Book 2: The Return Home

by Rick Beck

Chapter 10

Holiday Phone Calls

Carl called me Christmas Eve and again Christmas day. We talked for two hours in all. It was the best Christmas present I ever got. I couldn't wait until next year when we'd be together. He told me he loved me and couldn't wait to get back to me. I cried. He cried. I was such a baby.

"What about Leon? Won't you miss him?" I said, only half in jest when he talked of coming home.

"Sure, but Leon is a friend. You're a lot more than that. You aren't jealous, are you? He only lives a hundred miles from me anyway. We can see each other any time we want."

"He's there lying in bed with you and you think that would make me jealous? I'm not a kid you know. Tell him to keep his skinny leg off yours."

"That was just a picture. It's the only way I could get you one with my clothes off. I thought you'd like it."

"I'd like it better if Leon's naked leg wasn't over your naked leg," I said with conviction in my voice.

"I don't know why he did that. We were just clowning around. Leon's a good friend. He's another southern boy. He's so southern he makes me look like a Yankee."

"Just don't bend over in the shower to pick up the soap. I got a feeling Leon would be helping you in ways you never dreamt about."

"You really think so?" Carl said, never being sure if I was serious. "He mostly minds his own business."

"I've seen your ass. I know so, and he didn't get three kids minding his own business."

"All he talks about is his wife. Has a dozen pictures he keeps showing me of her and the kids. Let's don't have any kids, Billie Joe. I want you all to myself. We'll let Leon have our share of kids."

"Just don't turn your back on him or you'll be having his kids."

"You're silly, Billie Joe. This is the Army. That kind of thing don't go in the Army. Besides, we're all lean mean fighting machines, which don't leave no time for no funny business."

"Takes a good man to take it up the ass," I said.

"You ought to know. I'll take your word for it," he said.

"Uh huh," I said, and I could feel him smiling. I giggled while thinking about Seattle which had me missing him all the more. "I love you, Carl."

"I know you do, babe. It won't be too much longer. I'm not interested in anyone but you."

He made me feel like a giddy kid. I always felt so young and innocent and so clean after talking to Carl. We finished the conversation with listening to each other breathing. That's when we knew it was time to end the call. Carl held the phone against his chest so I could hear his heart, but I never did hear it. He said he'd call again at New Years if he had the money. He thought he'd spent a month's pay on the two calls at Christmas. He didn't care though. He said he'd saved up to give me those calls as one of my big Christmas presents. I asked him what he meant by one. He said he didn't know why he had said it. I said he should call collect next time, knowing he never would.

The ring came two days after Christmas. It was a simple gold band inscribed, C loves BJ. I about died and started wearing it immediately. My mother said it looked like a wedding ring. I laughed and said she was so silly, saying it was a friendship ring. Well, if you love someone you should be friends, don't you think? It worked for me and every time I looked at it I smiled.

Simon came over a few days after Christmas, once they got back from his aunt's house. He gave me a sweater that was the most audacious thing I'd ever seen. I liked it. I gave him a Bret Farve jersey. He looked at it and he looked at me and we both burst out laughing.

I took him to my room and showed him my hand.

"My God. You got married," he gasped, putting his fingers to his lips.

"Shh!" I said, taking it off so he could see the initials and especially the word love.

Simon twirled in a circle and did a fake faint onto my bed. We giggled like little girls and he loved that I was in love and wanted me to describe Carl to him again. We lay on my bed together and I described my love another time as he hung on every word.

"The rinks open. I left my skates outside. It's only two-fifty over the holidays."

"Cool," I said.

Simon carried the jersey and the wrapping with us. He was going to put it in the locker at the rink so he didn't forget it. He talked to me about his skating skill. When he was younger he trained to be an ice skater but gave it up because of the time it required. I was more a pond skater; Ralphie and I had skated as soon as the ponds around us froze. It was another of those things I didn't do any more because the person I did them with wasn't around. It didn't bother me Simon trained to be a skater. I wasn't going to do something fancy.

As we came in the door there was a lot of noise and slamming because there were guys playing hockey on the ice.

"Oh, no," Simon said. "I don't believe it. I wanted to skate."

"There's a pond out behind Wilson's," I said.

"It's too cold," Simon said, and it was.

"Hey, Walker," someone screamed from the ice.

A guy skated up and yanked off his helmet. It was Barry Greene. We used to skate together when we were kids.

"Hey, man, long time no see. We need a couple of guys to make two teams. How 'bout you two playing a little hockey?"

"Yeah, cool," I said. "Hey, Si, you want to play hockey."

Simon gave me a glance that was not filled with wonder and anticipation.

