George

I've been jogging now for almost an hour. There's a 15K run coming up in DC soon, and I want to be ready. Since childhood, I've been obsessed with my body. See, I can admit it. Dr. Vargas says that's healthy. My acknowledgment of it doesn't change the obsession, I've noticed, but at least I'm a healthier person for being able to say it. I love my body. I would do anything to keep it in good shape. I am empowered when I say that.

So, Dr. Vargas thinks that I should ease up a little with my exercises. He thinks that I shouldn't push myself too much. But here's what I say: He's not a medical doctor, and I'm already over the hill. There's nothing wrong with staying in shape. It merely makes me more attractive to myself and others. He worries that the stress will wear on me, but I really don't think that's likely. He says he's known people in my position who've had heart attacks in the middle of their exercises because they've pushed themselves too much. He says that they were healthy and normal human beings, but they just pushed too much. Being too fit, he says, can be just as dangerous as being unfit. I don't buy it.

I'm jogging shirtless. I love jogging shirtless. I like it when I catch people looking at me. See, I can admit that, too. Damn I'm a healthy son of a bitch. Today has been especially great for jogging because it's been raining. Usually, I hate the rain. When I'm sitting inside, watching the rain on the windows, I hate it. In fact, I might go so far as to say I loathe it. Who knows, maybe I envy it a little. I mean, there I am, cooped up inside doing whatever it is I have to do (I'm a systems analyst by day) and there the rain is, free to do whatever it likes. I mean yes, it's governed by gravity, so it has to fall downward, but no one tells it that it can't fall left or can't fall right. Oh my God, I do! I envy it! Now that's a breakthrough, I think... I'll have to remember to tell Dr. Vargas.

Today, I left after lunch. There was just too much bad energy in the building. I told my associates that I wasn't feeling too well and that I'd been under a lot of stress lately (and I have) so I had to take a half day. If any of them saw me now... but they can't. They're all across town, sitting in their offices, their cubicles, on the fourteenth floor. Here I am, bonding with the rain.

I'm lucky my watch is water-resistant. And I'm lucky I fell for the sneakers without shoelaces. Ben recommended them to me last June when I came to visit, and I thought I could never like them. I'm not a laces-less kind of guy. But then my old Adidas pair gave out, and I had to get something. And what can I say? I fell hard for them.

The rain has cooled the city off. I wouldn't say that it was hot before, but it was definitely warm. And it was muggy because of the coming rain. Thankfully, it's not so muggy anymore. Am I thanking the rain? This must be another breakthrough.

I want to jog by Ray's old house, but I'm afraid to. Look, another breakthrough. Jogging is just as good as therapy and a hundred percent less expensive. What am I doing in therapy? Yet another breakthrough.

As kids we never really liked each other. We were in different grades at the same school and my friends teased his friends even though we were younger. Somehow, things got flipped around when I started showing up at the gym. He was Rudy's pet. He was Sal's pet. He was anyone's pet who wanted him. That was so amazing to me. But he was also a good fighter. I was maybe twelve and didn't know any other way of fighting other than teasing and kicking and hitting like a girl. But seeing Ray in the ring... God, that was enough to give a twelve-year-old his first hard-on.

Ray started having boys over for overnights. You'd get an invitation, you knew what would go on. Ray's mom worked late, so you'd have the whole house to yourselves, just you and Ray. Things were so simple then. You didn't have to deal with emotions, you just dealt with physical pleasures. If something felt good, it had to be right.

When Ray first ran out, I wanted him to come stay with me. I remember foolishly asking him one afternoon where he was going to live and what he was going to do. He must have stayed with Sal or Rudy. Must have been Rudy, because Sal died that summer. Or maybe it was no one. I never really knew.

I like jogging in the rain. In fact, I might say I love it. I'm just enjoying it now, the way it feels as it hits my shoulders and runs down my back like sweat that will never be sticky. Hey, if it feels good, it's got to be right. And this is just so right.

