I sat at the dinner table, unable to even look at the Chinese food sitting on my plate. But I didn’t have a choice. If I ignored my favorite foods, Dad would ask questions. Questions that I didn’t have the answers to. Questions I wanted to avoid facing. Things about what my best friend said today at school got to me, even if they weren’t negative in the slightest. Those words he spoke… they forced me to look at myself again – from the outside in.
I hated looking at myself from the outside in.
“Chance… could I have the egg rolls?” my brother asked. I didn’t say anything. I just slid them towards him, earning a thankful but confused glance from him. For just a moment I felt a bit bad for taking some of my frustrations out on him, even in that small a dose, but it quickly faded. Like it has the past several times. I knew it wasn’t his fault but… why do things have to be so hard? I mean, Dexter, today at school, grated on my nerves because he tried again to get me to go on a double date with him sometime if he found a girl for each of us. I ended up brushing him off and almost stormed away from him. That was early in the morning. If that wasn’t bad enough, he made it worse by trying to ask me about it later, citing that I’m “unreasonable” first thing. I ended up eating outside in the Quad alone and pissed.
Dad’s rustling of the evening newspaper stirred a bit of reality back into me. I glanced over at him for a second, even if he couldn’t see me. I liked Dad. Even for someone that’s semi-retired military – he made full Colonel in the army before Dustin was born. Stern but fairly easy going, he tolerated no bullshit from anyone. He saw right through it if he paid attention. Lucky for me he’s been a bit distracted by something else.
“Chance…” Dustin said quietly, getting my attention. If I had to admit, he looked like a younger version of me. Same, if slightly brighter, shade of blond hair, same hazel eyes, but with a bit more twinkle to them. Even the same build I remember having four years ago. Hell, he has close to my build now since I don’t seem to be growing anytime soon. It really irritates me that he’s just about my height already, only needing a few inches to match me. I stopped my mental comparison of us and just as he was about to say something, the front door opened, cutting him off.
“Hey boys, I’m home.” I heard car keys clatter in the metal dish by the door as her heels clicked across the bamboo flooring. Mom stepped around the corner and shrugged off her coat, tossing it onto a nearby and unused chair. “I see it’s Chinese again tonight.” Her eyes smiled a bit tiredly, her mouth wearily matching it.
Living off of army rations for long stretches of time, Dad made a horrible cook, which is why we ate out so often. “Sorry, I wasn’t sure when you’d be home and it was the first number I grabbed,” Dad said as he lowered his paper. “How was your day, dear?”
“A little longer than yesterday, I think. I had to deal with telling a patient I thought they had cancer. I never like breaking that sort of news to anyone. It doesn’t get easier, that’s for sure.” For a while, Mom and Dad chatted about work-related things before shifting over to some bills. I tuned it out and contented myself with toying with my beef fried rice. It seemed a bit criminal that I couldn’t eat my favorite meal, but my stomach felt like it was tied in knots or I already swallowed a lead balloon. Each bite I actually did take I had to force myself to ingest. And each time it felt like it wanted to climb back up my esophagus. Eventually my parents quieted down, Dad going back to his paper.
“Chance,” Dustin tried again. I looked up and tried to seem somewhat friendly, but I felt like I achieved some level of neutrality at best. He pulled back a tiny bit but managed to shake it off. “Um, there was something I was told today at school I thought you’d find funny. My one friend at school was talking about how his older sister caught something called…” He paused to think and then his face brightened. “Oh yeah! She got diarrhea from doing sex stuff with her boyfriend.”
“Not diarrhea, gonorrhea.” I rolled my eyes. “I mean, if they really had sex that is. Diarrhea is a food thing.”
Mom lowered her fork. “Boys, I don’t want either of you to have sex until you know you’re ready. Don’t let anyone force you into having it if you’re uncomfortable or uneasy. It has to feel right.”
