I am What I am
“No one talks about what happens when you fall in love with the boy next door -- not when you’re the boy living beside the boy next door. You just know that you can’t even ask. You can’t talk about it. Even though Mom says to forget about girls and focus on studying, you know she can’t wait for you to bring a girl home. She wants to plan the proms and think about what the grandchildren will look like. Parents don’t plan for their son to bring home the ‘man’ he loves. I don’t understand why people get so angry about it. Why does it bother them? It has nothing to do with them.” Luke caressed Jared’s arm and took a deep breath. “I don’t care what they think. I know what I want.” He ran his fingers through Jared’s hair. “It’s just that simple. I love you!”
Jared pulled away. “But it’s not that simple, is it? None of this has ever been simple. It should be. Everybody else gets to fall in love with who they want and go on double dates with their friends. What do we get? We get to hide in here -- a rusty old train car. We steal moments when no one’s looking. We constantly have to look over our shoulders to see if anyone’s watching. God forbid someone should see us or figure us out. What if they do? Then what?” He pointed to his bruised eye. “This. Or worse. We’d be hated by everyone, including our own families.” He grasped Luke’s hand, looked him in the eyes. “He could have killed me, Luke. And they know we hang out; I’m sure you’re on their list.” Lying back down on the blanket, he put his hands to his head. “I want this so bad, but I don’t know how it will work out. I don’t know if it’s worth getting us killed.”
Luke leaned over him, holding Jared’s face. “I don’t know either. We can try to figure it out, right? Maybe we just do what we can to survive until we can leave here. Leave everything behind us. There are other places... places where it will be easier for us to be together. We’ve only got one more year of school left then we’re free. It’ll go by fast.”
“Maybe. I just don’t want you to have to go through all of this when you’re not sure about it. I couldn’t stand if something happened to you. I’d feel responsible. Maybe you should just try... you know... to find a girl.”
“No! I can take care of myself. I don’t want that. What can I do to prove to you that it’s just you? All I want is you.”
Jared smiled, leaning his head against Luke’s chest. “I just don’t know.”
Luke thought for a moment, his heart racing. Without thinking, the words came out of his mouth. “Let me make love to you.”
Jared jumped away. “What? No! We can’t!”
Luke ran his hand down Jared’s arm. “Why not? I love you. I always have.”
“I just don’t know if it’s...”
Luke held his finger against Jared’s lips. “We’re adults now. I can’t promise when we’ll figure this whole mess out, but I need this. I want this.” Kneeling in front of Jared, he gave a reassuring, but nervous smile and kissed him. He started to unbutton Jared’s shirt.
Jared laid back, his arms around Luke’s neck.
Luke could feel Jared’s body trembling, assuring him that Jared was just as nervous. It felt right. It was the right time.
What the hell am I doing here? Who cares what Jared Montgomery has to say about anything? The phrase repeated in my mind. I tried reaching for a mint from my pants pocket, inadvertently jamming my finger against the skirt of the oak desk in front of me. Hoping no one noticed, I reached in, unwrapped one, and finally got it into my mouth. There was no moisture left.
I looked toward the front of the room. Everything went out of focus so I looked down at the desk and took a deep breath. Making eye contact with the people in front of me was not an option. One would think I’d be used to it, but it was disconcerting not knowing who was friend or foe.
I got the signal to begin. I sat, pulling my chair in, making sure I was close to the microphone. When I opened my mouth, nothing came out so I reached for my glass of water. Taking a drink, I closed my eyes, and forced another deep breath.
“I want to be clear that I’m not here for the pleasure of reliving this story. I suspect many of you are already uncomfortable and I’ve just begun. The fact is I’ve spent a lot of time trying to put these memories to rest, but I can’t. Not to say there weren’t some wonderful memories; there were many incredible memories, but they are quickly overtaken by the sad ones.
