Book 2: The Return Home

by Rick Beck

Chapter 3

Simon Betts

Life at home went back to the way it was before I took the summer off. I didn't let the little stuff bother me anymore. If I got into it with my father, I just went to my room. He no longer forced me to listen to his tirades. Whenever we had a run in, he always backed down a lot earlier than previously. Maybe I was getting older and therefore deserved more room. I suspected it had more to do with my leaving home again and his not wanting to deal with my mother blaming him if I did leave again.

I don't know if he considered his outbursts normal or called for, but I didn't. If you really wanted something from someone or if there was a communication problem, you need only sit down and talk about it. My father and I never sat down to talk. He came to yell and complain when something I'd done didn't live up to his standards. I no longer cared about his standards and he knew it. This short circuited his anger when he realized his rants were futile.

Mother went along as always being the peace maker. For her it was about keeping me at home and she'd take my side and ply me with baked goods and desserts when my father was out. It wasn't that much different from what I grew up with and I tried to do nothing to feed my father's disapproval rating.

It was easiest to retire to my room at the first possible opportunity and leave them to fight it out. This gave me more time to spend on my studies to keep my grades up. I wouldn't expect to find any happiness until school was behind me. I was in survival mode and expected no assistance.

The day after I was ambushed in gym class I got two notes. One note said I should report to drama class instead of gym class. How fortuitous was that. My life was drama and it made me laugh although the students around me saw nothing funny. The second note said that I was to report to Mr. Lindsey in his office third period. Mr. Lindsey being my former gym teacher, I didn't like the sound of it. I smelled a lecture coming about standing up like a man. 'Go out and buy yourself a forty-five and blow the assholes brains out, Walker.'

Ah, nice plan, but I was a lover and not a blower-out of brains. I didn't know what it meant but I knew I should see him before I ended up bringing my drama to the drama class when he came to ask why the hell I hadn't reported to him as ordered.

His door was open when I got there.

"Shut the door and sit down," Mr. Lindsey said, looking at some papers.

I sat waiting for his attention.

"You're withdrawing from gym?" he asked, not wasting any time.

"The VP's idea," I said.

"I'm sorry to hear that, Walker. You know that you can't let him beat you down without responding. You're handing Phelps a victory even if he did get suspended. That kind always sees victory in the fact you didn't retaliate. He'll see your withdrawing in that light."

"I don't care about him," I said. "Mr. Burgess asked me to drop gym class and that's what I did. He's the only one between me and being expelled."

I leaned back in the chair and separated the blinds that covered the windows. It gave me a view of the floor of the gym.

"That's how you guys know whenever we're screwing around? Neat."

"Walker, I want you to know that if you continue to have trouble with Phelps, I want to know about it. I'd have been able to convince him to think twice before he went after someone in my class again, but with you leaving it will make it a bit more difficult. He'll see it as a win. He'll see it as having you on the run. I can't protect you if you aren't here."

"Why would you want to protect me? The halls are a lonely place."

"There are certain things in this world that need changing. One of them is guys like Phelps going after guys like you."

"Guys like me?" I repeated with a question.

"There is right and there is wrong. Phelps is wrong and anything that encourages him is wrong. When guys like me see a guy like him, we wait for a chance to make them right. You aren't alone in life, son. I want you to remember that if you have any more trouble. My door is always open to you if you want to talk or if you have a problem. That's it. Go on to whatever class you have to replace this one. Here's a note to give to your teacher."

"Drama," I said as I stood up.

"Something creative? That's probably better for you than gym anyway"

"We don't all sing show tunes," I said for an exit line, sensing he meant no harm..

"Some of us do," Mr. Lindsey said, smiling as I looked back in reaction to the comment.

It wasn't what I expected and what he'd said might have meant something and might have meant nothing. There was no way for me to know, except now I had two teachers who expected me to come to them with my problems. It wasn't likely, but the knowledge made my life easier. I wasn't completely alone.

Some of the kids in my third period drama class were in my speech class. I handed Mr. Elliott the note from Mr. Lindsey. He tossed it on his desk and never looked at it. He went on with what he was saying when I entered.

His discussion was on what senior play we'd decide to perform. There were a number of selections that every senior class considered high drama. I would work back stage and do whatever labor was required to get the scenery up and running. The bell rang and I was ready for lunch.