"Yeah, you and your buddy get out of your coats. I'll get you on my team. Those guys are pussies. Thanks a lot, Walker."

"Billie Joe, I want to dance. I didn't come here to bang the boards with a bunch of assholes."

"Come on, Simon. I told him we would."

"You told him you would. I will not do that. It's a game for cretins. I'm a gentleman."

"Oh, come one, just a few minutes and we'll say we got to go. Come on, Simon."

Simon took off his coat to reveal a spangled and frilled shirt that would have made Madonna look modest by comparison.

I grabbed the package he'd carried and threw him the jersey. Put it on. Those guys will kill you if you wear that thing out there."

"It's my skating shirt. I always wear it when I skate."

He reluctantly listened and pulled the shirt over his louder version. He started to straighten out his now messed up hair but I pulled his hands away from his head.

"You look like a real boy. Leave it alone," I ordered.

"I am a real boy," he protested. "Clothes a real boy do not make."

We skated out on the ice and Barry introduced us. After Simon got some strange looks, I noticed his eye liner and closed my eyes waiting for someone to make a remark. None of them did.

"Do you know how to play," one boy asked Simon after taking a closer look.

"Hockey! Shit yeah," Simon said in a coarse voice he'd just made up.

I stifled my urge to grow hysterical; must have been the jersey.

The puck dropped and the two biggest boys slapped and pushed and shoved one another trying to control the puck. It zipped out and was passed from side to side as the goalie squatted in the nearest net. Skates flashed, bodies slammed, and when I looked, Simon was flat on his back sliding off to one side.

"Asshole," he said, as he jumped up and started to brush the ice crystals off his clothes but he caught himself and skated back toward the center of the ice.

There were elbows, curse words, and loose ice chips flying as we raced up and down the rink. There were a couple of scores and Simon mostly stayed on the edge of the action. Actually, he skated better than most of the brutes we were playing with. Simon had pretty good control over his skates, except when one of the boys would bump, push, or shove him as the puck worked its way up the rink.

Once again Simon left his feet and slid on his butt until he banged the wall. Jumping up he headed back toward the guy who had hit him. Luckily the guy had the puck so Simon had every right to go after it, but of course he wasn't after the puck. He was pissed off by being mistreated, but when he got to the guy, an elbow shot out beyond his stick and caught Simon in the stomach. I could see the grimace on his face as he bent seriously but refused to fall down for the guy. Instead he got his stick inside to interfere with the puck's progress. The guy's elbow was back but Simon danced around it and went for the puck. By this time the kid didn't care about the puck, he was after Simon who danced in and out of his reach. The brute skated boldly right at Simon, who twitched his hip to avoid a collision, but then he let his hip hit that of the charging angry skater and sent the boy crashing into the boards. He yanked off his gloves and his helmet and charged Simon. As Simon danced a circle around him, the guy got more and more angry, finally lunging to grab Simon but ending up on his face.

Everyone stopped to watch as the guy ranted and raved and tried to get Simon in his grasp, but each time he went directly at him, Simon's motion on his skates made the guy look like an idiot. We were all laughing and cheering like the guy was a bull and Simon the Matador. Finally the guy lay on the ice kicking his legs and screaming at the top of his lungs. I'd never laughed harder as Simon skated around him tauntingly.

The kid finally got up, stormed off the ice and disappeared. The other boys applauded and cheered Simon's skill as a skater. I was totally blown away. My opinion of Simon was constantly changing. I knew having opinions of people wasn't smart. They never turn out to be what you think they are and this was true of Simon. For the first time I was totally proud of him and ashamed of myself for thinking he couldn't play hockey because he didn't want to play hockey. It was Minnesota. Everyone knew how to play hockey. It was our national sport right after freezing our asses off.

When we left the ice, Simon had an escort. When we went to the snack bar Simon, didn't need to buy his soda. It seems the fat dude that Simon made a fool out of was a constant source of conflict for Barry and his buds. Simon was the first guy on skates who put him in his place.

"Hey, you guys come play with us any time," Barry said as we were leaving.

"Fuckin' A," Simon said as we left them at the bar.

"Fuckin' A," I said. "What are you trying out for the next play? Where'd you learn to play hockey, anyway?"

"A ways back," he said, his butch persona getting my laughter. "There's a lot you don't know about me, dude. I got a past, you know."

"You didn't say you could play hockey. The way you acted I didn't think you could. Where'd you learn to skate like that? Weren't you scared of that asshole?"

"Not as long as I had skates on. I could skate circles around those guys. Going in a straight line was my biggest problem. I like to twirl and dance. I love to dance," he said with a flourish that had him looking a bit like a starlet.

