Book 1: Billie Joe's Journey
by Rick Beck
The plane shuddered, catching my attention as the weight lifted off the landing gear, making us airborne. It was my first jet plane ride, and I watched the ground move away from us at a rapid speed. Once I was convinced we would stay in the air I went back to digging in my bag for the notebook that was still tucked safely under the protective reinforcement flap at the bottom.
Settling into my seat, I opened it and went to the letter I'd started writing to Carl only about a month earlier. Where to start? What do I tell him and what do I save for later? What will he understand, and what will he hate to hear? I wouldn't lie to him, but while he was still over there it wasn't a good time to tell all. If we were going to have a chance, it would be necessary to get to know him better. That would be where I started. I went to a fresh page and started a new letter with the current date. I explained that I'd been separated from my belongings and notebook, but that I was okay and I had gotten everything back. What else could I tell him that would be worth talking about?
My father and I had resumed our usual relationship. He said nothing to me after getting into the car at the diner and starting toward the airport, and I responded in kind. We avoided looking at each other, and I was sure he'd thought over what had taken place that day, just as I had. I followed him into the car rental place office uninvited, and then followed him through the airport to the boarding gate. If I didn't know better I'd swear he was hoping I'd get lost or run. He never looked once to see if I was still behind him, but I was. I was going home whether he wanted it or not. I was going home and I would finish school. The rest had to take care of itself.
When we got on the plane, he led the way and stood in the aisle, indicating by stance and slight body movements that I should take the inside seat. We'd always had a silent way of communicating. I'm sure many fathers and sons do.
I'd only written a paragraph telling Carl I was fine, or thought I was fine, or hoped I was fine, but I knew I didn't want to talk to him about it, so I stopped there. I turned a few pages and at the top of another clean page I wrote:
Billie Joe's Journal
I decided that I would write about the most important things that had taken place during my summer of misadventures. Carl came first and beside his name I put a heart with an arrow through it. I wrote C L's B in the middle of the heart. I crossed it out and reached for the bracelet that was up on my elbow. I drew a second heart and wrote inside it, B L's C.
Raymond. I wrote about Raymond and what a jerk he worked at being, and how confusing it was to know someone like him, especially then, at the earliest stages of my awakening. So, I just described him, leaving out the more graphic details, although they were still clear in my mind.
I wrote about Kyle and Ingmar, and tried very hard to show them accurately in words on the paper. I couldn't write any more than the basics then, but in my mind I still saw them, too, as clearly as if we had parted that morning. Raymond made me feel warm in my pants, but Ingmar and Kyle made me feel warm in my heart.
I could no longer picture the villain on the highway. I knew he looked like the terror that sometimes chased me inside my dreams, but I never again saw his face. It's one of those things I had probably blocked out in order to have peace. He was always there in the dark, but way back in the shadows.
Earl was harder to write about. There seemed to be but a single dimension that concerned me, and those were the details I wouldn't try to put in words on the plane. It was something that would be left to the quiet and privacy of my room, for those times when I needed no more than a little relief. Earl would always have a kind of sexual power over me, but that's all it was.
Harvey was easy, and I grouped him with Dennis and John. I knew Dennis and John weren't bad people. They simply took advantage of a situation. Once I was on the street, I understood better why Harvey didn't care or mind them using his body. When you are alone out there and someone wants you for anything, that gives you a certain amount of power. I thought I could relate to what Harvey felt sandwiched between the two middle-aged men while I watched through the crack in the door. I even thought I understood his need to blow the money on pizza. Funny how clear things get after you have some experience with the bottoms of barrels. Harvey wasn't a bad kid, but I could never have truly liked him. The first images of Ty, Sharon, Gene, Donnie, Bryce and Gil, and of Tony and Tim were all centered around the first time I went to the party hotel. I could describe them physically, but I saw each of them sexually every time I closed my eyes. These images never ceased to arouse me and when aroused I found I was repulsed not by the images but by my erection. Still I knew if I was ever faced with the scene inside the hotel again, I'd be in the middle of the action a lot sooner. Even knowing what I now knew, and even considering the danger, it wouldn't stop me from becoming part of it inside of that time and that reality. There is a power inside the group that doesn't exist for us anywhere else. There is power in breaking all the rules and flirting with death.
I was surprised to look down on the tops of clouds. The sky was a vivid blue up that high. I watched out the window for a time, not thinking about anything. I went back to writing to Carl. I told him I was on my way home, and that my father and I had had a rather stormy reunion, but things seemed to be going back to normal. Each time I started writing to Carl, I stopped after only a sentence or two.
I wasn't looking forward to getting home and facing my mother, but she'd be easy compared to my father. The question would be whether or not he'd tell her about AIDS or just make sure I got the testing done. It hadn't been mentioned, and I assumed my mother already knew my questionable status.