"Mr. Walker, might I have a word with you?"

I stopped in the middle of my charge for the door and sat down in front of his desk.

"Mr. Walker, I'm bending over backwards so you can slip out of gym class. Don't be late again or you'll have a study hall in place of a second dose of drama. Now, you are taking two spots up in my class. That means I will expect twice the work. When everyone else is ready to leave for home, you'll still owe me time. That means I don't want any complaints if I need something done and you're the guy who has to give me extra time to complete a project. Are we on the same page?"

"Yes, sir, not a problem. My parents might want an explanation, but you won't get any complaints from me. I'm looking forward to it," I said, stretching the truth a bit.

"You ever done any acting?" he asked.

"No, sir, I'll do better backstage."

"So you aren't giving me some kind of snow job?"

"No, sir."

"Okay, just so we understand one another. Be on time tomorrow."

"Yes, sir," I said, making my getaway.

I didn't sense Mr. Elliot was a bad guy, although if he asked, why drama, the answer would have failed me. I had little interest in stage shows and standing out in a crowd, but there was something fascinating about creating a different world in the middle of this one.

There were more elements than I could conceive but the idea of escaping real life, even for a few hours a day, seemed pleasant to me. I had nothing against most people I encountered, but I felt close to no one. My ability to trust people as I once had was muted. Perhaps if I was around some people I developed some kind of relationship with, it would give me people to trust on some level.

Mr. Burgess, Mr. Lindsey, and Mr. Elliot were all trying to be nice to me, but I didn't trust them with anything. I could talk to them about my feelings or fears. They were men I could be around without feeling pressured, but that wasn't trust. To most of my teachers I was a face in a seat in a room. They did what they did and I did what was expected of me.

When Mr. Burgess gave me the list of available classes, drama and speech jumped off the page. I knew nothing about either, but when stacked up against the other options, these offered some modest amount of freedom. I had a desire to speak well and to be able to work with and around other people, while being part of team that was trying to accomplish something meaningful.

I got the results of my AIDS test back the day I changed classes. There were no signs of any STDs. I took the results up to my room and tucked it into my sock drawer. It was better than I could have expected, but I thought about Walt and Ty. I dialed their number and spread out on my bed.

"Hey, Billie Joe," I said, as soon as Walt answered. "How you doing?"

"About the same, Billie Joe. How are you?"

"Fine. I miss my freedom but I eat regular now. How's Ty?"

"You ask him," he said and I could hear Ty's voice in the background.

"What's up good looking," he said.

"I was just thinking about you. I'm negative. Just got my test results."

"That's great, Billie Joe. I'm so glad for you. I was worried about you."

"Not much to worry about. I'm living the good life."

We talked for about five minutes and then said goodbye. San Francisco seemed so far away after a few weeks at home. But I could still remember Ty and the rest of the boys as if it was yesterday. It was hard to believe I might never see any of them again. I really didn't miss the street or the constant search for food and comfort, but the memories I did have made me determined to stick it out at home until graduation.

The next day in drama class, Simon Betts came in and sat beside me. We were back discussing which play we wanted to perform as the senior play. Simon kept staring at me, but I ignored him. The same names kept coming up. I Do, I Do, Death of a Salesman, and Inherit the Wind.

There were cries that these plays had been done to death and we should consider something new and exciting. Then there was the reality that we were in high school and something new and exciting might not get the approval of the administration.

Then Margie Lanett stood to say, "Inherit the Wind tells a story about a teacher who dared to teach evolution in the nineteen twenties in Tennessee. The play is about the trial."

"We all know what the play's about, Margie. It's ancient history. Let's do something contemporary," Paul Wilson said with gusto.

"There was a similar case just argued in Pennsylvania. The difference was they argued that creationism, now intelligent design, should be taught alongside Darwin's theory of evolution. The argument was they are both theories and deserve equal treatment. How contemporary can it get?"

Inherit the Wind won easily.

"An excellent choice," Mr. Elliot agreed. "I'd have never put those two cases together myself but it does shine a new light on the Scopes trial."

"It's a really good play. The others are simply simple," Simon said to me.

"Oh," I said, glancing at him then glancing away.