Thinking back, I know that neither of us was really aware of how prophetic Luke’s words were that evening. We were both eighteen years old. We should’ve been worrying about what movie to see, or whose party we should go to, not thinking about how to survive. Why am I here? I’m here because I need people to understand that their words and their actions have consequences whether they realize it or not. I need people to understand that my love for Luke was not some perversion, nor was it something evil. It was real and true, just like many relationships that are happening every day between two people who love each other who happen to be members of the same sex.” I cleared my throat in an effort to maintain control of my emotions. “Loving him wasn’t difficult. It was trying to create a life together that proved complicated.”
Jared watched the trees and power lines go by from the window of his family’s white Chevrolet Caprice. He became more eager as they got closer to their new house, which was located on the edge of town. His parents had finally been able to afford to build the house they’d always wanted. He was excited to get his own room. He got to choose the carpet and the color of the walls. He’d no longer have to sleep in the cold drafty upstairs room in the old farm house they’d been living in.
As the car pulled into the driveway, he shifted in his seat in the back of the car. He looked over to his sister Megan, who was thirteen, to see her reaction. She smiled back at him and looked through her window.
The car came to a stop. Jared wiggled out of his seat and ran to the front door. Megan followed.
“Megan! Open the door!” He stood on his toes, trying to look over her shoulder to see through the window.
“I can’t! It’s locked! Stop pushing!” She shoved Jared backwards to get some space.
Jared turned, running toward the car. “Mom! Dad! The door is locked!”
Their dad, Michael, took boxes from the trunk. “Jared! Settle down. Help your mom and I get these things in the house.”
“Megan, you too.” Candace, their mom, motioned for them. “We have to get things arranged before Aunty Grace and Uncle Rick get here with the truck.”
Jared ran to the trunk of the car and loaded his arms with small boxes. Megan had followed him, picking up some small items that had fallen out of the boxes into the trunk. He arrived at the door just as his dad unlocked it.
He’d come with his parents a few times to see the house while it was being built, but now the walls had been painted and the carpet and new appliances had been installed.
He watched Megan run down the stairs to the basement. Since she was the older of the two, her bedroom was downstairs while Jared’s was upstairs by his parent’s bedroom. When he got older he’d be able to take the other bedroom downstairs.
Jared ran up the stairs to his bedroom, wondering if it would look like he’d been dreaming it would. He was filled with excitement as he looked around the empty room. It was perfect, just the way he had wanted it to look. He thought about how he was going to set it up.
Jared and Megan laughed as they ran around their new house. They raced up and down the stairs, checking out every room. When they entered the kitchen, they knocked a box out of Candace’s hands.
“That’s it!” Candace pointed to the door. “If you’re not going to help, then go somewhere and stay out of the way!”
They ran over to pick up the contents that had fallen to the floor.
Candace looked out the window. “Jared, go outside and play. There’s a little boy across the street. Go introduce yourself. Megan, you go too.”
Jared studied the boy staring toward his house. He appeared to be around Jared’s age. Once outside, Jared met his gaze. He was now standing at the road. Jared looked down, but gave him a shy smile.
Megan nudged Jared. “Go say ‘hi’.”
“No. I don’t want to.” He looked down at the stones he was unconsciously kicking around. Jared wanted to meet new kids in the neighborhood. That was half of the excitement of moving to a new place. He cursed his shy nature. He wasn’t use to meeting new people.
“Go! Don’t be such a big baby.” Megan grabbed his shoulders and pushed him toward the road. “Mom said!”
“Come with me,” Jared mumbled, staring down at the stones he was unconsciously kicking around. He glanced at the boy whose wide eyes were focused on him. Does he even want to meet me?
As the standoff continued, four girls came around the corner and walk toward them. They all appeared to be around Megan’s age.
“Hi, Luke,” one of them called, waving to the boy standing in front of them.
Luke held his hand above his eyes to shield them from the sun. “Hey, Jenny. Hey, Carrie.”
