Book 2: The Return Home
by Rick Beck
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Gardner Rust
© OLYMPIA50 2015 all rights reserved
Yes, Billie Joe has come home. Getting off the street turns out to be easier than getting the street off of him. He has to learn to live with rules and schedules again, but that's the least of his troubles.
Billie Joe's enemies find out he's being tested for AIDS. The word is out.
The people Billie Joe has avoided, because they'd been found out, turn out to be his only friends. Billie Joe went in search of what it means to be gay. When he returns home he finds out what it's like to be labeled gay at school.
He also learns that there is strength standing together against the hatred.
The Return Home
When the cab rolled to a stop, I stared up the walkway at the house I'd left in June, not knowing if I'd ever see it again. It wasn't exactly the vision I had of my eventual return. My father was out beside the cab paying the driver as I slid off the seat and onto my feet. It looked quiet but I knew just behind the front door lay the same craziness I'd left months before. I had so wanted to leave it for good or at least until I was an adult and better able to deal with the people that lived inside my house.
I was back and it wasn't the triumphant return I had dreamed it would be. The idea I'd find a gay community and they'd take me in to finish growing up with people like me wasn't the way it happened, and now I was home no longer knowing what I expected to find. There was no welcoming community where I finished growing up. I had to come home to finish growing up and decided what I wanted to be.
I could have run in the airport, but it was already too late by then. I'd surrendered, acquiesced, raised the white flag and admitted defeat, after finding myself unprepared to spend my life on the street, even in the friendlier territory of San Francisco. It was no place for a kid, and it was no place for me. Home was no bargain, but I would survive here, and that might not have been true on the street where I would need to sell my soul to survive. I was tougher and a little wiser, and that wasn't bad. I'd need to be tough to finish high school, but I didn't know how tough at the time.
It was a different kind of safe at home. I would take safety and a steady diet in trade for the same soul I would sell for a meal a few days before. Life was a tradeoff and Billie Joe had come home.
There was a difference now. I knew what went on inside my house was craziness. Before, I'd been made to believe it was I that was crazy. I was no longer the naïve child, unaware of the ways of the world. I'd lived on my own for the first time. Admittedly, my living had been on the ragged edge of self-destruction much of the time, but I had lived in the real world on my terms and by my own resourcefulness. No one had done it for me, though I'd found help when I needed it. No one had held my hand or tucked me in at night, except when I said they could. I'd been down in the dirt living on my own terms, or at least on the terms I had been willing to accept.
If all else failed I could return to the streets. This house and these people would never have the power over me they once had, and that was the victory. I was no longer afraid of my father and when he hit me, I would simply stare into his angry eyes, letting him know there was no fear. My mother would never control me the way she once could. It certainly wouldn't please them that their little boy had grown up tough, but their little boy was home, and they could tell all their friends, "Our little boy is home."
I let my father go first and he held the door open for me, so I'd be the first one into the house.
"Billie Joe. Billie Joe," mother said, saying the words over and over like some mantra she'd practiced for such an occasion as this.
"Hi, mom. How's it hangin'?" I said, brushing past the long awaited hug as though I wasn't aware she wanted to touch me, to finally hold her little boy lost.
I wasn't ready to be touched by this side of the world. I would need to learn to be touched again. My father touched me with the back of his hand, but being struck was far more agreeable to me than being hugged. I did not feel like being hugged, and so Independence Day for one was Memorial Day for others.
I dropped my bag in the center of the living room and did a pirouette, amazed at how my house had shrunk in my absence. I felt bigger and tougher and closed in by the oppressive surroundings.
"What? What did he say to me, dear?" mother said, acting confused by the nature of my greeting.
"Nothing, mom. How are you? Love the hair. My favorite blouse. You look wonderful, mother," I gushed.
"Oh do I? I'm Fine. You look...."
"Older. I am older. It's a constant struggle with the clock, mom," I said, like it should make a difference.
