Book 2: The Return Home
by Rick Beck
The Impromptu Speech
The phone kept ringing and I finally rolled over toward my nightstand and over the books to pick it up.
"Hello," I mumbled into my pillow.
"Hi," came the cheery voice on the other end of the phone.
"Are you kidding me? Who is this," I growled.
"Simon," he said, not sensing my discontent over being awakened or ignoring it.
"What do you want?"
"I thought I'd fix you breakfast," he said. "Sounds like I'm just in time. Have you eaten?"
"I haven't even woke up yet," I yelled.
"Well, then, you haven't had breakfast. Where are your parents?"
"What day is it?"
"Saturday. We're out of school."
"My parents play tennis at the club Saturday morning and have brunch there."
"Your mother actually leaves the house?"
"Saturday mornings. They play tennis and have brunch."
"I'd like to see your mother play tennis. That ought to be good for a laugh."
"Simon, you're insulting my dear mother."
"Yeah, tell me about it. What do you want for breakfast?"
"Why do you want to fix me breakfast?"
"You rescued me from those bullies."
"Not really. You stood up to them yourself. I just talked them out of it."
"Yeah, well, whatever you did, I want to fix you breakfast for it."
"French toast," I said, realizing sleeping was done for the day.
By the time I got dressed and made it downstairs Simon was at the kitchen door. I let him in with his bag of groceries and I made fresh coffee as he began breakfast preparations. He brought an apron and was careful not to splash any fixings on himself.
The coffee got my eyes open and by the time the French toast was coming out of the frying pan I was ready to eat. After four pieces I ran out of steam but Simon didn't eat any. He had breakfast with his mother and merely wanted to cook for me. The idea didn't appeal to me, because I didn't want him to think there was something going on between us that wasn't going on.
"Come on upstairs," I said, tossing down my napkin and leaving the kitchen.
After he cleaned up, he found his way to my room. I'd conveniently placed Carl's letters on my bed. It was the first thing he saw.
"Who are all the letters from?"
"Carl," I said.
"Who is Carl?"
"My boyfriend," I said.
"Do tell," Simon said, looking at one of the letters, not reacting at all disappointed. "Are you really in love with someone?"
"Yeah, I met him while I was away. I met him before anything else happened."
We looked at the letters and I took out Carl's picture, the gold bracelet, and it wasn't necessary to explain more. Simon seemed absolutely delighted for me and fired questions about how we met and fell in love.
"Hey, your bike? You fixed your flat?"
"No, I've been walking you home from school. I haven't ridden it lately."
"It's warm today. I'll bring my bike over and we can fix them," he offered in a questionable deal.
"Yeah, we could do that. What's wrong with your bike?"
"I haven't ridden since I was twelve."
"What's wrong with it?"
"Both the tires are flat. They won't hold air. I tried to put air in them but it just came back out."
"Bring it over and I'll look at it, but if we're going to work on bikes, you can't dress up like we're going to some swanky deal somewhere."
"I know," he said, but I could tell he hadn't even considered how to dress to do bike repairs.
A little while later Simon returned pushing his bike. The tires were flat and dry rotted. Simon wore a white T-Shirt and a pair of blue jeans along with a pair of tennis shoes.
"You actually have boy's clothes," I remarked.
"All my clothes are boy's clothes," he complained.
"All your clothes are dress clothes. I've never seen you in anything but dress clothes."
"You said to dress to work on our bikes."
"Yeah, that's fine. I've just never seen you look like a boy."
Simon frowned, hating the sound of what I said but knowing it was true. I don't think he gave much thought to dressing any other way but the way his mother wanted to dress him. I liked that he would wear blue jeans because I asked him to. He actually looked like a regular guy: his hair wasn't neat and his shirttail was hanging out.
We started removing the tires. Simon watched me do mine and then took the tool I used and started on his.
"Damn it," he said, checking his hand.
"What?" I said.
"I broke a fingernail. My hand will look deformed."
"No, your hand will look like a regular boy's hand and not one that just had a manicure."
"My mother does my nails," Simon explained.
"Yeah, and my mother hasn't been near my fingernails, not since I was three. You can't do everything your mother wants. She's a girl and you aren't a girl."
"I know that," he said, thinking it over after the reflexive response.
"I'm going to need to go to the bike shop and get a repair kit to patch my tire," I said.
"I'll buy it," Simon said, taking out his credit card.
"I need the repair kit. You need two new tires. Those won't hold air no matter how many patches we use."
"Yeah, but if you're going to help me I'll buy the kit."