“Mom!” I groaned. I blushed a bit, unable to help it at all, even with the knowledge that as soon as Dustin had spoken that three-letter word, Mom would pipe up. “You already had this discussion with me! I don’t need to hear it again.”
“This is for your brother’s benefit, Chance.” She turned to face him. “Dustin, I’m sure you’re aware that Chance is going through puberty – you might’ve seen some changes to his body, either on his–”
I slammed my fork down. “I’m not a lab rat, you know! Or his personal puberty model!” I hated that she had to point out to him that I was changing physically!
Mom barreled through undeterred. “–way out of the bathroom or accidentally peeked in on him while he was changing. What he’s going through is perfectly normal and in a year or two, you’ll start to experience these changes too.” She turned to me and smiled a bit. “You’ll have to put up with Chance’s teasing of your voice changing like you did his.”
I grabbed my fork back and angrily stirred my rice around. “I probably will too,” I muttered.
“Anyway,” she continued, after getting down a larger bite than she normally took. “The point is, soon you’ll want to do things with someone in a sexual manner. I mean you’ll want to kiss them or touch them or the like. Usually it’s with a girl, but it’s quite possible that you might end up liking boys in that manner. In any event, either way is fine with me. I have many gay patients and each one of them is a perfectly normal human being so please don’t–” Just then her pager went off. “Oh damn it… I’m needed at the hospital again. Dustin, we’ll talk more later, okay honey?”
Mom’s words resonated in me a bit. For the past few months – almost the better part of a year – I’ve been wrestling with something. That same something that we just discussed… sexuality. It’s the main reason I feel so alone, so isolated in a sea of friends and family that I feared there was no bridge long or sturdy enough to span that divide between me and that sea. And I know it’s growing, the divide. Hearing Mom say that she’s perfectly okay with either result, a tiny glimmer of hope ignited within me as I felt a few rungs of that bridge being built. “Okay Mom. Be safe,” my brother called as she snatched her coat up and was out the door in a heartbeat.
Dad’s paper rustled and I saw him fold it up, placing it on the table neatly. He made sure the part he read was resting squarely on top of the rest of the paper he had yet to get to. Uh oh, I thought. Dad only does that little neurotic behavior when he has something insightful to say. Most of the times I’ve come to realize I don’t like these little chats with Dad, as somehow they get under my skin and fester like an infected wound. “Boys,” he started. His eyes took on that faraway look he gets whenever he stares into the past. “Let me tell you a story. When I was stationed in Guam back in the eighties, there were these two women under my command. One was a staff sergeant and the other was a corporal. When I first got stationed there, everything was fine and dandy – there were no problems. But during a routine training exercise a few months later, I caught a glimpse into each of those women’s lives. What do you think I saw?” His eyes found mine for a few seconds before he shifted and looked into Dustin’s eyes.
“I don’t know. What?” Dad had swept Dustin up into his story.
“What I saw that day, every other officer and enlisted man or woman at that training exercise saw, and they saw those two women engage in… what appeared to be intimate contact with one another. One of them had scraped their face against the mats and the other had been assigned to attend to her. They were caught kissing one another in that corner of the room.”
“What… happened to them Dad?” I asked, finding myself a bit too curious as to their fate.
“The army back then, while it wasn’t official, had its ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ mantra already drilled into most everyone’s heads at best. Bad for morale and all that jazz. While I personally pulled those ladies aside and told them I had no beef with them, I did tell them that it was highly frowned upon, what they did publicly. In the Army’s eyes, at least.” A tiny, almost imperceptible frown found its way on Dad’s face. “No matter what punishment I could have given them for disobeying the order to be discreet had I decided to do so… was nowhere near as bad as what hazing rituals those two women endured the following week. I only saw the results, but I could only imagine how they came about. Beatings. Name calling. Degradation of their very souls. You name it, the other enlisted folk probably thought it up and did it to those ladies. When they were transferred off base at the end of that week, I don’t think they would be the same ever again…”
“That’s awful Daddy,” Dustin said quietly, sounding suddenly a lot younger than he was.