"I know that. I'm you're mother," she said, unsure of what we were talking about.
"You are. I thought I recognized you. Of course you're my mother. Why do you think I called you, mom, mom?"
We walked through the living room and my mother hugging herself next to my arm, still looking for something I couldn't give her as long as my father stalked us. It was as though I was some sort of traveling salesman he wasn't about to trust alone with his wife. I felt like I was on speed or mescaline. I felt lighter than air.
"Are you hungry, Billie Joe?" she asked.
"No, mom. Not even."
"I fixed your favorites. Tacos and burritos with that special sauce you like so much and there's A&W Root Beer in the fridge. I bought a gallon for you. I know how much you like it. There's your favorite apple-sauce cookies and Twinkies for later on. Dad got some Butterscotch Ice Cream, didn't you, father?"
"Yeah, of course he's hungry," my father said. "He didn't eat on the plane. He hasn't eaten since this morning. He's hungry."
"I said I wasn't hungry, damn it. I'm not hungry. I should know if I'm hungry or not," I said, ranting like he'd dare to question my integrity in front of my own mother.
"Look young man, you'll show your mother some respect. I don't know how you've been living, but here you'll live by our rules."
"Don't raise your voice, dear. He's not hungry, he said. He's tired. He's excited about being home, aren't you, Billie Joe? Let's not yell at each other for one night."
Mother apologized for everyone everywhere as she tried to keep peace in the only world she knew. For today I'd be right on everything I said as far as she was concerned. Tomorrow would be another day. I was tired. I was angry. I knew why I was tired but I didn't know why I felt like a ticking time bomb. I wanted to just get to my room where I'd be left alone from the constant attention. I'd be able to calm down once I got some rest and decompressed from my months away. I needed to make the best of it and swallow my pride. Billie Joe was home.
"I'll have a taco and then I want to lie down, mother," I compromised. "I can eat when I get up. Unless you plan to eat it all yourself, mom."
"No, of course I won't. I don't even like tacos. There's plenty even if we invited everyone over. I can make more anyway. I bought plenty of fixings, Billie Joe. You don't need to eat if you don't want. Your father's just tired. You know how grumpy he is when he's tired. Upset. It hasn't been easy on him, you know. Not knowing. You could have let us know, Billie Joe. We are your parents. We love you," she said.
"I know, mom," I said, kissing her forehead.
"I'm sorry. I mean we can talk about all of this later on, can't we? You're tired and you want a taco. I'll fix it for you right away."
"I know, mom. I could have, but I didn't, and it's over and I'm home, okay? Let's all have tacos and rejoice. And some Root Beer. Let's all have a frosty mug of Root Beer, mom. You know it's about my most favorite thing in the whole world."
"I think it is, Billie Joe," she said, buying into it.
My father had already started to ignore my presence as he always had. He didn't waste his time calling me down for my attitude. You'd never have known he'd just flown half way across the country to fetch me. He walked past me not looking at me as he went to change his clothes. I ate one taco off the plate that contained a dozen, and I took another to my room along with my Root Beer.
As I opened the door there was a banner at the foot of my bed that read, "Welcome Home Billie Joe." There were balloons like you'd give a kid. Most of them said happy birthday. The biggest, most purple one had the word LOVE written on it, and I thought of Carl and the eight days of love we shared before he flew off to Japan.
I threw myself onto my bed, holding the taco safely up in the air. I was home. It was familiar and I smiled. I tried to ignore their yelling at each other. Nothing ever changed in paradise. My father would be calling me a worthless no good-for-nothing punk and my mother would be saying I was just tired, excited, crazy, foolish, insane, suffering from melancholia, or some malady that might account for the likes of me being born to such a normal couple.
I'd gone three months without people needing to yell to make their point. That's not to say I wasn't assaulted, chased, and nearly arrested. I'd take yelling over that. I'd been home eight minutes and World War III was on. I wondered if they'd been yelling at each other the entire time I was gone.