"I'll help you and pay for my own repair kit. You are going to pay a pretty penny for two new tires. Why are you working on your bike five years after you last rode it?"
"Well, I figured we could ride together. I haven't had anyone to ride with since then."
"I'm beginning to think there's a real boy underneath all that fluff, Simon."
"I'm not a girl," he objected.
"I know. That's cool. We can ride together. I usually just ride to school but I like riding my bike."
"Good," he said. "Let's go to the bike shop."
I got my repair kit and the guy that worked on the bikes in the bike shop made Simon a good deal on two used tires that were in real good condition. I was sure they were good because I knew the guy was always fair with me and Simon would probably lose interest in bike riding as the weather cooled down.
By the time we got my tire fixed and put Simon's tires on the rim my parents were home from the club. My mother brought us out soda as we were getting Simon's bike tightened up and adjusted for his new size.
"Who's your new friend?" my mother asked.
"It's me, Mrs. Walker," Simon said, turning around with grease on his face and dirt up to his elbows.
"Oh my God, Simon? I didn't recognize you. You boys clean up and I'll fix you hamburgers and fries for lunch."
"Yes, ma'am," I said, laughing at her reaction to Simon.
"She really didn't recognize me," Simon said.
"I hardly know you, Simon. This is a side of you I haven't seen."
"I never thought my clothes made that much difference."
"It makes a big difference. I like you either way, Simon, but you might want to think about the options. Are you flamboyant because your mother wants you to be flamboyant or are you flamboyant because you want to be that way? Maybe your mother wanted a daughter and you're as close as she could get."
I liked Simon, and it wasn't my intention to make him feel bad about himself, but I thought he might want to think about how he approached life and why. His current path was going to create obstacles for him, while a few changes might make it easier for him.
Simon didn't answer, but I knew he was thinking about it. I got out the hand cleaner and showed him how to get the grease off and then we used regular soap to finish the job over at the wash tubs. He didn't want to use hand cleaner on his face and except for a little water, he didn't do anything to remove the grease.
My mother was well on her way to finishing with lunch preparations once we got through the door. She couldn't get over how different Simon looked in jeans and a T-shirt. We ate like there was no tomorrow and then went to the mall to check out new video games.
That night my dreams caught up with me again. I was flashing back on events that were months old. I still thought about my life on the street and the boys who were still there, but my life was going relatively smoothly at home. San Francisco wasn't nearly as far away as it seemed when it came to my nightmares.
This was more disturbing than the original dreams right after I came home. It was beyond my control and left me more insecure than before. I wanted to think I could put it behind me and finish up at school, meet Carl, and begin the rest of my life, but it wasn't that simple.
Simon and I rode our bikes to school after that. It did speed things up, except if the weather turned bad. If we couldn't talk one of our mothers into driving us we walked the path through the woods.
The weather stayed fairly mild so rain was our only obstacle if you didn't count the wind. Staying late for rehearsals became more complicated. We never knew how late we'd be and calling for a ride at the last moment didn't work very often. Simon's mother was usually out later in the day and my mother was in the process of fixing dinner.
The stage was always set up for the play but we still did rehearsals sitting at the big wooden defense table. We always had our scripts in front of us but I knew my part and the rest of the cast knew theirs. Mr. Elliot was more focused on delivery and stage presence.
Mr. Elliot stood by to feed us lines if we went astray. He didn't mind us improvising lines too much if it didn't throw off the other characters. He was patient and soft spoken. When he suggested we repeat a segment or offered a suggestion for how to better deliver a line, we were all receptive to his input. My hesitant answers and deer in the headlights look was incorporated into my portrait of John Scopes.
There were no more clashes with George or his crew. Simon seemed more comfortable with himself and around other boys. He still held court with the girls in drama class, but he spent more time with the boys, helping as they set the stage for the play and breaking it back down after a rehearsal.
We continued using our bikes for transport on nicer days, splitting up once we reached Simon's street, meeting up in the same spot at the same time in the morning. George Phelps had stayed out of sight and I envisioned him tormenting someone else somewhere. I had no illusion that Simon and I were his only targets.
Simon showed no sign of being afraid. He obviously liked having a friend and he liked doing guy stuff together. It wasn't all that bad for me either. Simon was easy to like and it gave me someone to talk to at a time when there were few people that interested me.
While I'd memorized my part and no longer needed to go to my script to remember the words, the two stars often got lost in their pages of dialogue. If they blew a line or fed me the wrong line, I got lost and wasn't able to get them back on script. Fortunately, when they forgot a line in the middle of their dialogue, they frequently caught themselves and managed to steer the dialogue back on course. This seemed to indicate they knew the play better than I did, but my part had me sitting silent for large segments of the play.