The problem with Simon Betts is everyone knew he was gay. While I might be gay, I didn't advertise it. Simon had these deep blue eyes, a delicate pale complexion and lips that made most girls jealous. Simon was on the exact opposite side of the spectrum from George Phelps. I wanted to be somewhere in the middle. Most people might think I was gay, but I didn't give them anything to go on. Simon didn't see it that way.

"You him?" he asked.

"Him who?" I said.

"Billie Joe Walker. You're him. A little older looking perhaps, but you're him."

"You left off the Jr," I said. "I'm a junior. Billie Joe Walker is my father. I'm not my father."

"Sorry, Junior. You got it or not?" he asked as though he expected me to answer.

"What?"

"You know what? Do you have it?"

"Fuck you. Who the hell are you?" I asked in my most indignant voice.

"Simon Betts. I don't care one way or the other. I heard you been tested. Damn, I haven't even been kissed yet."

I knew who he was. That was a good reason to avoid him. Everyone knew Simon and associating with him created certain perceptions. Simon and I might be in the same boat, but we were paddling in different directions. He was always paddling against the current, while I went with it. I felt sorry for him but he'd done fine without my help. I didn't like going it alone but ending up like Simon, seen as a sissy-boy, wasn't possible for me. Simon wasn't able to hide being gay and I had no intention of fighting that battle if avoidable.

The other problem with Simon was the girls who mostly adored him and especially his clothes. He was a lot more at home in the middle of a bunch of girls than he was with boys. It seemed smart to leave well enough alone.

If people wanted to talk there was nothing I could do about it, but I wouldn't give them anything to verify their suspicions. I had more in common with Simon than anyone else, but I didn't want to fight my way through my senior year by keeping company with him. Simon was poison and avoiding him was easy even if it felt wrong. I wasn't his protector. We'd never been friends. Why should I worry about him?

Once again, being gay had me doing things to keep it secret. This was why I left home, and now I was doing things to hide the fact. Getting through my last year of high school depended on me keeping a low profile. It wouldn't be easy.

"I mean, I know I shouldn't ask right out, but there is no polite way to inquire. Hi, I'm Simon Betts. I love peach pie. Do you have AIDS? It doesn't work for me. How about you?"

"I can't imagine why?" I said, trying to ignore him. But I'd already lost track of the class.

"If I don't talk to you about it, I don't talk to anyone. I figure you aren't winning any popularity contests with Phelps spreading rumors all over school about you."

"George Phelps doesn't know what he's talking about and neither do you."

"Have it your own way. I'm as good as it gets as far as companionship is concerned. Don't expect a lot of people to be knocking your door down to get to know you."

"I'll be fine. Thank you for your concern," I said.

"I know you must be discussing the play, gentlemen. I can stop the class and allow you to have the floor if you like," Mr. Elliot offered, before continuing.

"You really aren't out to win any popularity contests," Simon said. "I don't care where you've been or what you've done. I'll still talk to you."

"I don't know how I've survived without you. Why should I tell you about my private life?" I said dismissively.

"Maybe because you've always maintained a low profile. Maybe because your best friend killed himself and left a note. Maybe because there aren't many of us. A couple admit to it. We can either talk to each other or keep our mouth's shut. You look like you can carry on a conversation if you put your mind to it."

"Looks are deceiving."

"You two like to share with the rest of the class? You come late and now you disrupt our discussion. If you don't want to contribute please be quiet enough to allow me to conduct class."

I glared at Simon and he shrugged and smiled before saying, "Sorry about Ralphie. He was okay."

It was no secret that Ralphie and I were best friends. Where you saw one of us you'd see the other. I was mostly alone now. I didn't attempt to interact with anyone. Friendship had proven to be painful. I'd been down a long dark road after Ralphie died, and I hadn't come all the way back yet. I didn't need to complicate my life with Simon.

Simon Betts was a target in elementary school. He was pretty and dressed in brightly colored clothes. The other boys teased him unmercifully, jealous about his uninhibited nature. Ralphie and I had never interceded on his behalf. We were both concerned by the way he was treated but not enough to stick our necks out. It was elementary school where conformity was king and blending in was mandatory, except for Simon Betts who had the admiration of all the girls.