I won't go down Ray's street. I've spent the hour avoiding it, and still I won't do it. There are too many memories. I'm afraid of too many things. Fear--that's the big breakthrough for the day. Won't Dr. Vargas be impressed? I had wanted to see him before tomorrow, just to figure things out before I blindly flung myself into that situation. But now I'm thinking that I don't need to see him at all.

I keep thinking about Ray's mother. She was such a tolerant woman. She put up with so much from Ray. Really, she put up with so much from all of us. We were shits back then. I swear I don't know how she remained so patient. When I think of all the times she had come home and found one of us--often me--just marauding through the house at night... she never raised her voice. With amazing lenience and studied patience, she'd just say, "Good evening George." I can't help feeling guilty now. I don't feel guilty about the way I've lived my life, but I'm sorry for how we treated Mrs. Alderman. Guilt: another breakthrough.

Nothing visible shakes when I jog. I love that. I love being tight and toned, and I love being tan. I love that my hair is silver around my ears. And I love my ears. I know that when I get older, they'll droop and be much too large for my face, but right now, they're just perfect.

Right now, I feel just about ready to die, as if I take two more steps, I'll just explode. My lungs are tired, and my legs are tired, but I'm a good mile from home. I know that if I push I can make it. But then, I know that if I push, I could have a heart attack right here and now.

So I stop.

I never stop. But today, I have to. I just have to. I take a moment to stretch and breathe, and then I start to walk. I know that people who see me will think that I'm lazy because I'm not even power-walking, but I just don't care today. Indifference: another breakthrough. Dr. Vargas is highly overpaid. I still love my body, and I'm actually watching my stomach tense and relax as I walk, but I don't care what other people think right now. They can watch me or not watch me, and it doesn't really matter. They can think that I'm toned or think that I'm lazy, and it doesn't matter anymore. It's amazing what's important and what's not when you really think about it.

The rain has stopped, and I'm feeling a little goofy walking around shirtless. But I don't care. I've spent all this time caring what other people thought, and there was no need. I wonder if Ray ever cared. I wonder if his mother ever cared.

She was so damn brave in the face of all that struck her--her husband dying, her son being gay, Ray's illness, her own... I never had a mother to look up to or love me, and when I think now about how we all abused Mrs. Alderman... it tears me up. More guilt--another breakthrough. I'm almost ready to throw up, thinking about everything. Leaning against a stone wall that surrounds a churchyard, I begin to sob uncontrollably. The tears are governed by gravity, but no one tells them which feature of mine to dampen. The corner of my nose, my lip, my chin, to the right or to the left, no one tells them where to go. Remorse... another breakthrough.

Mrs. Alderman, just say you can forgive me.

*************************

Rudy

If... if you talk to... to a cop, or, or... to a D.A., they'll tell you it's molestation, or it's rape or something. They'll have you believe it's something sick and perverted and bad. But it's not. It's not. I mean, that's not what it's about. It's not about molestation. It's not about taking advantage of anybody or of anybody's youth or inexperience. I mean, it's that very youth and inexperience that they're all trying to overcome. And we're all just trying to help them. They know it. But you talk to someone out of the loop... a cop, some legal wise-guy, some bureaucrat's right-hand-man... well, they're not gonna understand. I mean, where do the hetero kids learn it? They learn it from their parents. They learn it from the older generations of their own families. Someone's mom or dad comes to them and explains everything. That's how it's passed on... how to make a family, how to grow up, how to live in the world. From their parents. From the experienced. These kids... these kids... they don't have that. They don't have a mom or dad to explain how our lifestyle works. All they've got's us. Where else are they gonna learn it? They come to us. They know we know. We show them how it's done. And what it's like to have someone care about you. There's nothing sick in that. There's nothing sick in caring.