"So when did you learn to play hockey?"

"Long time back, BJ. I learned at the rink about an hour ago," he said in his regular voice and sounding more like the starlet again.

"I'll be a son of a bitch. You didn't know how to play?"

"What do you think I am, Billie Joe. I'm not a ruffian. It's just skating with that little thingy being passed around. You really think that's hard."

"Yeah, how'd you know how to put that guy on his ass?"

"That was simple anger and applied physics. He obviously knows little about the diversion of momentum. Any sophomore physics student knows that."

"I somehow don't think he's gotten around to applied physics, yet. You absolutely amaze me, Simon Betts," I said, putting my arm around his shoulder.

"I sometimes amaze myself. Watch with the touchy-feely shit. I ain't no fag, you know," he said in his butch voice again.

I absolutely fell on the ground laughing as he smiled at my hysterics.

Simon had become one of the most real and important people in my life. I remember wanting to ignore him and hating it when he talked to me at first. I was such an asshole for not wanting to know someone who wasn't much different from me. We were raised in different homes with different parents, but we'd found each other and become friends. I was certainly glad he had persisted. I think he was to. He was learning things about himself and it was all good.

Much too soon we were back at school, but I knew we had to go back to get out and the closer that came the better I felt. My life was vastly improved. People continued to speak to me in the halls and I spoke back. The play was long ago and forgotten, but some kids remembered me for some reason. I didn't know their names and it wasn't all that important. Saying hello to people who said hello to me left me feeling good.

What a world. I hated it and everyone in it when I left San Francisco and now life was good and each day was fine with me, although I never quite knew what to expect.

I knew what I was becoming was good. I worried Carl wouldn't like the changes. We knew each other for a minute of my life and I'd lived a thousand years since last we met. I knew who I was becoming had nothing to do with Carl. I was going to become me no matter who else came or went from my life. I was learning about life in a way that allowed me to grasp on to the idea that I'd never stop growing. I had been places and done things that took me to the edge of what it means to live and almost die but I'd come back and was able to learn, live, and accept other people's journeys.

Mine was no more or less important to me than their journey was to them. Perhaps if we respected one another's journeys and our dreams more readily we'd all be happier and better able to deal with the disappointments and failures that came to visit along with the success that came with getting closer to the end. I looked forward to the discoveries, the ideas, and the future that waited for me. I still couldn't see beyond my graduation from high school, but that was the only obstacle that stood in the way of me and the rest of my life. It took a lifetime to get here and then came post graduation and the rest of my life.

Of course I saw Carl and he was with me, but meeting him was like graduation. What came after was going to be a mystery until it got here. How well did I know Carl? Loving him for most of my life, the life spared for whatever reason out of ignorance and accidental good fortune. I'd come back to finish high school and finish growing up, which was probably the real reason I let myself go home again. My life before Ralphie died was meaningless to me now. I preferred not to think about Ralphie, but he came to me anyway as a reminder of how someone else can get you to do crazy things. I wasn't going to kill myself because my best friend killed himself, but that's not to say I'd let myself die even if the idea crossed my mind at times when living seemed hard.

This had never occurred to me on the road all those years ago. Nothing really occurred to me then. I did not think I was living in a way that assured I'd die. Within a couple of days I was in a car with dark windows where anything could have happened inside with no one being able to see it. I was living in a way that could easily kill me and what would I have done if faced with life and death?

Living was good, now, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Living for Carl, living for myself, living to see what happened tomorrow. For the first time in my life I lived to live and while I couldn't see beyond tomorrow, I wanted to. This attitude helped to move me along in the right direction: learning and knowing what I was learning and how it fit into my life. Before I was learning because I couldn't help it. If you stayed in school you learned. It didn't mean you were smart or had something to do with the information you were retaining, but it was better than the alternative.

My psychology teacher often hit us with his favorite phrase, "Repetition makes an impression even on the dullest minds."

At first I didn't understand the meaning but he obviously knew that's what most of us were doing, waiting for information to be repeated often enough for us to retain it. In psychology it wasn't all that important. Who the hell would put psychology to any practical use? I understood more about myself and how what I was learning would allow me to have a better life. He wasn't cutting us down or making fun of us. He was stating a fact that we needed to know about education. When the light goes on it isn't always about making huge strides forward. Sometimes the little steps get you closer to your destination quicker than the giant steps.