“It was son.” Slowly, he rose from his chair. “I’ve never seen anything quite like what those two women went through. It was unfortunate that neither lady had the courage to speak up to a superior officer – I tried but each time they rebuffed me, saying the bruises were received during training drills.” He eyed each of us again as he clasped his hands in the small of his back. “Boys, if either of you do realize you’re homosexual, it will make no difference to me. But for your future’s sake… I hope neither of you are or will be.” The frown on his face deepened a bit as he walked towards his study. He stopped for a second. He spoke back to us without turning around. “Don’t be afraid to tell me either, boys. I want to be a part of the solution, not part of the problem.” He stepped out of my line of sight and a few seconds later, I heard the door to his den quietly shut.
Hearing Dad’s story about the two women and being caught kissing left me thinking. Maybe they were lesbians, but maybe they weren’t. I felt the rungs of that bridge within me come crumbling down, moorings and all, before exploding into ash and dust. I stood up suddenly, needing to lie down. I almost knocked my chair to the floor and my actions startled Dustin. “Ch-Chance… can I, uh ask you something?”
“Can it wait?” I said hurriedly, feeling my emotions swirl about me in a torrent.
He fidgeted with his hands, a bit taken aback from my abrupt response. “Um, sure. I’ll… go do some homework and… check back with you?” I didn’t let the sadness in his voice find its way into my own, otherwise I wouldn’t make it to my room.
“Fine,” I said tersely as I left the dining room and went into my room. For a few moments I paced, unable to sit back down. It helped me to not focus on the issue I knew I needed to face, but dreaded even thinking about. It gnawed on me like a dog does a bone, incessant and unrelenting, until it would finally suck the marrow of the thought from me.
The phone in my room shattered my silent, torturous pacing. I stopped and just stared at it, almost irked that it intruded into my mind. But as it kept ringing, I knew I had to answer it – it was my own private line, after all. No one else would make it stop unless I just ignored it. But I couldn’t even do that, given the time of night and the fact that only one person outside the house had that number. I sighed in resignation.
I flopped into my bed and slowly answered it on about the seventh ring. “Um, hello?”
“Chance, buddy! About time you picked up, man!” A small laugh bubbled its way across the line. “What were you doing, jacking off to some hot porn?”
“What? No!” I screamed into the phone. “How could you even say that?!”
Again he laughed. “Jeez, you’re so uptight, C. Alright, I’ll let you off the hook – this time!” I could hear him shifting around on his bed – he had his own private line too. It almost felt like we had a string and two cans strung out across the space between our houses, like when we were Dustin’s age, if not younger. “Do you remember the homework assignment from Science today? I forgot to write it down and I need to keep that grade up.”
I eased a bit, not noticing how tense I really had become. “Uh, yeah. Hang on a second. I typed it into my notes programs before I left the room.” I reached down from my bed and stretched my arm out. I started rooting through my laptop case for said laptop, trying to wrangle it free from its leathery sanctuary.
“I don’t know what I’d do without you, C!” Dexter sighed happily. “I’ve been asking around and either no one was home or didn’t remember.”
I flipped my computer open and turned it on. “Why didn’t you call me first thing?” I laughed a bit. It still felt forced, but I tried to ignore that. “I mean, if you knew I’d have it, why not call me first – or better yet, you could’ve just come over, you know.”
I could envision Dexter’s hand waving dismissively towards the phone. “It’s just past dinner time. I wasn’t gonna intrude on your time with the family, man.” There was an uncertain tone in his voice. “I-I mean I just figured your mom or dad would appreciate the time with you and stuff. You know?”
“Plus,” he continued. “I did try calling you first, but Dusty answered saying you were just getting ready for dinner and were paying the Chinese food delivery guy or girl.”