School would be tough. There was no doubt my exploits would be known through the kids of my parents' friends. Nothing stayed secret too long among them. I don't know if they'd hear something about me running off for the same reason Ralphie offed himself, or if they'd just say Ralphie's death so upset me that I sort of went off the deep end. I wasn't about to go back to pretending I was straight. That time had passed me by. I'd have to make a stand or everything I'd tried to do would be a waste. The point of running off was to become who I was, and to quit hiding from it. What problems this would create were still mysteries, but I suspected my time on the streets of San Francisco would compare in some ways to the ordeal ahead of me.
I was growing up. The question was, had I grown up enough or would I grow up enough to deal with the people who would hate me for what I was? How would I find people that understood or could accept me as I was? What would I have to do to not be alone again? I was better equipped to be alone, but I wanted very much not to be alone, although I knew that mostly I would be alone. Finding people to sit with me and talk to me about my real feelings would be difficult. Finding people that would allow me to be honest would be hard.
I'd find them. It would take patience and work, but I would find them. If I was honest and up front about who I was, there was a much better chance I'd make some friends I could trust or who would at least respect me for my honesty. Maybe there was another gay kid or two that might come to me and let me know I wasn't alone. Maybe I wouldn't be alone. There is always hope.
Once more I found myself staring out into the blue sky. It was darker blue the further east we flew. You could almost see forever above the clouds. I wished I could see all the way until I was eighteen and leaving home. I wished I could see to the next summer and meeting Carl at SeaTac. I wanted to just get there and be there, but there was a lot of time and distance in between me and those events to come. There was a lot of uncertainty. Would Carl still love me? Would he forgive me for what I had done? Would he come back to me in a year and could we start up where we had left off? Could I make it through the year? Could I stay at home without blowing up and running off again?
It had been over two months since the last time I walked into my house. My mother would likely pretend I was with brother John most of that time, but then there would be the questions. They would come at dinner or while I was entering or leaving a room. She'd ask me about this or that, something that was on her mind and a question she could no longer deal with. I'd explain away the question and make her smile. She liked for me to make her smile. My mother and I were very much alike, and that made us very volatile at times, but we always understood one another. We thought we knew how the other thought.
I was not surprised that my mother blamed my father for my leaving. I suspect she would now try to blame Ralphie. He would be convenient, and we'd have talks about it's being okay that it upset me, but that it wasn't okay for me to run off. We wouldn't mention my dirty little secret. I'd be told I should have come to her with my problems so she could help, only I'd never come to her with my problems and she had never helped me in that way. My parents' lives were well ordered and busy, and they really didn't have time to devote to raising a son. It would be hard being home, but not as hard as it had been being on the street. If I could survive the streets I could certainly survive a few more months at home.
I'd learned everything I needed to know while on the street. I learned that the network I was looking for didn't exist. Gay society was no more prepared to deal with gay youth than straight society. Of course the mere mention of the words "underage gay teen" would send waves of fear through many adult gay men. If caught in the company of or assisting same, they were looking at molestation and contributing charges. No one fifteen, sixteen, or seventeen could be gay and ask for assistance without running afoul of the law. We simply had no right to be gay. So we end up with guys who are not supposed to be gay but are, and they end up on the streets with a gay society that would like to help them but can't. There were good intentions and some men who would feed you and give you a place to stay for a time. But always there was the fear that someone would knock on the door, and it would be time for them to pay for their kindness by facing prosecution. That's how so many kids ended up on the street. That's their crack and that's where they fell through.
While straight society refuses to help gay teens, gay society can't help. So we end up with a class of kids too young to be out on their own, but there we are. There is no place we can go. You can't tell people you are gay. That only assures you of getting tossed out again, beaten up, or sent to even worse places.
Plainly and simply, you should not be gay until you are eighteen! That's the way society wants it, and because they want it that way, they aren't about to lift a finger to get the gay teens off the mean streets, away from drugs and sex, and away from the dangers of AIDS. Being on the street virtually assures that sooner or later you will develop intimate relationships with drugs, sex, and dreaded diseases. For far, far too many, the streets are a death sentence.
Being on the way home meant I didn't directly face imminent dangers any longer. Now I was protected. Once more I could live inside the family cocoon. The dangers to me would be subtle and unannounced. The residue of the streets would become an issue. Do I have it, or don't I? Everyone would know about that one. If I do have it everyone will say, "Isn't it a shame!" If I don't have it they'll say, "Isn't he lucky!" I don't know what I'll say.
The issue of AIDS was relatively new to me. The prospect of having it was frightening, but the fear passed quickly. If I do have it I'll deal with it at the time. That's about all there is to that. The damage is done. Should I escape the plague, I will know I was a lucky one, and I hope I have learned enough to avoid it in the future. As for those I left behind me, I couldn't have made it without them. I couldn't have made it without Raymond and his caustic lip, or Ingmar and his gigantic heart. I wouldn't have made it without Gene. I wouldn't have made it without Harvey, and I didn't like Harvey in life, and could like him no more for the way he died. I couldn't have made it without Tim and Tony. I couldn't have made it without Walt. I especially couldn't have made it without Ty. Of all the people that met me and saved me and took care of me, Ty was the only one that truly cared only about me. The rest of us fed off one another, but Ty never asked for anything from me. He was just there, with his heart full of love and compassion. He wanted to help me off the street, and he did. Ty and I would talk a couple of times a month after I arrived home. I think my parents were scared that denying me this contact would drive me back to San Francisco, so they didn't.