As I closed my eyes to sleep, I was still on the streets of San Francisco. My body had been taken off the streets but my brain was still there. I couldn't help but see Ty and the boys I'd left behind. I felt like a traitor. I'd gone home when none of them could. I would be warm, well fed, comfortable, and safe when they weren't. We'd picked through garbage to stay alive, we'd sold our bodies for food, and they were still out there.
How did they get out there? I knew how I came to be on the street, but only Ty told me about being thrown out of his house. I'd both elected to be out there and I'd elected to go home. It seemed wrong for me to be the only one to get a reprieve. Life had never seemed quite so unfair as it did at the moments I awoke that first night back home.
I went downstairs and refilled my glass with A&W. It was cold and I rolled the glass across my face. The house was hot and I felt like I couldn't breathe. I went back upstairs and lay awake and thought about what was ahead of me. Neither the view forward nor the view back had me doing back flips, until I thought of Carl. I reached into my bag for the bracelet and his picture. He was the reason I had to make it at home until he returned. I would be at the gate waiting for him as I promised. Taking out my pen and a sheet of paper, I began to write. Dear Carl….
I fell asleep wearing the bracelet and holding his picture. The faces of the boys I left behind stayed out of sight.
The days that followed were no less complicated than my first day at home. My mother had become determined to get everything back to the way it was before her "baby" ran away from home. She now referred to it as "going off". When she was angry with me, it became "going off to Lord knows where."
Only the Lord couldn't have known where I was, or he'd have done something about getting us off the street. There was only one Lord on that street. He was the strongest boy with the most ingenuity. He saw into the shadows and kept you safe in the night, the long terrifying night. He taught you to live them one night at a time.
I spent a lot of time alone in my room. Ralphie was the only real friend I'd had and Ralphie was gone. I realized that was part of why I had to leave home. As long as I had been on the road, I rarely thought about him, but everything in my room and in town was a reminder that my best friend no longer traveled with me.
There were no visits to his house or visits from him to mine. I never realized how my life had been so filled with my best friend until I had to face the fact he would never come over again. At times those first few days, when I had let my guard down, I'd hear someone at the door and I'd leap up thinking it was him. He was always at the door. When I caught myself, I realized it wasn't him at all. Those were the worst times.
The start of my senior year in high school was inauspicious. A note had come to the house that I needed to report to Mr. Burgess in the vice-principal's office. I was late starting, but that wasn't why he requested my visit. I stopped at the big front doors and ran my finger down the list to find my homeroom assignment. It would be with my senior English teacher and I knew her and the location of her room. I ran my finger further down the page to see where Ralphie would have been for homeroom. Mr. Prinkney's room is in the same hallway as Mrs. Smith's.
I went to sit in the office, after I told the girl at the counter who I was and why I was there. A couple of the students discussed my presence, giggling behind their hands as they watched me sit. I knew I'd need to accept their reaction to me without temper tantrums. I would be watched for any sign of dysfunction. The anger that raged inside me would need to be held under control. I would be watched and I couldn't afford to blow up or act like I might.
Mr. Burgess returned to the office after making sure there were no malingerers in the hallways. He waited until he opened the door to his office to signal for me to follow. The two students behind the counter giggled some more. I smiled and winked, which got me an unexpectedly loud titter.
"If you two don't have something better to do I can assign you to emptying waste baskets for the rest of the morning," Mr. Burgess snapped after I'd entered his office.
"Sit," he said, looking at his morning messages that were at the corner of his desk.
"You've been home a couple of days. How is that going?"
"Oh, fine," I said, wasting a really nice smile.
"You gave your folks a bit of a scare, you know, but that's beside the point. You know school started last week. I'm afraid your electives will need to come from what's left. Most classes are filled the first week. I do have a list you can look over," he said, handing me a paper from the top drawer of his desk. "You'll need to select five. All you need to graduate is English and three additional credits. You already have the required math and science credits to graduate. You can take it home and get back to me on what classes you want."