“Damn it… he didn’t tell me you called at the table!” I nearly exclaimed. I started to rise.
“Sit your ass back down, Chance. It’s not his fault – I told him I’d try back later.”
I eased back onto my bed and logged onto my laptop. “Still shouldn’t come into my room without asking…”
“Look, buddy, don’t take it out on him. Like I said, blame me if you have to – I just figured you were jamming out to some tunes and had your buds in your ears, so I let the phone ring forever, hoping you’d catch it during a quiet moment in the music.”
I sighed. There have been times where I do crank up the volume on my MP3 player and don’t even hear the damn thing ring, even with it no more than three feet from my ears. There have been several times where Dustin came in, since his room’s next to mine, and just looked at me and then the phone before I could yell at him. I would answer it as he would roll his eyes at me and depart my room, muttering about me being deaf or something most of those times. “I guess you have a point.”
“Course I do!” he chuckled. “So how’s the squirt doing? I didn’t talk to him that long, since I wanted to hunt around for the assignment. I want to get it done before my show starts.”
“He’s fine. Oh, here it is,” I said as I pointed at the text so I knew where to look. “All Mr. Garmbaumer wants us to do is read chapter seven and answer most of the questions at the end. He said to ignore questions six and ten – we’re gonna do those in class tomorrow.”
The sound of his pencil scribbling down what I said mixed with the sounds of his breath striking the phone. “O…kay. Thanks Chance. Now onto things entirely social.” I could see him grinning in that way from here. I probably could if I looked out my window towards his room but I didn’t feel like looking. “So… how many roses do you think I’ll get this year?”
“Roses?” I asked blankly.
“Yeah, roses! Duh… you do realize that Valentine’s Day is the day after tomorrow, right?” I hadn’t paid attention to the fact that just talking to Dexter about school and homework relaxed me and pushed away those nagging thoughts I had along with the dinner conversations. I liked that. It was… safe. Normal. But talking about the most romantic day of the year and its imminent arrival brought back all that angst and fear and tripled it.
“Um, oh yeah!” I stammered. “I-I’ve just been… too wrapped up with some school projects to even notice.” I tried to distract myself by reviewing the notes I typed up in class earlier that day but it wasn’t really working.
“So… how many do you think I’ll get?” he repeated. I don’t think he bought my lie, judging by his tone.
I felt entirely out of my element and absolutely hated it. I just didn’t understand why I felt this way any time someone talked about dating or girls or even just plain sex. It wasn’t fair that I had to be confused all the time about it! “I-I don’t know… two?”
“Only two?” He laughed, expecting me to join in, but I didn’t. Seconds started to tick by with neither of us speaking. I wasn’t sure, but I think Dexter’s enthusiasm had waned a bit. There seemed to be a pregnant pause on the line and it made everything a million times worse. Flashes of my overactive imagination kicked on and used Dad’s story from dinner as source material, filling my brain with horrific visuals. But instead of the story being about two women, two lesbians… were instead young men.
One of them was replaced by me.
“Chance… you’ll get a couple too, you know?” His voice was soft, almost caring as he tried to ease the tension. It didn’t help. If anything, I started to feel worse. “I mean, I know of a couple of girls that are just dying to ask you out. I mean, they didn’t say that, of course, but they asked me if you were single and I overheard them saying things about you being cute and all.”
“Y-Yeah, right.” I felt panicked suddenly. Panicked and resentful. Resentful because I couldn’t have a normal life. I wasn’t like my best friend or any of the other guys at school that bragged about their sexual conquests. Even if someone told me to make something up, I’d still flounder and end up blurting out that I’m still a virgin. And then I’d get laughed at or maybe even rejected all because I’m a social misfit.
Dexter paused again. “Hey, maybe if I could swing it, we could try doing that–”
I cut him off, unable to bide my time any longer. “No! Stop trying to get me to do that!” I felt the moisture on my face, unable to contain the frustration for another second as Dexter talked. “Y-You don’t understand, Dex! Just… leave it alone, okay!?”