Mr. Crockett continued to offer me tips in speech class. He allowed me to give parts of my dialogue to the class for extra credit. He would not let me call it an impromptu speech, because it was a formally written part and impromptu meant impromptu to him. He was more than fair to me, though, and I couldn't get angry about his position on the different types of speeches.
After the incident with my locker, Mr. Crockett suggested I think seriously about giving my impromptu speech on AIDS, since I was aware of the danger to teenagers my age. While most high school teens didn't want to hear about the subject, he was sure the class would listen to one of their own. I sought to put the AIDS thing behind me as the quarrel with George cooled down and since he'd lost interest in me. Talking about AIDS was going to stir it back up if he got wind of a speech I was giving on the subject.
Actually, I was afraid to face anyone with the information that I had been tested. There were only a couple of reasons to be tested and giving out that information was going to be an admission of guilt to a group of people that had accepted my presence in class without acrimony. I saw no reason to take the risk if I could slide by without telling them anything about the test and why it was necessary to have it.
The mere mention of AIDS and its deadly consequences had most teenagers running the other way. In many circles it was still said to be a gay disease, even though it isn't a gay disease and it is no longer deadly. It is life altering with strict regiments of pills with very bad side effects. It was no longer a death sentence but it was life altering, and not for the best.
If teens were sexually active they didn't want to hear about it and if they weren't having sex they didn't feel they needed to know. Yet most teens become sexually active sooner or later, and when they do, they need to understand how to keep themselves safe. Even abstinence-only programs come with a deadly flaw if one of the two people isn't being honest about having been abstinent, but people wouldn't lie about having sex, would they?
A blood test is the only way to assure you and your partner stay safe. If you are a committed couple it would be an act of love to exchange blood tests as proof. That's how I saw it and what I'd say if I was talking about it.
Was it my job to stick my neck out to inform the students of these facts if the school didn't, couldn't, or wouldn't? There was no circumstance I could imagine that would have me being the poster boy for AIDS prevention. I wasn't proud of being afraid that I might be ostracized. My life had been fairly easy since I returned home. Why risk it all by bringing attention to myself?
I was safe being silent, because I'd been tested and came up negative through no fault of my own. Knowing the facts and speaking to other kids about them were far apart in my mind. There were ways to protect yourself from STDs and it was as simple as using a condom and washing up after an encounter, but the only way to be sure your partner is safe is by having a blood test.
I knew about the lack of education for young people, because the conversation was entirely about abstinence, which sounds good to adults, but many teens weren't going to wait, as many adults know from their own experiences. When teens don't wait, they need to be informed about how to stay healthy.
Only after I put myself at risk did I learn the facts of life. Then, once I was at risk, everyone wanted to talk about safe sex. It seems backward if you're really interested in keeping teens safe.
We wear knee pads, helmets, elbow protectors, a mouth piece, and various other items if we go to skate in front of our house. Heaven forbid a child take a risk and ride his bike without prescribed protection.
I've never fallen off my bike or skates, but when my hormones had me in search of relief, it was good luck Charlie. We can't talk about it, unless you get sick or put yourself at risk, and then they won't shut up about it.
What about prevention?
Having the test got me the information, whether or not I had AIDS. Before they drew my blood the nurse talked to me about being safe. Once she'd drawn my blood, the doctor came in and reminded me how to stay safe. It was all greatly appreciated if a little late.
Up until that time my education on the subject had consisted of one word: don't. My parents had never mentioned sex to me before or after my summer excursion.
Things were quiet and I intended to keep them that way. I'd tricked my way out of taking a beating from George and his buddies and stirring up any talk about AIDS was not in my best interest if I intended to stay safe.
There was a series of dreams that continued to surface late at night. Ty, Gene, and some of my other companions of the street appeared in strange places. While walking home from somewhere a car with dark windows stayed a half a block behind me. I walked faster and faster and looked for other people so I could blend into the crowd, but I was alone except for the car.
When I started to run, the car sped up just enough to stay a half a block behind me. I ran and ran until someone stepped out of the shadows and grabbed me. I struggled to get away as he slapped my face. It was Ty.
I told him about the car but he said there was nothing there and I was dreaming it.
I woke up in a panic.
My heart was still racing and my hair was pasted to my wet head. I threw the wet pillow on the floor and used my other pillow to go back to sleep, but I didn't. My eyes were wide open. I feared sleep. I didn't want to go back to wherever I had been. I knew fear every day. I was not brave or courageous. I'd done what I had to do one step at a time. The fear in my sleep was a fear of losing control of the tight grip I kept on reality.