I looked at Simon Betts. He looked harmless. He wasn't very big. He looked at me through lazy blue eyes and studied my face with his chin resting on the backs of his hands which he'd placed on top of the books he'd placed on top of the desk.

"Are you always this pleasant or is it my lucky day? Is it true what they say about him?"

"What's that?" I asked.

"He was gay. That's what I heard. If I'd known he was I would have talked to him. I didn't know and most guys don't want me talking to them for fear of what will be said about them. I know what lonely is, Billie Joe Walker Jr. I'm just saying you aren't alone if you don't want to be."

"Why would you talk to him?" I asked, realizing I was his best friend and I had never talked to him about something that might have saved his life.

"So we don't feel so alone. I mean we get lonely and it hurts. There isn't anyone to talk to about it. I would have told him he could talk to me."

"We talked all the time," I objected, denying he could have done something I couldn't do.

"You didn't talk about what he needed to talk about. If you don't talk about it to someone you can end up like Ralphie. That's all I'm saying to you. If you need to talk I'm a good listener."

"Thanks," I said, not appreciating the offer and not liking to be told it was my fault he was dead.

"I'm not into doing a solo here. You can respond in complete sentences if you like. It won't confuse me."

"How long you been gay?" I asked, realizing I was opening up the conversation, but I couldn't be a total jerk.

"How long? How do I know? All my freaking life is how long. How long? What you want, a number? I got up one morning when I was seven and I decided I might like being ostracized and humiliated for the rest of my life to make life interesting. How long? I am. There is no how long or how. I simply am. It's not a matter of nomenclature. It's biological reality."

"How were you so sure at such an early age? I never thought about it at that age."

"I liked playing with girls, but I wanted to look at boys."

"That's weird."

"I'm not saying it's the same for everyone. That's how I knew."

"It's weird because I never thought about it."

"So sue me for blossoming early. You don't remember me, do you? From elementary school I mean? You were strange then too."

"I was strange? Give me a break."

"I never figured you for gay. Ralphie neither, but he left that note. I think it's easier to admit it than to hide it. For some people hiding it makes their lives miserable and they do what Ralphie did."

"I remember you. You still act funny. Why are you so casual about it?" I asked.

"Not. I just know who I am. You want I should pretend not to be me and then spend the next twenty years on a psychiatric couch trying to straighten it all out? You must excuse the imagery."

"Gentlemen, I would like both of you to read for the Scopes' role. It's not a big roll but it is essential to the play. Maybe that will get you talking to us instead of each other."

"Why do they call it the Scopes' trial if Scopes isn't a central character," I asked, not wanting to face the reason he wanted Simon and me to read for the part.

"The trial, the setting of the play, is about the two lawyers arguing creationism vs. evolution. Scopes himself was a peripheral character. The two lawyers realized they would take center stage at a time when the teaching of evolution was against the law. Once it gained notoriety, it was no longer about Scopes. It was science vs. the Holy Bible."

"Oh," I said as the bell rang.

I intended to beat Simon out of class and make my way to the cafeteria, but he wasn't easy to lose. I decided to get the interview over with and end it today rather than have him hanging around me. He stood behind me in line as we moved past the food selections of the day.

I paid for my food and headed for the empty tables in the far left corner of the lunchroom. By the time I moved my milk and implements off the tray Simon was sitting across from me.

"So why are you so interested in my story?"

"I don't know anyone with the testicles to do what you've done. You've been pointed out to me any number of times in the past couple of weeks. People assume we know each other. I remembered you and Ralphie were the only two boys who didn't pick on me in elementary school. I was always grateful for that."

"Not much point. You caught enough hell," I said. "We should have done more."

"You're crazy. Nothing you could have done would have made any difference, except maybe to make your lives miserable."

"We didn't know anything about anything."

"Some of the girls think we're friends. The guys think we're bonking each other."

"They what?"

"You've got to get inside their heads. They think we're doing it because they know they'd be doing it every chance they got if they were gay. I know, it doesn't make any sense but what does with teenage boys?"

"It's a little different on the street. When you're trying to survive it erases all the lines between who and what you are," I said thoughtfully, knowing it was something I knew all about.

"I figure I can always use one more friend, since I don't have any. Doesn't seem like you're going to have many offers once the rumors finish making the rounds at school."

"How is it everyone knows me?" I said.