"No," I said. "Psychology I, Drama, Speech, gym, and a study hall if that's okay."
"Yes, those will get you the credits you need."
"How about English Lit? Instead of study hall, put me down for English Literature. I can study at home."
"That's very good. I'm surprised you want to take on so much. You do realize drama requires your participation after school when they prepare for the senior play? That can be quite a bit of hard work after school."
"That's fine," I said, wanting to keep myself busy.
"If there's any trouble come see me. I'm here to help you, Billie Joe. I'm not the enemy. My door is open to you even if you just want to talk."
"Is that all?" I asked.
"No, it's not that easy. You need to take an AIDS test before you can attend classes. There are people who would feel a lot easier if they know you aren't infected with HIV. Your parents have agreed that you would be tested this afternoon. The results will be confidential and it will cover us if someone complains about your return to school."
"I've only missed four days," I said.
"Oh, it's not about how many days, it's about where you were. This will protect you from the gossip. We're looking for a way to keep everyone happy.
"They'll give you a preliminary reading of negative or positive for the virus. That's all I'm asking you for."
"What if I got it?" I asked, knowing they couldn't keep me out of school even if I did.
"Let's hope it comes back negative. There will be a lot less pressure on all of us if you test negative. Regardless, I'll do what I can to make your senior year as free of complications as possible."
"Yes, sir," I agreed.
"I need to ask you about Ralph. I know you two were close. Other teachers are concerned. You aren't feeling like you might do injury to yourself?"
"No, sir," I laughed, shaking my head. "I'm not going to off myself."
"You know you can come to me with anything that is bothering you? I want to know if any students give you trouble. I won't stand for it. If you feel like you might want to hurt yourself come and talk to me. We'll sort out whatever is eating at you. I'm here to help, Billie Joe. That's all I have for you."
"Yes, sir," I said. "I can come to school in the morning if I get the test today?"
"Yes! I'll leave your schedule at the counter once I've verified the classes you've selected are available."
I left the office feeling optimistic. The classes all seemed fine to me and I wanted to keep myself busy. It would make the time go faster.
I was waiting at the clinic at 1:00 p.m. My doctor's appointment was at 2:00. It was confidential and no one but the principal and vice-principal knew I was testing for the AIDS. My family doctor showed up to supervise the test. He was my father's friend and everything was hush hush as he stood by and watched the nurse take my blood. She handed him the glass tube of blood and left the room. Dr. Crane marked a six digit number on it and took it with him while I sat in the room alone.
On the street there were no options. AIDS was the price of doing business. It wasn't so much feared as accepted as the price you'd eventually pay if you were healthy and attractive, or very very young. You couldn't have any idea what it meant until you were sick with it. You only got tested after you were sick. I thought of Harvey and how sickly he looked. I remembered Walt. He was skin and bone and looked sick, but then, I thought of Ty. He was muscular, handsome, and there was no way to know he had the AIDS if he hadn't told me.
I realized you couldn't tell by looks alone. I felt healthy and that was important, but I wasn't sure I didn't have it. I was most bothered by the idea of having it, while I stayed with Ty at Walt's. Walt was a constant reminder of how it could end if you got sick. He made me nervous, because you could see his suffering. I did not want to suffer. I wondered if Ralphie suffered before he killed himself? You can't always see pain."
The nurse who'd drawn my blood returned to tell me she needed the room and I was to wait near the nurses' station and I'd be called with the results of the test. This left me feeling less than protected as the nurse escorted me to a seat in the waiting room.
It was my mother's best friend who busted me. I saw Marina Phelps standing next to the nurses' station after I sat down.
A few minutes later she had the nurse that drew my blood cornered as she looked at me while talking to her. Mrs. Phelps was a nurse and so being at the nurse's station wasn't all that big a surprise. She didn't have anything to say to me, but I knew she'd seen me when she passed the waiting area.
