The Gulf Between Us
by Rick Beck
Huggers and Mothers
In the spring the weather turned back to being pleasant every day instead of only six nice days a week. Winter as I'd known it until then, didn't exist in Florida. The endless bitter cold days in Tulsa, were replaced by far milder long sleeve shirt weather in Florida. It did keep us in clothes during the winter, but a minimum was required. We were free spirits not stupid.
With the warmer weather came thoughts of turning fifteen and my coming birthday signaled the end of school, my best present each year. Ivan's birthday marked the beginning of spring. Mine marked the endless days of summer. We'd turned our friendship into a partnership of discovery on our beach and the Vilnius Two.
Each week we managed to be together more than the week before. We began summer as friends this year. Our job was to stretch our boundaries as far as we could get them, hoping they didn't rebound on us.
Time had a way of slipping past me at Ivan's. In Tulsa every day was like the day before. Winters were unending affairs. Many days we couldn't be outside. All the fresh air we got was inhaled while running to and from the car at school. Even bundled up it could be brutal. Time stood still in the winter in Oklahoma.
I admit summer days could become harsh in Florida, but those days were rare. Afternoon thunderstorms cooled the worst days. On Ivan's deck there was always a breeze, warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Whoever thought up Florida, made it next to perfect, and that's not bad.
Ivan and I had been together nearly a year when spring came in 1965. We liked being together. No planning was required. Any spare time I had was spent with Ivan. When I would leave my house, there were fewer and fewer questions when I said, "I'm going to Ivan's."
If change was in the air, after our quick departure from Tulsa the year before, I didn't notice, but we were aware of a wider world being out there. No matter how hard we tried to avoid it, that world impeded the peace and tranquility of ours. I could ignore it. Ivan couldn't. As much as I didn't care, Ivan insisted I know the facts.
After coming in from school, when the weather wasn't to our liking, a record or two might begin playing on his record player. We listened to music together a few times on wet days, or when something new came our way. Most days we roamed the beach, or headed out in his flat bottom boat for fishing, once we'd finished raiding the fridge.
Emptying the fridge was our best thing according to Mr. Aleksa.
Once the tedious part of our day was done, we dove into Dylan on days we weren't able to be outside. Ivan put the music on low volume, which meant we could talk or get lost in what was going on in the gulf beyond his deck. These records were new Dylan to me. A year ago I didn't know who Dylan was, but Ivan explained him as his songs played in the rain, Dylan had his way with us on bad days.
Without Ivan, Dylan would be lost on me. One day he could be heard singing, about what I wasn't sure, but Ivan was going to rectify that little factoid.
"Come you masters of war. You that build all the guns. You that build the death planes. You that build the big bombs."
"What's he singing about now?" I asked. "This is new."
"No. This is an album from last year. Boris gave it to me."
"Who are the masters of war?" I asked, knowing Ivan knew.
"Who do you think?" Ivan asked, forcing me to think again.
He turned his head to look at me. He waited, offering no hints this time. I was on my own.
"How do I know? You're the Dylan expert. I asked you first," I said, always getting good mileage out of that appeal.
"You sure pulled that out of your butt. Answer the question, Clay. Use your brain a little. It's not even complicated."
"Soviet Union. Aren't they always screwing with people? Don't they have the bomb? I vote for the commies as the masters of war."
"Yeah, they have the bomb. Lots of them. Not as many as we do. Not as accurate, but they could put a hurting on us if they shot them at us."
"We aren't masters of war. We only fight when necessary," I said. "We can take care of ourselves."
"You ever hear of Vietnam."
"No, not since the last time you brought it up. We talked about it in geography class. The teacher pointed it out on the map. I don't remember why. He called it 'French Indochina.' I remembered that because we have a French uncle somewhere or other. The teacher said, 'This is Vietnam. You'll need to know that soon.' It looked small."
"The masters of war are heading there," Ivan said, confusing me.
"Who is heading there?"
"We are, Clay. We are at war with Vietnam. You ever here of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution?"
"No, that one slipped by me. I can point out the Gulf of Mexico."
"Very funny. Our warships were attacked by the North Vietnamese navy. Johnson declared our right to respond to this attack as needed," Ivan said.
"What were our warships doing in Vietnam? That's a ways," I said, remembering it was half way around the world from America.
"Someone should have asked Johnson that. Our warships go where they please. Who is going to stop them, the Vietnamese navy, two fishing boats and a life raft. They attacked the U. S. Navy."
"Why haven't I heard we're at war?" I asked. "We're at war with that little country? I don't get it."
"I gave you an article on it. You didn't read it?"
"I browsed it, I think. I read slow."
I'd used that excise before too.
"You can say that again. That was three months ago," Ivan said.
"Not the words. I think I looked at the picture," I said, not being able to tell him it bored me.