"Talk," Simon said. "George Phelps isn't much, but he has a way of spreading his venom about the people he decides to hate."

"What kind of talk is he spreading?" I asked.

"You've been tested for AIDS. That's a deal killer when it comes to making friends. The rest is left to the imagination of the boys he associates with."

"What's to talk about. I had to have the test to get back in school. It don't mean nothing."

"Oh, Billie Joe. Your best friend offs himself because he's gay. You run off and when you come back you're tested for AIDS. It doesn't take much to figure out why?"

"What the hell is it to him or any of his buddies? I don't care what they think."

"What's it like?"

"What?"

"AIDS. Testing. You must be scared. I'm scared talking about it."

"Stop talking about it. I tested negative. Not that it is anyone's business. It made the school happy. My parents agreed to it and I didn't resist."

"You're going to be okay?" he asked with sympathetic concern.

"I've got to get tested up to six months. After that I'm clean. Any time until then I might test positive. Nothing I can do about it now."

"You did something so you could get it?"

"No, it was a virgin birth type thingy. You know, like with J.C. Yeah! I did some stupid stuff. Drugs. Alcohol. Sex. All the biggies. Not my intellectual period. Not that I've had one yet."

"Wow! What was it like?"

"I don't remember most of it. Lots of grunting and groaning. I sweat a lot. Mostly I was high, hungry, and scared. Touching someone, holding them close helps fight the fear. I remember that much."

"Yes, I'd think it would."

"I was scared a lot. This is a piece of cake compared to the street. Don't get on the street if you don't have to. It's dangerous out there."

"I would never be able to live on the street. What were you scared of?"

"I don't know. I was scared I'd die. I was scared I wouldn't die. I didn't know what was going to happen to me. I was out there and there was no one to protect me. I didn't think I'd live through it. Kids younger than me didn't live through it. It's a scary place to be."

"Why didn't you come home?"

"I don't know, Simon. I don't have the answers. I'm a stupid kid. How do I know? I didn't, and then I did. It's easier to keep doing what you know than to change it."

"Then why did you come home?"

"I knew if I didn't, I'd die. Seemed like reason enough. I was out of control totally, but I knew it and some good people helped pull me back from self destructing. Once I realized I could go home, I went home. Because I spent all my time trying get enough to eat and stay safe, I never thought about going home. I went looking for something that didn't exist. Once I realized that, I was ready to go home."

"What did you go looking for?" Simon asked, leaning closer.

I looked around to make certain Simon's ears were the only ears to hear the answer.

"I thought I could find a gay community. There is none. It's a myth. I expected people who know what it is like growing up gay might want to help me. All they wanted was to find a good party with young, hot available guys."

"How'd you know that?"

"I was in San Francisco, Simon. There is no place to go once you're on the street. It's not much different than here. Everyone is too busy to see you or to care about why you are on the street."

"You got guts, Billie Joe. I can tell you that much," Simon said with an admiration for my quest.

"That's the entire story," I said.

"If you need to talk you can talk to me. I'm a good listener and I don't betray a confidence. I'll try to ignore your mouth."

"I don't have much to say. I'm putting in time until I graduate. Then I'm gone for good."

It was the following week near my locker, when I saw James Combs pushing Simon. He was calling him faggot and he just kept shoving him backwards while ten kids stood there watching. I felt it as it came over me. I knew why. Simon had offered me friendship now that I was the outcast. I couldn't stay out of it no matter how easy it would have been to walk away.

James was from the George Phelps school of manners. Fighting was never my first response to bullying, because usually bullies picked on smaller kids and those least likely to respond. I wasn't big but I was street smartened. My three years of Karate came to mind. Ralphie and I were kids and attended classes for self defense. Nothing came to mind as I considered the prospect that James could take offense at my interruption. It wasn't a well thought out plan.

Simon held his books tightly to his body and didn't respond, backing up to keep an arm's length between him and his adversary. It ran through my mind that he should drop all but the biggest book and deliver it to the side of his tormentor's head, but he didn't. I knew I had to take Simon's side because of all the times I'd remained mute as some other bully targeted him for punishment. I wasn't able to keep my distance any longer.

I had it in mind to go over and politely suggest he stop pushing Simon around. It was an uncomplicated plan for a simple minded kind of guy.