“Chance… I-I don’t get it. What’s wrong?” Dexter was getting upset himself, but he didn’t know what it was he did. Nor would I tell him.
“Just stop, okay!” I screamed into the phone before I slammed it down.
I buried my face into my pillow and cried.
Why did I have to be born this way?! What did I do to deserve such a fate?! When it was my turn, why did the gods decide to laugh at me and force me to be like… this, just for their sick and twisted amusement?! Did they have it planned that for the rest of my life, I’d wander around, alone and confused? Maybe worse?
I don’t want to be gay!
I don’t know how long I bawled into my pillow, but I think I cried myself into a fitful nap. I stirred only when I heard some tapping on my door. Slowly I sat up and turned to face my mirror. I could see that my face was red from my tears. But all I could do was rub my face a few times and hoped I looked better than I felt. Though it was kind of hard to tell unless you were looking for the signs – the low level of light in my room helped to conceal things a bit. “C-Come in.” I struggled to find my voice for a moment.
The door opened and Dustin peeked his head in. “You weren’t asleep were you?”
“I was for a bit, yeah,” I answered honestly. No need to lie about that. “But it’s okay. I still need to finish my homework, so I guess I owe you one, huh?” I motioned for him to come in.
He finally opened the door fully and came in. Dustin found his way onto my bed and sat next to me. “What are you working on?”
I glanced at my laptop, which I had put back on my legs to make room for my brother. He settled against my headboard, but he leaned into me slightly, trying to read my monitor. “Science. I just was trying to see what I needed to get done for tomorrow and I must’ve dozed off before I got any farther.”
“Lazy butt,” he joked. I weakly laughed as he nudged me gently. “So, um, can I ask you that question now? You know, the one I wanted to ask earlier?”
I felt that sickening feeling come back, but I nodded slowly. I hoped time would help Dustin forget the question. “Um, sure. What’s up Dusty?”
“Well, it’s about what Mom was talking about and…” he trailed off as he seemed to have lost some nerve.
I looked at him sternly. “You better not be asking to see what I look like naked or something like that.” I almost laughed as his eyes got big.
“Wh-What?! No! No…” He sighed and tried to pluck up some hidden courage. “What I wanted to know is that… well, I know I haven’t started puberty yet, but… I just wanted your promise that if I do end up, you know… gay… that you won’t hate me for it.” Those shining hazel eyes found mine and stared deeply into mine. “Chance, you wouldn’t… hate me for that, would you?”
“No! Of course not, Dusty! You’re my baby brother. If I don’t find a way to keep an eye on you, Mom and Dad would tan my hide. I promise not to abandon you over that, but I think you’ll have a few years to really know if you are or not.” I don’t know where it came from, but I didn’t even have to think. For a split second, the tiniest moment of time imaginable, I almost chastised him for thinking about it. But what I said came straight from the heart. And I felt momentarily proud for saying it.
My mini-speech earned me a wide, bright smile from Dustin. “R-Really? Aw, thanks Chance!” He buried his face into my side as he latched onto me. “That means a lot to me.”
“All right. Scoot. I need to finish my homework so I can actually go to bed.” He slid off my bed and padded towards my room door. “Dustin?”
He turned to face me. “Yeah?”
“Let me know if you need any help. With anything.”
He nodded once.
“I will. Good night Chance.”
“Night bro.” He pulled the door closed and before I could even start my homework, I slowly closed my laptop for a second, deep in thought. About what I said to him. It came so easily, so effortlessly, that I sat almost in awe of myself. My own words actually made me ponder the question I’ve asked myself hundreds of times lately, but this time it felt different. Lighter, perhaps. Maybe it would be okay, in the end. Was it time to tell Dexter that I’m probably gay? Or maybe it was time to finally tell the person most against the idea.