In the early seventies, a bunch of us hung out at Killian's. They had the best boxing setup... what can I say? We liked to box. We liked to fight and be real men's men. Guys like that. They like the muscles, they like the scars. If we've got those things, they like us. And for so many men at the time, we were a novelty. We were something that had only occurred to them in their dreams--their fantasies. But the sixties... woah, the sixties did something radical to all the men who'd been sexually repressed. Men started coming out of their shells more... visiting the gyms not for the exercise, but for the other patrons. Remember the Village People? Remember "YMCA"? Those ideas came from somewhere. It's not all urban myth.

Ray first started coming by then. Most of the boys came by then. As long as we were there... as long as we could teach them how to box and how to live the lives they wanted to live... as long as we cared about them, they came by. He was a damn good fighter. He wasn't boxing but maybe a year before he started taking down some of my friends. I saw him beat Johnny and Two-Lips. And the first guy he ever took out--I still remember the fight, round for round--was Marco. None of the kids could beat Marco. I mean, sure, we older guys could, no sweat, but none of the kids had beaten him yet. And even with us, us older guys, he still had an okay record. I think he was six for thirteen with us when Ray took him down. God, it was a beautiful fight. I mean, there Ray was, fourteen or fifteen, with Marco looming over him like David's Goliath. It was beautiful.

I took Ray for drinks after.

You know, in the early years, no one knew about any of the dangers. I don't mean the dangers of fighting. I mean the dangers of living like we lived. Of having a different guy for every day of the month. I mean, sure, we didn't all run crazy like that. God knows I never did. But I had enough friends who did. I had enough friends who slept with anyone who'd come home with them. I buried enough friends. Twelve? Twelve. Johnny first, Kimbo next, Frankie, Phil, Gordo, Two-Lips, Deano, Kirk, Petie, Tommy, Irvin... even Marco. I even buried Marco.

Ten, fifteen years later, it still hurts. It's like a broken rib that never healed... so every time you breathe in, it hurts. Every time you yawn, every time you cough, every time you sigh... it hurts. If I could go back... if I could take it all back, just stop those guys... tell them to cut back, tell them... not so many... or, or slow down... if I could just stop it before it ever began. Or before it ever got out of hand.

I don't blame myself. It sounds like maybe I do, but I don't. I mean, I know it was their choice. I know there's nothing I could have done. It's just, years later, when you look back at it... when you think of all your friends just dropping like flies... I mean twelve of them in three years... you wish you could have done something. You wish you'd known. Something. Anything. You just want to change it.

Ray's sick now. George told me. He'd been up in New York to visit Charlie and Ben at their new gym. Ray came by sometimes, they said. He's sick now, they said. But the new gym's gorgeous. In a situation like mine, you hold onto anything positive. The gym is gorgeous. George brought me pictures... it's all chrome. Hardwood floors, bright lights, blue mats. A ring like Killian's had, and four punching bags. Everlast, no less. Never say Charlie didn't know the best.

George was also the one who showed me the Obits yesterday. In a thousand years, I never would have known that was his mom. Back in the seventies, I was so angry at all of those parents... all of the ones who didn't understand... who threw their sons out... who couldn't impart the knowledge of life to their children. I was so angry at them... and I wanted to take care of their sons, to teach them... to let them know that there was more to life than parents who yelled at them or parents who disinherited them. Because--Christ--there's so much more to life than that. It is possible to be happy, and you shouldn't need parental approval to do that. So I spent many years angry at Ray's mother, George's father, Charlie's parents, Ben's parents, Kyle's mother, Jordy's mother... all of them. And never in a thousand years would I have known that was Ray's mom. Never. But I'm through being angry at them. I'm tired of it. I spent too much energy being angry at people I never knew.

She never knew I was angry at her. Hell, she probably never knew I even existed. But it's like I want to apologize. Like my anger killed her or something. I know it's not true, but that's the way I feel... like I took her son from her and killed her.