The girls stopped in front of Jared and Megan. One of them took the initiative, offering her hand. “Hi, I’m Jenny. Are you moving in here?”
Jared looked to Megan who answered her. “Yes, we are. My name’s Megan.”
Jared struggled as Megan took his hand and offered it to the girls. “This is my little brother, Jared.”
“Hi.” Jenny shook his hand. She pointed at each girl in the group, introducing them. “This is Carrie, Bonnie, and Shannon.”
Carrie pointed across the street to the boy who had been the cause of debate a few minutes earlier. “That’s my cousin, Luke.”
Luke waved and smiled.
“Hey, Megan! Do you want to come with us? We’re going to Bonnie’s house to listen to the radio and play some games.” Shannon looked at Jared. “We’d ask you, but it’s just going to be us girls.”
Megan’s face dropped. “Maybe some other time. I should stay with my little brother.”
“No!” Jared’s head popped up. “Go ahead. I’m okay.”
Megan smiled. She touched his arm and headed to the door. “Okay, but I have to go tell my parents. Do you guys wanna come in and see our house?”
The group followed her into the house. Jared and Luke kept their posts facing each other in their respective driveways. Neither said a word.
After a few minutes the door opened again; Megan and the girls came out of the house. Their chatter continued as they walked down the driveway. Megan stopped in front of Jared. “I’ll be back in a little while. Go play with Luke!”
Luke was sitting on the curb, looking down the road. Jared couldn’t muster the courage to walk over to talk to him. He paced in front of his driveway, sneaking peeks to see if Luke had moved. When he noticed Luke was gone, he was momentarily disappointed, but mostly he was relieved. “What would I have said to him anyway?” He turned to go back inside and almost ran head-on into Luke.
Jared felt the blood rush to his face as they made eye contact. Unable to say anything he looked down at his feet.
“Hi! I’m Luke. So this is your new house?”
Jared froze with nervousness. He managed a quick, “Yep.”
“Cool! So what do you like to do?”
Jared met his gaze and smiled. “I don’t know. Anything.”
“Do you play baseball?”
“Not really. I’m not very good at sports.”
Luke looked puzzled then broke into a smile. “What do you do?”
“I like to read... and play Nintendo.” Jared put his hands in his pockets.
Luke’s face lit up. “I love Nintendo. I have about twenty games, but mine isn’t working right now.”
“Wanna go see if mine’s here yet?”
“Sure!” Luke smiled, standing in front of Jared. “Do you wanna see something cool first?
“Come on.” Luke led Jared through some tall grass in his back yard, along a row of aspen trees, across a gravel road, and into a junkyard. It looked like a cemetery. Jared saw the remains of a few large machines, the bones of old farm equipment, a semi that lay in pieces, and a large truck that was smashed on all sides. It felt like they had run into another world.
Luke stopped at a large tree and pointed down to an old rusty train car. “Look at that! Isn’t it cool? Come on!”
Jared followed Luke as he ran toward the faded brown, time-worn train car. He wondered what its purpose had been when it was being used. It didn’t appear to be meant for passengers. It must have hauled something like grain, water, or other farm supplies. Its sides were filled with pin-sized rust holes. It looked like it had been there so long that the back end had sunk into the ground.
Jared stared at it. “Wow!”
“Isn’t it great?” Luke grabbed onto the ladder that was bolted on the side of the car and started to climb up.
“Are you sure we can do this?” Jared looked around. We are going to be in so much trouble!
“My mom says I’m not supposed to, but no one’s ever caught me. I’ve never seen anyone else here. Come on! It’s cool in here!”
“Inside?” There was no way he could go inside it. He took his hands off the ladder and stepped back, looking around to see if anyone was watching them. He was ready to run at the first sign of trouble. He jumped when he heard a noise.
“Jared? Where’d you go?”
“Down here. On the ground.” He looked up at Luke who’d crawled to the edge, looking down at him.
“What’s the matter?”
“I don’t think we should be in there.”
“Come on! It’s all right. Just trust me.”