"We have advisers there. There was a presidential election a couple of months later. Johnson needed a good war to be extra sure he got reelected. War is good politics. Can't change horses in the middle of the stream, you know?" Ivan said. "Might get all wet."
"What stream? Could be Oklahoma. They have horses in Vietnam?" I asked, being confused by the details.
"The Vietnam stream. You can't put Johnson out of office while he's defending the country from communists, can you?"
"No! You can't," I said alarmed. "We aren't at war with the communists. I'd have heard about that. That's the Soviet Union."
"The Vietnamese are engaged in a great civil war. We're fighting a war to make sure the right side wins. Think George Washington."
"Against Vietnam?" I laughed hysterically. "It's tiny. We're huge. You and Dylan are making this stuff up.
"It's politics," Ivan assured me.
"Politics are bad news then," I calculated.
"Exactly," he said.
"I don't know anything about politics," I said. "This makes me happy about that little factoid. Who starts all the wars anyway."
"That's probably why your ass will end up over there defending freedom."
"Me! I didn't lose anything over there. I'm not going anywhere."
"No, but Johnson got himself a war and it's going to take warm bodies to fight it. Yours, John-Henry's, Teddy's, and Brian's will do. Got to protect America. We've got to show them who's in charge."
"You're making this up," I said. "My brothers aren't going anywhere. They have plenty to do here. Maybe Brian will go."
"You'll see," he said, not making an effort to convince me.
This meant I'd find out for myself.
"You came this close to being born in the Soviet Union," I said, holding up my thumb and index finger an inch a part to show close.
"No, I didn't," Ivan laughed, shaking his head at my ignorance.
"Your father and grandfather escaped from Lithuania. They were under the communists. You'd have been a commie if they hadn't left."
I called them the way I saw them, even when I was all wet.
"Do you think about the things you say, Clay? My father was born in Lithuania. My mother was born in Ocala, Florida. I wouldn't have been born at all if my father hadn't come to the States. I wouldn't be here and you wouldn't know me," he said, giving me his version.
"Oh!" I said, seeing my mistake.
"I'm as American as you are. I love my country. I don't care for the fat old politicians sending kids like us into harms way for reasons known only to them. Vietnam indeed! We could go after Newfoundland. It's way closer."
When Ivan talked fast, he had an ever so slight lilt to his voice. It made him sound like his father. I noticed everything about Ivan. I wouldn't care if he was a commie, as long as he was my friend.
In Oklahoma we all sounded the same. There wasn't a distinct accent. In Florida there were all kinds of accents. Even at the dinner table, our accents were changing. My brothers and I had become southerners. I never knew one, until I became one.
Mama and Pop were pretty much set in their ways. John-Henry had begun saying 'y'all'. Brian still talked like a muscle head, and Coleen sounded even more sophisticated, but we knew the truth.
My drawl was obvious, even to me. It was like something I caught at school. Ivan laughed at how I began sounding like a local..
Oklahoma was becoming a vague memory. A letter I was writing to my friends had only the one paragraph I wrote the first day of school. I hadn't heard a word from Oklahoma, since the second letter that they all signed. I tried to remember their faces but couldn't.
Letting go of the past was probably the best idea, but those guys represented fourteen years of my life. Can you walk away from that much of your history?
I had more freedom than I'd known before. Except for the radio in Ivan's bedroom, I could be at Ivan's for days and no one bothered us. I wasn't certain what had changed, but my life was better. I was no longer on guard or under the constant watch of adults.
From time to time we'd be called to dinner if we'd been absent for too long. The ground rules weren't completely clear at the end of the first year of our friendship. We pushed our luck as far as it would go, and then our presence would be mandatory.
We knew how to handle it. It was easy hiding being wild around adults. An hour of showering and grooming was enough to fool untrained eyes. My parents were looking for serious signs we needed to be reined in, but a little water and taking time to dress did the trick.
When we entered the kitchen, we were given the once over by Mama, who checked for haircuts, and while we left a little to be desired, we passed for typical teenage boys. We got well fed for our trouble. This is where we'd gone wrong. Later, as my absences stretched into weeks, we'd go to dinner often, fake being civilized, and that way we never had to stand inspection again.
By the time we got back to Ivan's house after the first successful checkup, we were carrying our uncomfortable clothes. They'd go back in the closet for the next time we needed to wear them for effect, or in case of an emergency. We pulled it off slick as a whistle, this time, and we were good to go until next time. It's how it was done early on.
We long ago went wild, totally wild, and we were insanely happy. The drills were part of our lives. At nearly fifteen we spent a considerable amount of time doing what would appear to be civilized and acceptable to parents.
While Mr. Aleksa was a lot closer to the truth, he didn't object to boys feeling their oats. He believed that all things should be free, and we were as free as we could be. There had been and would be change, as we stretched our freedom as far as it would go our second year together.
