really was a terrible idea. I dragged my eyes away from Pete’s. And when I looked at the rest of his face, he was smiling. “Fuck it…” he grinned, a wide, exuberant Pete grin, and I felt my own smile stretching across my face in return. “… Yes.” Pete turned his head to glance around us, pausing briefly on a group of softball players filing out one of the gym doors further down from where we were standing, before bringing his bright hazel eyes back onto mine. Still grinning, he reached up his right hand and we pressed our knuckles against each other’s, holding our twin fists together there for just a second longer than we ever had before. *** To be continued

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