Jared thought it over one more time. It was against his better judgment, but he decided it was worth a try. He’d never been this close to a train car. He just had to see what it was like on the inside. If Luke said it was okay then it must be. He somehow felt like he could trust him.
Jared gave Luke a nervous smile, starting up the ladder. When he reached the top he lost his footing, nearly falling off the rounded side. His new friend caught his arm, pulling him back.
Jared shook as he lay on the top of the car. The panic subsided and he stood. His legs felt like rubber from the near fall and he almost lost his balance again. He caught himself by grabbing the hatch cover. His heart was beating fast. He looked over at Luke and noticed he had turned white as a ghost. He laughed once he realized he was secure. “That was a close one!”
Luke laughed, the color returning to his face.
Jared looked over the edge into the train car. “Sure is dark in there.”
“You’ll get used to it. You go first.” Luke grinned.
Jared was puzzled as to how to maneuver his way inside.
“There’s another ladder on the front of the hole.” Luke took Jared’s hand, helping him get situated. “Be careful!”
Jared held on to Luke, searching for something to grab onto with his other hand. He found his footing, caught the rail, and made it to the bottom. He looked up, seeing Luke smiling down at him. “I hope it’s a lot easier to get out of here.” Jared laughed, waiting as Luke made his way down.
“You worry too much.” Luke jumped off the ladder, landing in front of him.
“I know. I’m scared of everything... sort of.”
“You’re safe with me.” Luke reached around Jared’s neck, pulling him toward the inner part of the car. “Come on! I’ll show you around.”
He led Jared around and pointed out each little ‘room’. There were four smaller areas with a hallway running through the middle that led to a larger room that made-up the back of the train car.
Jared had a hard time making out all the parts of it because of the dark. “You need to get a light in here.”
“I know!” Luke scratched his head. “I haven’t figured that out yet.”
“My dad has about a hundred flashlights. I can ask him if we could use one.”
“Good idea.” Luke held on to Jared’s hand and fumbled around in front of him to make sure there was nothing in the way.
After the tour was concluded Jared led the way back up the ladder to the top of the train car. Emerging through the hatch, he realized he could see the whole neighborhood from this vantage point. He spied a tree fort just a short distance away. “Is that your fort?”
Luke suddenly became serious. “No! That’s Devin’s. He lives over there.” He pointed to a house in the distance. “His dad is the wrestling coach. They act like they own the world. He’s really mean. Don’t even go near it, and stay away from him.”
Jared’s heart raced. “Mean?”
“He likes to beat people up. He’s a big jerk! He beat me up a couple times, but I’m not scared of him anymore. I can take him. Don’t worry. I won’t let him hurt you.”
Jared smiled, somehow knowing Luke meant it.
“Look over there!” Luke pointed to a row of trees in the other direction. “See that big tree with the gnarly branch going out over the dirt road by the baseball diamond?”
Jared stood next to Luke, looking toward where he was pointing. “Yeah.” His foot slipped a bit.
“You’re going to fall one of these times. Hold on to me.” Luke reached backwards, taking Jared’s hands and putting them on his shoulders.
Jared held on for fear of falling to the ground. His shyness gave way to practicality for safety’s sake.
Luke pointed to a tree in the distance. “That’s where we’re going to build our fort.”
Jared stared at the tree as excitement filled him. “I’ve always wanted a fort!” He put his chin on Luke’s shoulder, making sure he was situated so as not to fall. “It’s perfect.” He was content, thinking about their tree fort, taking in his new surroundings.
Luke broke the silence. “Do you want to see my Nintendo games?”
“Sure.” Jared got on his knees with Luke still holding on to him. He crawled to the ladder and climbed down to the ground. Luke followed then they ran toward home. When they reached Luke’s driveway, Jared saw Megan and her friends walking down the road.
Megan was motioning and calling to him. “Mom and Dad have been looking for you. It’s time to eat.” She and her friends headed toward the house.