The summers required the most caution. We were on our own most of the time, and it was easy to forget to put away our wild child nature, when we went to face my parents. During the school year, we couldn't get too far out of line. We were watched daily for any sign we were straying beyond acceptable norms.
There were always bad kids. That was a good kid who needed an attitude adjustment. What we did was slip beyond the indoctrination and we refused to follow the person in front of us, because they were the person in front of us. We'd discovered life beyond what was prescribed as the official way to do things.
I was always at home Sunday night for the trip to school Monday. Friday afternoon I went to Ivan's and stayed until dinner on Sunday. It was that summer I was allowed to stay at Ivan's without a need to report regularly to the conservancy house.
That spring John-Henry came up to talk to Ivan about fishing. Two or three times in the late afternoon, when Ivan shot baskets, Brian would stand just off the cement, watching the smooth motion that accounted for about nine out of ten shots going through the hoop.
I was never sure why Brian watched Ivan so closely. The nudity deal confused Brian. He didn't think nudity was natural. I checked to see if he was aroused by Ivan's beautiful body, but I couldn't tell, because he always wore extra clothes, just in case. It didn't bother Ivan, but it bothered me. Brian was trouble looking for a place to land.
I wasn't good at much. I wasn't smart. Besides going to school, I spent my time with Ivan. I never stopped wondering, 'Why did a kid like him, want to hang around with a klutz like me?'
Ivan turned his head to examine my eyes as he considered me when I wondered it out loud. With one long forearm resting on the railing that went around the deck, he slipped the other arm over my shoulders before he smiled his warmest smile.
"This is about you not being able to shoot a basketball?" he asked, after thinking over my insecurities another time.
"I can't. I can't do anything," I said, frustration in my voice.
"Remember those clown shoes you wore to school the first day?"
"John-Henry's boots? Yeah! I'm such a bozo," I said exasperated. "I bet they were laughing at me behind my back."
"You aren't like everyone else. The first time I saw you, I knew you weren't like everyone else, Clay," he said. "You were cool."
He'd said it before, but what did that mean? I was still a klutz.
"I can't shoot a basketball. I'm stupid. I'm fat. I can't do anything you can do, Ivan. I'm afraid you'll figure it out and drop me."
His eyes stayed in mine for a long time. The heat coming from his body made the day seem hot, and it wasn't hot. I was hot.
"You aren't me. You are Clayton Olson. When I decide to do something, Clay, I'm going to do it until I'm good at it. It's what makes me Ivan Aleksa. It's what I do."
"You can do stuff. I can't do anything," I said unhappily.
"I did the dive for years before I could do the dive you saw. I looked for a friend for years before I found you. I picked you, Clay. Why are you looking for a reason to undo that? As you say, I'm good at what I do, and I picked you."
"Boris was only gone a year when you got stuck with me," I reminded him, remembering the story about his brother leaving.
"Why do you think he was my only friend? I didn't like anyone else until I met you. I don't settle for second best, Clay. If I have a friend, he's going to be the best there is. You are the best. You don't need to compete with me. That's not why we're friends."
I started crying and couldn't stop. He took his forearm off the railing and hugged me to his body. I cried harder. I was hot. He was smooth and close. The feelings inside me were intense.
"You aren't stupid. You aren't fat. You're fourteen, Clay. Give it time and you'll soon be the most beautiful butterfly of all," he whispered in my ear.
I cried. He held me until I stopped.
I have kept crying so he'd keep holding me. I usually didn't return Ivan's hugs, but I had wrapped my arms around him. I leaned on him to feel his body touching mine.
Because of the height difference, my hands ended up on his butt. Once there, I couldn't not feel his silky warm skin. It was the most physical our contact had been. No other hug he gave me was this intense. I didn't want it to stop. I needed him to hold me.
Ivan reacted to me in a way that indicated his feelings might not be that different from mine. As open as he was, and he hid nothing, I'd never seen him aroused until now. I was aroused about half the time when I was with Ivan. In my cutoffs, it was no big thing.
On Ivan's deck, with our bodies pressed together, I feared the seams containing my erection would burst and he'd find me out, but he was erect and made no attempt to hide it. He didn't break the contact that led to his condition.
Did he feel the way I felt? Is that what he meant by different?
Obviously his feelings were growing in the same direction as mine. I could draw my own conclusions. We weren't going to talk about our erections. At fourteen we were having a sexual experience that wasn't easy to end.
I felt his hot breath on my neck. His breathing became more determined. Our hearts pounded out the Anvil Chorus as our hot skin touched in as many places as we could manage to make contact.
When he finally let go of the hug, he was facing me, making sure I was okay with him. I was better than okay. I was in love. The hug changed everything. We weren't moving right into romance, but our feelings were out in the open. We hid nothing.