Ty usually called me, but a few times I wanted to hear his voice and called him. We discussed how hard it was to walk away from one another. I told him I was really struggling to find a way to leave, and I was so completely drained after spending those weeks in the hotel, I just didn't want to be close to anyone. I needed so much space those last days we were together. I told him I no longer trusted anyone after those weeks on my own. He apologized again for leaving me and then for being so distant the last few days at Walt's, but he told me he loved me and that he knew I had to go home for my own good. He wasn't sure how long he'd be okay, and he didn't want me around him if he got sick. Walt always said hello while he was still alive, and he encouraged Ty and me to talk. He was to die shortly after spring came the following year. Actually, he lived longer than Ty expected. Arrangements were made for Ty to keep the apartment, and he too had started AZT treatments in the months before Walt died.
Ty gave me the rundown on everyone during our phone calls. They never did find Donnie's killer. His brother Jake would serve two years in Leavenworth and be dishonorably discharged. Sharon was found dead in Golden Gate Park. She was fifteen years old and six months pregnant. No one had any idea who the father was. Tony and Tim met a contractor from Santa Rosa. He hired both of them, and they were living in a guest house on his property there. Each morning they all went out to work together. Ty told me that Tim asked Tony to be his lover. He said Tony beamed like a bride when he came up to tell him that. He also announced they had tested negative for the AIDS virus three different times. There was nothing sexual with the man that hired them. They apparently gave him a hand one day when his truck broke down in traffic. He repaid them by giving them a job and a place to live. He was a divorced father of five with plenty of room on his hands. Tony and Tim moved in that evening and went to work the next day. Gene and Bryce both disappeared. Ty thought that they had taken up with each other after Donnie died. Gene was always talking about going down to Los Angeles, and Ty believed that was what they had done. Gene was never the same after Donnie died. As I suspected, he'd probably always be in love with his lost friend. Ty said he only saw him two times after that, and Gene never spoke, just nodded some distant recognition while Bryce carried the conversation.
Ty heard Gil was arrested for dealing drugs. Fred did well in his new foster home and was back in school. He visited Ty from time to time and was talking about going to college. He was in communication with his parents, but there was nothing resolved about his sexuality. They wouldn't let him come home if he was gay. That was the only stipulation they put on him. He never returned home.
I wrote to Earl, and he always ended his letters by saying there was a school up the street and a warm bed always waiting for me. Of all the people I'd spent time with, I thought Earl would be the least likely to see me again. It's not that the time with him wasn't intense. It was. But I think I knew that intensity wasn't worth much without love. Some of our sessions even equaled the peak of passion I found with Carl, but for totally different reasons. I had been exploring and learning, and Earl was one of my professors. His letters were always short and to the point.
When I finally got around to writing Ingmar, he wrote me back a nice letter. He wrote just like he talked, and he told me Kyle was going to school at Stanford, and Raymond was working nearby and they were sharing an apartment. Ingmar was still amazed at this, but he said they really seemed close the last month they were with him. He was happy for Kyle, and even got to where he didn't mind Raymond.
I added all of these facts to my journal as I collected them. Ingmar and I wrote each other, but he mostly sent me a postcard from each town he spent time in. He was very happy I'd decided to go home. He told me I had a job if I ever needed it. I guess he was my favorite character of all the ones I had met that summer of my sixteenth year. Ingmar was about as real and good as people get.
Just one more footnote. Todd continues to help kids get off the streets. He visits Ty on a regular basis and fixed him up with Jason, another guy with AIDS who needed a place to live. He was over twenty one and fairly healthy. Ty said he and Jason get along well. He said they could be brothers except Jason had the misfortune to be born white.
The party hotel burnt down right after the first of the year. No one was home.
The trip home was mostly uneventful. I remember my father scooted his legs to the side to let me out to piss after we left Salt Lake City. He never moved his face from the magazine he'd brought along. As I wandered back to the bathroom one of the stewards started watching me. When I came out he stood right next to the door and gave me the biggest smile, and then I saw his eyes do a quick inventory. I giggled at the thought that I knew what he wanted. I remembered Raymond saying, "They all want it." That's what I thought, but he was cute and not much older than I was. He was still watching me when my father scooted his legs out to let me into our row again, oblivious to his son's flirtation.
Flying eight miles in the sky is relaxing. Each time I looked out the window into the darkening sky, my eyes grew heavier. I wrote my thoughts and impressions down as they came to me. I did my best to recapture some essence of each individual I wanted to remember. I guess writing is hard work because I ended up falling asleep after we left Kansas City, the next-to-last stop on our journey home.
I don't remember the last leg of the trip or the landing. I simply drifted off as though all my cares and problems had been left behind. I remember thinking hazily, I'd survived the streets and now I'd need to find a way to survive at home.
Book II of Billie Joe's Journals
The Return Home
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