God... Ray's forty. He's older than forty. I haven't seen the kid in twenty years almost. And he's sick. The boys aren't supposed to be sick--this was never corruption. This was never supposed to happen. Sure, Johnny and Kimbo and Petie... yeah, they could get sick... but the boys... the kids... no. We protected them. We never did wrong by them--they're not supposed to be the ones dying. Like you're not supposed to outlive your children... I'm not supposed to outlive Ray. But Christ, man... he's a fighter. I don't mean a boxer--I mean a real fighter. Jesus, he's lived with this thing for a few years... that's some fight. That's bigger than Marco for him. You wanna talk about David's Goliath... you talk about Ray and this disease. Christ. I don't think he means to die.

Ray... you're fighting the good fight.

*************************

Raul

We go by train. Everett holds my hand and has given me the window seat. I am grateful. There is something in the landscape here that reminds me of home, and even though I haven't seen that home since I was a boy, I am comforted by the sight. I feel myself shaking. I hope Everett does not notice. I don't want him to think that I am afraid. I am not afraid. I am, however, nervous. With Everett, language doesn't matter. I don't feel embarrassed trying to talk with him. Other people, however, unnerve me. I always fear that they laugh at me. Also, this is like meeting his family. I still remember the first time a boy brought me home to meet his family. His father was so mad that he beat us both. What if Everett's family doesn't like me?

I met Everett in a bookstore. He saw me trying to read the new John Grisham novel. When he realized I didn't understand most of the words, he came over and asked how long I'd been a fan of John Grisham. I told him that when I was sixteen, I saw "The Client" for the first time and vowed to read as many Grishams as I could. I like law. Everett told me that he used to work as a docket clerk. We started talking and really hit it off. That night, we went back to his apartment, and he read the first two chapters of "The Partner" to me, translating as best he could into Spanish. I wanted to kiss him forever.

We have been together only a week, but it's something that feels right to me. I'm not with him out of pity. I want to take care of him. He is sick. I want to nurse him. I think I could love him.

He cried when his cousin called. I was there that night, cooking dinner. I heard him crying in the bedroom, but I didn't tell him. He came into the kitchen moments later and said, "I have to go to Baltimore." I said, "I will go with you." He just looked at me. Maybe he didn't believe me, or maybe he thought I couldn't understand. "I will go with you," I said again. He came to me and hugged me. I tried to keep him from crying. The rice burned a little.

If I had not been there, he might have gone without me. He might not have told me that he was leaving. I might have called and thought he was avoiding me. I might have been angry at him. I am lucky I was there that night.

Everett is very careful with me. He thinks everyone is scared of the sickness. He's probably right. But I don't care. He told me no one had kissed him in months because they were all afraid. Everett is very honest and thoughtful: he tells all of his dates from the start. He's not afraid of their reactions. But I only want to hold him and protect him. I am not afraid to kiss him. I know I can't get sick from a kiss or from holding hands. I think of this as I glance at his hand entwined with mine.

Everett has fallen asleep again. Last night, he didn't sleep at all. We lay in bed and he read to me for a while. But he couldn't sleep, so he got up and paced all night. His pacing kept me awake for a while, and I fell asleep watching his body as he moved in the moonlight.

He has leant me a suit for tomorrow. I am a bit shorter than he is, so the suit is a little large, but we don't think anyone will notice. I hope no one will notice. I want to blend in. I am afraid of meeting the people who will be there. And this funeral will be my first and only introduction to Everett's mother. I am nervous. I don't want her to disapprove.

I haven't told Everett about how nervous I am. I don't want him to think I am scared or that I regret coming. I don't regret coming. I want to be there for him. I am grateful that he let me come. I feel blessed to have Everett in my life. I hope I can feel the same about his family.

I look at Everett as he sleeps and study him. I love his nose. I love his ears. I want to kiss them, but I don't want to wake him. I begin to wonder how I could have feared meeting his family. His mother can't pass judgment on me anymore. Neither can his father. And there's no one there to strike us when we walk through the door. And I can't help thinking that Everett had to learn his manners somewhere. And anyone related to Everett must be an angel themselves.

Mrs. Alderman, I'm pleased to meet you.