"Uh, excuse me, but why don't you pick on someone your own size. James?"

That wasn't meant to suggest that he might think about pushing someone else around or lay me out while he thought over my comment, but that's what he did. I'd been careful to stand to the rear and a few feet to his left as I spoke, but a quick jab from his right hand decked me. I was more surprised than damaged.

It was swift and sudden and for a few seconds I didn't know what hit me. James came to stand over me. His fists stayed ready for my reply and as I regrouped, Simon was heading up the hall away from us. Well, he couldn't defend himself and I didn't expect him to jump in on my account.

"Come on, get up," he ordered from his fighter's stance. "Smart move," he taunted as his intensity drew down and my head cleared.

At this point I reached for the side of my face, discovering the blood dripping from my nose.

There was a silent rage burning within me. I'd brought it home from my sojourn. There was no particular place to unload it or to even know where it came from, but lying there with James Combs triumphantly standing over me ignited the fuse.

I was very aware of where he was without looking at him and as long as he stood over me, I focused on my nose and my blood as I boiled inside. As he made a half turn away from me, I sprang up, punching the side of his face with all the force I had. He bent at the waist, trying to protect his face as my fists flailed. His glasses skittered across the floor as I punched away.

"Hey! Hey! Hey!" came the screams of someone who obviously thought he was in charge, and then Mr. Burgess came between us as I continued to punch James Combs from under the arm of the vice-principal, but he finally got us under control.

As Mr. Burgess held me back with one hand he checked James over for obvious damage. I could see the blood smeared by my punches all over his face. At first I thought it was my blood, but when I felt my nose it was still just a trickle.

"He broke my glasses," James hollered like a big baby.

"Take him to the nurse," Mr. Burgess ordered a girl who had accompanied Mr. Burgess to the scene.

The kids in the hallway moved past us in two lines going in opposite directions. They looked as though there had been a fender bender on the highway and they slowed down as they passed the accident scene to take a good look. Most of them had no idea what the meeting was about, but it would be all over school in short order.

"Come on, Walker. Maybe I need to draw you a map about how I expect you to conduct yourself."

I walked in front of him and each time I slowed down he shoved me from behind, until we reached the front of the school. Once we reached his office he took out his handkerchief and handed it to me.

"Wipe the blood off your face," he said, and I wiped my nose.

"What? We going to do a show here or what?" Mr. Burgess barked as Simon slipped into the office with Bonnie behind him.

"He was trying to protect me. James hit him first. I didn't know you were going to pull a Mike Tyson. I could have done that," Simon scolded me and I laughed.

"What's the story?" Mr. Burgess asked Bonnie Hill for an objective view.

"I was walking with Simon and James came up like he owned the hall. When I came to get you it was just a shoving match with James doing the shoving. That's all I know," Bonnie said.

"Mr. Walker," he said in a disappointed tone of voice.

"I asked him to stop," I said, realizing he could figure out the rest. "He hit me. I knew if I didn't take him on it would never stop. I stopped it," I said.

"I've been pushed before, Billie Joe," Simon said. "I was coming to get you," Simon said proudly to Mr. Burgess, "but you were already on your way."

"And what do you do about it when they push you, Mr. Betts?" Mr. Burgess asked as if it was news to him.

"I don't need to do anything. They get tired after a couple of minutes. They have a limited attention span. They feel good about being able to push the little gay kid around and I go to where ever I was going."

"You have a good head on your shoulders Simon," Mr. Burgess approved.

"Thank you. My mother taught me to think before reacting."

"Or not reacting," I snapped.

"Mr. Walker?"

"I've never been pushed around and I don't plan to start now. I didn't know there were rules to being pushed," I said, giving Simon a dirty look.

"There's one rule, Mr. Walker. You come to me if there is any trouble. Haven't I made myself clear? This is becoming a habit with you."

"Yeah, sure. You sit here in your nice office and I've got to walk these halls. At the time James decked me he stood between where I hit the floor and your office. I moved him out of my way is all. I remembered what you told me."

"So you had it in mind to come to me?" he asked with suspicion in the words.

"No, I had it in mind to make certain James knew not to hit me again. Then, I would have thought about coming to you."

The look on his face was one of quiet desperation as he looked from one of us to the other shaking his head.