Since she was my mother's best friend, I imagined she knew about my unexplained absence, and my mother would have explained it thoroughly while forgiving me the entire time for putting her through hell. Marina would have been all ears.
My mother forgave everyone all the time. That meant Marina likely knew a lot more than anyone else. My mother had a propensity to talk a lot more than she needed, especially when she was upset, or drinking, or both.
Marina was a busybody. I never liked her any more than I liked most of my parents' friends. When they called my name a few minutes later, I was directed back to where I found Dr. Crane.
"You are feeling okay?"
"Any swelling? Stinging when you urinate? Any discharge down there?"
"I think you're fine. We'll send the blood out for a complete analysis but all the preliminary signs tell me you are negative. I'll need to do this test again in two or three months and one more six months from now. These tests are precautionary to make certain. I'll check in with your dad, when it's time to test again. I've been told to give the result as negative to Mr. Burgess at your school. Is that your understanding?"
"I'd avoid sexual contact with anyone for the time being. Until we have the complete results back there is some risk."
Once again Marina was watching me as I went back through the clinic to leave. I pretended not to notice.
My bike seemed a lot smaller than I remembered, but everything did from my house, to the school, to the town where I lived. I could still get lost riding my bike. Many times I'd found myself peddling along a strange area with no idea of how I got there. It was no different on this day.
My mind was forever racing along from one subject to another. Today I remembered all the kids from San Francisco as I rode home. I remembered our conversations and the days we roamed around looking for something to eat or looking for something other than ourselves we could sell to make money enough to get something really good to eat. I remembered I was suspicious of everyone but the boys I ran around with.
I was several miles beyond my house when I turned around to go home the second time. How many of them had it? Who was still there and where had the rest of them gone. Did any of them remember the awkward kid that seemed so out of place among them? Who was I? Why didn't I belong anywhere?
I missed Ralphie. We always rode our bikes together, but now I road mine alone. I was still angry with him. I didn't think I still hated him but I wasn't ready to forgive him for leaving me. My life was more difficult without him.
I had stopped next to a curb and I was just sitting there like a dope as kids passed me laughing and enjoying the nice day around them. I recovered my sense of direction and looked for the easiest way home. I wondered if I could simply ride away from my life? It seemed like I could that day but my brain relearned a partial focus by the time I got home.
I beat my father home by half an hour. We sat together at the dinner table and I asked for each item I wanted politely.
"Please may I have the potatoes?"
My mother smiled remembering her polite little boy from before. I excused myself when I was done and thanked her for a nice dinner. She continued smiling and let herself believe her little boy was home.
That was the night I cried most of the night. The pain came from someplace deep inside me. It was a throbbing aching affair. It wasn't about testing negative for the AIDS. It wasn't because I faced a rough road ahead. There was no good reason for the tears. I could have died on those streets but I didn't cry about it. The streets were hard but fair. You knew what was ahead of you each day. If you got enough to eat it was a good day, a very good day.
I'd never really cried over Ralphie. My anger and hatred over what he'd done protected me from the feelings that came with losing my best friend, but then, my life had been about escaping his memory and all the things that reminded me of him. I dreamed of going to a place where I could be accepted as is. What I'd found was people too fond of a party. I was as invisible to them as I was at home.
I was home and it was time to cry for my friend. Everything I did and every place I went reminded me of him. There was no way I could avoid my feelings, but my anger scared me. I could not let it get out of hand. It was time to cry, not so much for him, as for the void he left me with. I'd deal with the anger at another time. Ralphie was the only person I'd ever confided in about the real me. The one thing I could have told him that might have saved his life, "Ralphie, I'm gay."
I hadn't said it and he died not knowing it. He died thinking he was alone. He never told me he was gay for the same reason I never told him I was. The risk was too great. Little had I known the risk of remaining silent was even greater. Ralphie was dead, and I was alone, and I cried.
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