I never knew it before, because I didn't know anything before. I was at school because it's where I was sent each day. I wasn't a good student and understanding things didn't make me that much better a student, but it made me a better person. I actually enjoyed learning, reading, and observing people around me, even those I didn't know. Life was growing outside myself and knowing how I learned was a part of it. Allowing other people in my life was a bigger part of it.

I was no longer a face in the crowd in most of my classes. Yes, I stood out like a sore thumb for five minutes one day. People accepted me without that five minutes being the moments that defined me. I got their attention and made them think. For some it was enough to say hello long after the event was forgotten. I couldn't forget because of how large the trauma was that forced it on me. I was noticed and this opened a door I'd kept closed for as far back as I could remember.

I still had no desire to be up front and explain to people things they should already know. Saying hello was one thing but being on stage wasn't going to be part of my future. I liked small intimate settings. I liked Carl, Simon, and Brit. These were easy people to know and it required no effort. Lots of people took a lot of effort and I didn't have a need or the energy to apply myself to a lot of people.

Ralphie and I had isolated ourselves from everyone else. I never knew I was missing anything because he was always there for me just as I was there for him. I doubt I'd have noticed our isolation had Ralphie not offed himself. It was easy for me to leave home because so much of what being at home meant to me died with Ralphie. It seemed complicated. Like Mr. McKelvie's comment about repetition. It really wasn't complicated. It was habit. My life was about habit and learning was about new discoveries and curiosity and a desire to see what came after graduation and what would come after Carl and I were together again.

What I knew was it would all be new and exciting. I couldn't wait to live my life with Carl and discover all the things about him and his life that made him special. I didn't dwell on it but each night I spent time thinking about him and wishing we were already together. One night Simon was in my room when Carl called. I let Simon talk to him, and afterward Simon wouldn't shut up about it. Carl thought Simon was funny. He didn't know the half of it.

Brit had me buy him a hamburger the days they made them up fresh. I'd get two on my plate and while Simon nibbled on his carrots and celery, Brit would bite into the juicy hamburger with the juices and the cheese running out on his lips; he flicked his tongue to keep from losing a single dram. I frequently worried he might pass out when his eyes rolled back in his head. Brit was a character and fit right in with the two of us. Once he was done with his hamburger he'd nibble on my French fries, but if he reached for Simon's, Simon slapped his hand and told him to keep his hands to himself.

Brit was always apologetic when Simon responded harshly, but it didn't seem to bother Simon to reach for Brit's carrots and celery every time he sat down with us. I guess there were some things I'd never understand.

As spring made its first appearance in St. Cloud and the track team was on the field, Simon insisted we stop on the way home from school to watch Brit run round and round. I didn't see anything all that exciting about it, but Simon alternately sighed and squealed each time Brit passed us. All the hamburgers I'd been feeding him had done nothing to add any weight to his thinness. With all the running he did, it was a wonder he weighed as much as he did.

Of course it didn't take a rocket scientist to discover how damn gorgeous the boy was. I didn't need Simon for an opinion about that, and I grew to realize the blond tint in his hair was natural and not from a bottle. His hair was relatively dark, like his eyelashes and eyebrows but his reddish brown hair had blond mixed all through it. If it hadn't been for Carl and Simon of course, Brit would be at the top of my list of people I would want to know well. But I'd known enough people just for the knowing; I wanted better for Brit, and perhaps Simon with a few adjustments was the ticket.

He was obviously a mongrel of one sort or another no different than the rest of us except when his British accent broke through when our conversation became heated. This was always encouraged by Simon who was learning how to upset Brit to get him to talk fast so he'd throw in the accent he said came from his parents. The day Simon showed up at lunch in his Bret Farve jersey and jeans, I started to see his new approach to Brit. I hadn't seen the jersey since the hockey came. I thought he'd burned it but even if he hadn't, his mother would never have let him out of the house wearing it.

I was sure the school clothes he left the house in were in his locker and I'd see them in drama class. He probably brought the jersey in a bag and kept it in his locker. As soon as Simon appeared, weaving his way through the tables, Brit had an eye on him. I'd not seen that look before and I studied Brit as his eyes gave away more than he intended.

Brit kept looking at Simon in quick glances like he wasn't sure it was him. Simon kept looking back with a smile, reaching for yet another celery stick. I don't know if Brit hadn't noticed him before or what, but they seemed to see something in each other they hadn't seen before.

I ate my lunch and did my best to stay out of the line of fire. It was going to be an interesting spring. Simon couldn't keep a secret, and it wouldn't take him long to tell me if anything was going on out of view.

Brit reached for a French fry and Simon slapped his hand. I shook my head. Brit blushed and went back to scooping up cottage cheese, which Simon wouldn't pick up in his fingers.

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