The Gulf Between Us
by Rick Beck
Ivan was on the freshman basketball team that year. It ate a big hole in our time together. I stayed to watch practice and the coach who drove Ivan home drove me there too.
When I got into the car the first time, Ivan said, "He's with me."
Being with Ivan was always good for me. The coach didn't object as long as Ivan was with him, and he was, and if the freshman team had a star, Ivan qualified.
Besides sitting in the gym for practices, I went to the home games. I couldn't figure out a way to get on the team bus for the away games, or explain my absences if I did, beyond, ''I'm with Ivan.'
Ivan was the second tallest boy on the team and the deadliest shot. The hours he spent on the concrete slab at the corner of his house paid off in his being poise and accurate. The basketball court was wood, but the basket and the distances were the same as at the corner of Ivan's house. He didn't need instruction on how to shoot.
As home games came to the end, if Madison was still in it and the score was close, the crowd would begin to chant, "Ivan! Ivan! Ivan." The ball went to Ivan by the time he reached half court. He controlled Madison's fate. Dribbling, one eye on the clock, as the final seconds ticked off. This clock didn't tell the time but everyone in the gym knew what time it was.
It was the time Ivan owned in the close games.
At times his job was to run out the clock and take the win. If we were within two points, Ivan needed to use the clock and take a shot before it ran out. Ivan was an expert at both options. That's why he got the ball.
Twice his final shot won a game. Once he got the ball at half court, a point behind, time running out, and you could hear a pin drop.
He dribbled a couple of times, looking like he has all the time in the world. Five seconds, four seconds, three seconds, and he comes to a stop, launching a jump shot at the basket as the buzzer sounded.
'Swish,' was the only sound, until the crowd went wild.
A couple of games later with the situation being similar, Ivan took the ball at half court and drove to the basket to make a lay-up. The other team had read about his last second thirty foot jump shot against Fort Myers. They were defensing that shot, but Ivan was more than a one shot wonder and he out foxed them.
The crowd went nuts both times. Ivan had the kind of timing that allowed him to be in the right place at the right time. He had a way of doing something students and teachers remembered. While I wanted Ivan to succeed, his popularity was threatening to me.
I felt like I was in the way during basketball season.
These last second heroics by the man I loved brought back memories of the first time I saw him. I watched him do his dive. The boys on the riverbank chanted, "Ivan! Ivan! Ivan!" It's how I learned his name. Everyone at school knew his name.
I wondered if they all loved him the first time they saw him.
You could say I was jealous of Ivan's popularity. After home games he was surrounded by admirers, girls and boys alike. Everyone liked Ivan. I didn't get in the way.
Watching from a distance, I was surprised to see how easily he moved among his fans. In spite of his confession, 'I don't like anyone,' he was completely charming to everyone who wanted to speak to him. Ivan was a sweet guy and the other kids knew who he was.
When he came out of the locker room, I'd be waiting in the hall.
"Why not come in, Clay. No one bites. You've seen naked boys before, haven't you?" he said, smiling his big smile at me.
"You're the one I want to see," I said. "That's your turf, Ivan. I won't crowd you, but I can't wait for you at home. I don't like being away from you every afternoon. We always spent that time together."
"Crowd me? I love it when you crowd me," he said in a low sexy voice.
Heading out to the parking lot, sensing my insecurity, he put his hand on my shoulder, purposely walking too close to me. People passed, calling Ivan by name. The hand stayed right where it was. Ivan was telling me that I was important to him.
"Thanks, Clay," he said in a soft voice.
"For what?" I asked.
"For being there. For being here. For being my friend."
"It doesn't take a lot of work. I want to be with you," I said, wishing I'd used different words.
"I'm only doing this once. I wanted to know if I could compete. I can. It bores me now. Reminds me of what butt-heads boys our age are. Sure, I have fans. They don't know who I am. You know me and you're no butt-head."
Ivan spent a lot of time reassuring me. I didn't want Ivan to give up sports for me. I just didn't want him to be away from me all the time it took to be on an athletic team.
Ivan wasn't in the habit of doing anything he didn't want to do. I doubt his decisions on sports had a lot to do with me. If Ivan decided sports were important to him, who was I to argue? Time was the issue for me, and Ivan knew what time it was.
Ivan was accustomed to my insecurity. We were together all the time, except for basketball, and even then, I was nearby. He played and practiced for a total of three month. It was the most time we spent apart since we'd met.
I felt older than fifteen on my birthday. More had happened in the past year than all the years that came before. I was more alive than I'd ever been. Finishing ninth grade and turning fifteen made me feel more mature. We weren't kids any more. I didn't feel like a kid.
We didn't swim every day from December until March. In March the water became warmer and it was almost always smooth in the early morning. Once Ivan approved of the water temperature, he got up at first light to swim. As the weather warmed, I swam with him on weekends, when I was allowed to stay at his house.
Dragging myself out of bed at the crack of dawn couldn't be healthy. It didn't feel healthy. It made me feel like crap. After telling me to get up a dozen times, I did. Once I was in the water and took that first stroke, I didn't want to come out. On weekends we swam to my house and back when we were feeling ambitious.
It was usually after eight before we got back inside. It was usually our hunger that forced us out of the water and speeding toward the kitchen to empty the cereal boxes we could find. Before Ivan got me swimming with him in the morning, I don't know I'd seen first light anywhere but in the middle of the gulf on the Vilnius Two. The fishing nets were out before the sun began to light the day.