On the worst nights I'd turn on the lights and get out my pen and some paper and I'd write Carl a letter if I wasn't already in the middle of one. Our correspondence was erratic. Some days he'd get a couple of letters and some weeks he wouldn't get any. It was the same on my end. I might get two in a day or one a day for several days and then I would go a week without hearing from him.
Carl's phone calls came more often when the loneliness got to him. Hearing his voice made my day. I told him about the play and he wanted to know if I expected to be treated like a movie star. I told him I'd let him slide on that and we got a big laugh out of the idea.
I wasn't cut out for being on stage. There was still fear that went with that as well. I knew my lines and we had formal rehearsals twice a week to run through the entire play. But I was still nervous in front of the stage crew and teachers who dropped by to listen.
We would have our dress rehearsal the Thursday after Thanksgiving in front of the student body. There were three performances scheduled in front of a paying audience, Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday afternoon. It gave me far too many opportunities to screw up. I did spend time wondering why I let myself get talked into acting in a play.
The picture they took to promote the play was of me sitting in-between the two stars as they glared at one another. It was on all the bulletin boards at school and in many shop windows in town. How cool is that?
There was nothing I could do about the play. I was obligated to finish what I started. There wasn't much I could do about George beyond hoping he'd find other things to occupy his time. There was nothing I could do to stop the nightmares, which were more unsettling than ever.
Having nightmares when I first got back home wasn't as disturbing as the unexpected nightmares almost three months after I left the street. There was no rhyme or reason to explain the bad dreams' abrupt reentry into my sleep. I became leery of sleep while needing more than ever.
Reading was the answer and I read most nights until I fell asleep, which was nice. Entering other worlds at different periods, past, present, and future, created a portal through which my dreams and nightmares could merge in bizarre ways that made no sense.
I found Poe responsible for the most unusual dreams, but for some reason his stories were odd enough that my own life's experiences had no way to join up with his. I liked Poe's use of words and the rhythm he created with them.
Once I started reading a book of Poe's short stories, I only read from it in bed at night until I finished, but as bizarre as some of Poe's stories were, they didn't frighten me. Maybe his being long ago dead separated us far enough that things that scared people in his day weren't scary to someone born of the Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street generation.
The day after Thanksgiving I went riding up to Simon's house before we took a trip to the mall to work off some of the food we'd consumed the day before by playing the games at the arcade.
I suppose the bike riding did more for that purpose than the games we played, but as long as we were doing something, it was cool, until Mrs. Betts came out to chat.
"Billie Joe, do you know who is encouraging Simon to dress like a ragamuffin?"
"Why, no I don't. Besides me he mostly talks to the girls at school."
"Yes, well you do have a habit of wearing denim quite often. Simon is too refined to let himself dress in denim. I think you know what I mean," she said, hands on hips with eye contact being of a vague nature, except on the words denim and you have a habit. Then she stared right into my face.
"I don't want to appear to be rude, Mrs. Betts, but what is denim?"
I might have been questioning her motherhood by her reaction to my question. As she studied my casual posture, Simon appeared in the front door in his blue jeans, white T-shirt, and a red jacket that was about right for the cool weather.
"Blue jeans!" she said sounding as though it was a dirty word she couldn't wait to get out of her mouth because of its bitter taste.
"Oh!" I said, as Simon rolled his bike toward me.
"Hi, Billie Joe. Sorry I'm so slow. Later Mom," he said, throwing his leg over his bike seat like any boy might do and starting to pedal out of his driveway.
"Nice talking to you, Mrs. Betts," I said, turning my bike around and tossing my leg over the seat to follow my friend.
"Simon," I said, as I noticed his pant leg being rolled up several inches on his right leg. "Why do you have your jeans rolled up?"
"Oh, my chain guard thingy came off. If I don't role my pants leg up it gets caught in the chain."
"You've got grease on your leg," I advised him.
"Yeah, I know, but I don't want to ruin my new Wranglers. I only bought the two pair. My mother would freak out if I asked her to buy them. She doesn't know much about how boys dress."
I cringed as I heard my words coming out of Simon's mouth. I'd wanted him to act more like a boy so I could feel better about hanging around with him, but I didn't know how to talk to him about it. Just hanging around together had him doing things more like I did. I wondered how much of his personality and behavior came from his mother and how much was actually part of the real Simon?
It was a complicated thought and not what I had planned for my day. Simon seemed comfortable with himself and that was fine with me. I still had the impression that most guys from school didn't recognize Simon in jeans and a T-shirt.
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