“We’ll be right there. We’re just going to look at something.” He followed Luke into the garage. They walked up the steps and went into the house. A woman was in the kitchen, unpacking groceries.
“Hi, Mom. I’m showing Jared my Nintendo games. He just moved in the new house. Jared, this is my mom, Ellen. Mom, this is Jared.” Luke walked through the kitchen, disappearing into the next room.
Jared wondered if he should follow or stay by the door. He was taught never to go into a house unless invited. However, not knowing Luke’s mom, he felt uncomfortable standing in the silence. He decided to go find Luke.
“So...” Ellen stopped him, not looking up from her task. “You just moved in, huh?” She sounded agitated.
“How old are you?”
“Your family new to the area?”
Jared got more nervous as the inquisition continued. She was angry about something. “No Ma’am, but we did just move into town. We used to live on a farm a couple miles out.”
Ellen finally looked at him. “I’ve never seen you at the school before.”
“I go to St. Joseph’s, Ma’am. I don’t go to Luke’s school.”
Ellen laughed. “Oh! You’re one of them. That figures.”
Jared was unsure how to respond. He had no idea what she meant. He swallowed hard, reached for the door behind him, preparing to bolt out of the house.
Luke burst back into the room from around the corner carrying a large storage container. “Here they are. I told you I had a lot.”
“Luke! For God’s sake, don’t make a mess. I just got home.” She grabbed his arm, stopping him.
“I’m not.” He jerked his arm away, nudging Jared toward the door. “I’m just going to give these to Jared until my Nintendo is fixed. God!”
Ellen followed them into the garage. “Where are you going?”
“I’m going over to Jared’s.” Luke didn’t look back at her.
“Fine. Then they can feed you, too.” She slammed the door behind them.
Jared was uneasy at what had just happened. He was glad to be heading home. He followed Luke who seemed to be on a mission and who appeared unphased by it all.
“You can eat with us if you want. My parents won’t mind,” Jared offered as he caught up to him.
“Thanks.” Luke smiled. “Then maybe we can play some games.”
Jared led Luke into the house. He was about to introduce Luke to his parents, but Luke marched up to Jared’s mom and dad and held out his hand.
“Hi! I’m Luke; Jared’s friend.”
Candace walked to Luke and shook his hand. “It’s nice to meet you. I’m Candace and this is Jared’s dad, Mike.” She motioned to the container Luke was still holding. “What have you got here?”
“Nintendo games. We want to play them if Jared’s Nintendo is unpacked. Mine’s broken, so I brought them here.”
“Well, I just finished hooking up the TV and Nintendo downstairs in the family room.” Mike smiled, patting each of them on the shoulder.
Jared and Luke ran to the stairs. Candace stopped them. “Not until you have some supper! Both of you!”
Jared pulled Luke into the kitchen.
“Wash your hands first.” Candace put plates on the counter for them.
After they finished their supper, they ran down to the family room. They laughed and played games for hours.
Luke went to the stack of games then flipped through them. “Now which one?”
“Doesn’t matter to me.” Jared reached for one, stopping when his mother called down the stairs.
“Luke! I think your mom is calling for you. You’d better get going.”
Luke and Jared groaned.
Luke went to the window and waved to his mother who motioned for him to come home. “I guess I better go.” He frowned and nodded back at his mother.
Candace shook her head at them. “Boys, for heaven’s sake, you can play again tomorrow. It’s not the end of the world!”
Jared smiled at Luke. She was right. Tomorrow was Sunday; they could play all day.
Luke said his goodbyes and made his way out the front door. He turned to Jared. “See you tomorrow, Jed!”
“That’s my new name for you.” He smiled as he ran for home.
Jared watched him disappear into the garage. He closed the door and went back to the kitchen where his mom was cleaning the supper dishes. Candace mussed his hair and pulled him close.
Jared was excited to think he had a new friend. Soon summer would arrive and they could play every day.