"I can't suspend him and not suspend you. You were fighting in school. It's against the rules. It doesn't matter why you were fighting. It doesn't matter how many character witnesses you bring me. You were fighting. Case closed."

"He was fighting for me," Simon objected.

"No I wasn't. I was fighting for me. I asked him to stop pushing you. It was between James and me after that."

"Same difference," Simon insisted. "Remove me from the equation and there was no fight."

"I appreciate your situation, Mr. Betts, but you weren't fighting. You come to me when there's trouble, Mr. Walker. I'm not going to keep telling you."

"Yes, sir," I said.

"Three days, Mr. Walker. I'm sorry but my hands are tied or I might consider your actions justified. Bonnie is the only one who acted properly."

"What did I do? I was walking to class with Bonnie when he decided I shouldn't be walking in his hall," Simon said, more indignant about my suspension than James pushing him around.

"Get a list of Billie Joe's classes and collect his homework for him, since you are so concerned about him. Mr. Walker, keep your nose clean and I'll see to it this suspension isn't part of your permanent record. That's the best I can do."

"Yes, sir. Thank you."

I wrote down my classes and my phone number as Simon stood silently by me at the front counter.

"Thank you, but I didn't ask you to defend my honor."

"Get over yourself. I didn't fight for you, Simon. He hit me. I fought for myself. I wanted him to stop pushing you, but that's as far as it went in my mind. He decided to take me on. I gave him what he asked for."

"Okay, I'll call with your assignments. Thank you. You beat the shit out of him. You are dangerous, Billie Joe." There was a touch of excitement in his words.

The worst part was not being able to stop myself. After I hit the floor, I was like a wounded animal. Everything was out of focus but James. I knew better than to get up while he expected it, but as quick as he left me an opening, I was on him. I didn't like that I felt good about what I had done. It scared me to know that level of violence was inside me.

For the first time since I'd returned home, my father acted like he was proud of me for getting thrown out of school. He had a talk with Mr. Burgess and was satisfied that there would be no other punishment for my actions. Mr. Burgess had added that I was defending a smaller kid, finishing a fight someone else started.

It didn't change much. I still had no urge to spend a lot of time with Simon, but I didn't blame him for any of it. It was okay every now and then but I didn't want anyone hanging around me. Life was difficult enough without complicating it. I was putting in time and didn't want to leave anyone behind. It was a simple plan.

That night I was back in Oregon in the car with the dark tinted windows. Over and over again I kicked the stranger's head against the windshield, only it became James Combs' face I was kicking. I woke up with my heart pounding just as it had done the day Raymond and I ran in terror from the stranger's car. I'd had the nightmare many times since the incident but it was the first time I saw James Combs as a replacement for the stranger. I didn't go back to sleep. My past came back on me powerfully and I didn't feel safe closing my eyes.

The following week at lunch Simon sat down across from me. I asked a question that had been on my mind.

"How do they know you're gay, Simon?"

"The same way they know you're testing for AIDS. Talk."

"You always dressed funny. You brought attention to yourself."

"I was flamboyant. My mother picked my clothes. I didn't have anything to do with it. She wanted a girl. So sue me?"

"She came a lot closer than she knows," I said.

"I guess she did. She liked bright colors. So did I. Who was I hurting, anyway?"

"So that was it? You must be gay because you dressed in bright clothes?"

"That and Alan Bostic offered to show me his if I showed him mine. It was an offer I couldn't refuse. He offered to blow me if I returned the favor. I was putty in his hands. I blew him, after he blew me. Next thing I know he's spreading it all over the neighborhood that I blew him. It completed a picture they'd been trying to develop for ages," he said, resignation in his soft voice.

"Did you say he blew you first?"

"No, I wouldn't do that," Simon said.

"But he told on you?" I reasoned. "Doesn't make any sense."

"Life is like that," Simon philosophized for me. "Besides, boys rarely make sense."

"Didn't it make you mad?" I tried again.

"No, you do mad just fine for both of us. I don't have time for mad, Billy Joe. I've got to plan my wardrobe."

Simon could see me toil over the facts he gave me in an effort to make sense of it. He was treated like some bad disease by the boys, and he wasn't a bad guy once you got beyond his being prettier than most of the girls, not to mention better dressed.

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