We could talk about Vietnam but not about being in love.
I felt the warmth between us growing. We touched each other more often, after the big hug. We no longer needed reason to hug.
Ivan turned fifteen more than two months before me. I wanted to be with him. I bought him a card and I gave him my favorite shells. It was the first time we spent his birthday together and we ended up holding hands on the deck, after three bowls of Sugar Crisp.
His mother arrived downstairs before noon. She yelled for him to come down. He returned despondent.
"What did she say?" I asked, as he sat on the edge of the bed.
"I've got to go with her. She has plans. I said I had plans. She said my plans could wait. Her plans were more important. She wanted to take me out on my birthday."
"What are you going to do?" I asked.
He had tears in his eyes when he said, "I've got to go or she'll find a way to hurt Dad. I'm sorry, Clay. I wanted this to be our day."
"You'll be back. I'll be here when you come home. We'll pick up where we left off. We'll pretend she never came. She can't ruin what we have," I assured him.
He smiled, wiped his eyes, got dressed, and left through the door that led to the stairs that went to the kitchen.
I was lost without him. There was no telling when his mother would bring him back. Being spring break, we'd made plans. His mother didn't care about our plans. I didn't like her much.
I went home because I needed to be around people. His father called on the radio a few hours later. He came in with gifts, cake, and Ivan's favorite fresh churned butter pecan ice cream.
He asked if Ivan was at my house. He was disappointed when I told Pop to tell him that his mother picking him up a few hours before. Ivan didn't know she was coming and he went with her.
"I have a half gallon of his favorite ice cream had it churned at the dairy a little bit ago. Why don't send Clay to get it, John. The cake is from the bakery. Nothing as wonderful as your wife makes. I wouldn't insult you with it, but I have no appetite for ice cream. It's not as good after it's stored. I think you'd like it."
My father invited Mr. Aleksa to dinner, but he declined, saying he'd just come off the gulf and wasn't fit to be with decent folks. He'd go back out in the morning, since no one was home.
Pop and Mr. Aleksa talked for a few minutes. Mama made him a plate of fried chicken, potato salad, cucumber salad, and biscuits, sending it with me. Besides the butter pecan ice cream, he gave me a package of fish. I wanted to give him a hug, but I wasn't a big hugger.
These events ran together between the time Ivan was fifteen and I was fifteen. We shared the big hug and shortly afterward, Ivan was in Tampa. I really missed him after about fifteen minutes. When he was gone, I began going to his house and I slept in his bed. That's where his smell was strongest. It was where I pictured us together.
I felt better being in that bed. It being the most comfortable bed I'd ever been in didn't hurt, but it was because it was Ivan's bed that I went there. I missed him every bit as much while I was in his bed, but it was easier to miss him there. I had no trouble going to sleep at Ivan's. I felt more at home there than I did in the conservancy house.
I expected him back Sunday afternoon, and I went to sleep dreaming of us being together. It was late. I don't know what time. I heard the door open at the head of the stairs into the bedroom. We kept it closed because noises from downstairs climbed the stairs like smoke in a chimney, scaring the hell out of us when that happened.
I was close to being awake, or half asleep, or somewhere in between when I felt someone in the bed with me. My first instinct was fear, because I wasn't awake, but there was nothing to fear.
When the body kept moving closer to my body, I smelled Ivan before I felt him. He didn't stay a fair distance away. He was on my side of the bed. He wrapped his arms around me.
He was hugging me from behind now. It was fine. After being without him for two days, being hugged by him was wonderful. He was aroused and so was I, but that's not what the hug was about. It was the result of our bodies touching that way. It was the result of feelings, and fears, and being alone, and being together now.
I had no knowledge about affection then. I was denied what other boys received, because it was okay for them to hug and kiss and hold hands with the girl they fancied that week.
I fancied no one. I touched no one. No one touched me, until Ivan touched me as deeply as I could be touched. He touched me in a place where our skin didn't come together. He touched me in a spot so deep inside me, I needed to think about where it was to locate it.
If I'd slept well in Ivan's bed, once he started holding me, thrust himself against me that way, I never slept better. I tried to stay awake so I didn't miss a minute of this new hugging, but it so comforted me, I fell asleep every time.
Having Ivan wrapped around me that way was fine by me. Hearing him breathe, feeling his lips on my neck, and his erection pressed against my backside, made me feel as good as I ever felt.
I woke myself from time to time to make sure I wasn't dreaming.
I'd never been closer to anyone and the closeness had become physical. This had to be the ultimate way to be friends.
I wasn't aware I had feelings when I lived in Tulsa, but since I'd met Ivan, there was a feast of feelings released from inside me. I was no fool. I knew many of my thoughts about Ivan were sexual. I didn't know what to do about that, but Ivan's affection for me was enough for now.
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