I was totally content with my life, especially once the school year ended. As Ivan and I considered our summer, it was the first time I realized there were two more summers left in high school. I was growing up. I was changing. I knew what I wanted. I was happy.
At my house the amount of time I was with Ivan wasn't mentioned. My parents were happy I was happy. They saw our friendship as being good for me. I couldn't argue with that. They remembered how I suffered, how lonely I was, after we left Tulsa.
I wasn't suffering any more. I was where I wanted to be. I was doing what I wanted to do. My life mostly belonged to me the summer I turned fifteen.
Coleen turned twenty and moved to Tampa with two girls from work. John-Henry met Patricia and they were getting serious. I considered this to be blazing new territory. She was the first girl he'd gone with who only had one first name.
John-Henry didn't necessarily agree with my assessment. He was 'Playing the field.' Mama remembered all the names of girls who made the first cut, making it to our dinner table.
She had a better memory than I did, but my hunch, she wrote the names down so she could remind John-Henry how many there were. She didn't mark down which ones he met on the nude beach, but I remembered those girls best.
Mama asked John-Henry about the girls she liked, after they got as far as our table and shared our food. I doubt John-Henry remembered all the names, but Mama liked to remind him.
Brian became less talkative that summer. This meant he wasn't as rude or annoying, which made dinner easier on all of us. He graduated from high school the day before my birthday, but he had no job prospects beyond working for Pop three days a week. Even when he did work for Pop, he never, not ever, got to patrol the nude beach.
John-Henry didn't let Brian near that beach. It was where he met his women. Meeting them on there answered most of the questions that were important to him at nineteen.
Teddy would be a senior when school started. He had two jobs and a car of his own. I rarely saw Teddy. It was the same in Tulsa. Teddy was a hard worker and always had been. We didn't knew what his life was like away from us. Like me, he was gone a lot.
I would be a sophomore when school started. Lucy was entering sixth grade and was the most mature member of the family, and always would be. She turned eleven the month after I turned fifteen.
In spite of Lucy's intellect, she loved me best. With all the candor Lucy felt comfortable sharing, she told me, "I love you best, Clay, but I'm going to marry Ivan."
I knew how she felt.
I'd never considered marriage to Ivan, not until Lucy brought it up. She could marry him, once she got older. I was in love with Ivan, but I couldn't marry him no matter how old I was.
How stupid would you have to be to believe that one day I could marry the man I loved? I didn't think it might be possible one day, but I'm sure Lucy did. I realized how limited our options were, not that Ivan had given thought to us getting married.
Mama sent enough food up to Ivan's to feed an army that summer. Unfortunately we weren't an army and we were always in search of food.
Mr. Aleksa saved us from starvation. He came in twice a week to fill the fridge. He rarely ate much, but he loved Mama's meatloaf and fried chicken. We made sure he got plenty, because Mr. Aleksa bought the food that got us through until the next dinner at my house.
Sharing leftovers with Ivan's father was instrumental to our survival.
Mr. Aleksa was a shy man who preferred work over people. I got it. When I was out on the sea, it was a new experience each time. The gulf was forever changing. It had nothing on me.
Working on the Vilnius Two was something I looked forward to doing, and our time on board was also changing. We'd begun to go out more often. We enjoyed the work and were as good as any hands who'd want twice the money we got. It was still more than I was worth. I'd have paid him to take me on his boat.
Ivan and I went to dinner twice a week most weeks. It's the only way we could assure we didn't go hungry. We'd eat our fill and by the time we reached Ivan's, after dinner, we'd eaten half the food Mama sent home with us. No one could eat as much as we ate, but we did. I knew I'd be a blimp one day. I hadn't forgotten the Leslie look.
Ivan's mother insisted he make his usual June visit, after school let out. He did it to keep the peace, but it made him angry. Ivan did angry well. He'd banged and slammed things, while getting ready to leave with her. He wasn't happy, and he let her know it. She didn't care. She was exercising her ownership over him.
He held onto that anger the entire time he was in Tampa. He told me about it once he came home. Boris drove Ivan home in his new convertible, after two days of him being rude. Ivan no longer needed to wait until his mother was ready to drive him.
Boris was happy to drive him. He had a car and driving was fun. Ivan was sure his mother wouldn't come after him any time soon, but she would come after him sooner or later.
If she was waiting for Ivan to stay for good, she had a long wait.
He was fifteen and no longer willing to let his mother run his life. He told me later that he thought of me the entire time he was gone. He wasn't alone. We liked being together and we didn't like being separated. It was something else Ivan held against his mother.
Our bond was well established and growing stronger. We'd survived basketball season and his obligatory visit to his mothers.
My family was beginning its second year in the conservancy house. Ivan and I drew closer, but his devotion to Dylan and concern with 'American Imperialism' was of concern for one of us.
He handed me an article on the American advisers in Vietnam.
I could no longer fake read, but I rarely read an entire article, but he watched my eyes to make sure they were moving back and forth.
"They're doing what advisers do, Ivan. They're training the Vietnamese to fight is all," I said, thinking it sounded good.
"Fight who?" Ivan asked, searching for some hidden truth that wasn't revealed in the Time magazine article.
I read some more as he watched. With fake reading out, I had to read it. There had to be a pretty good reason for us being in Vietnam. I just didn't know what it was and the article didn't say anything we didn't already know.
"It says here they are defending themselves from the... North Vietnamese," I read, thinking I must have read it wrong. "They're fighting each other?" I asked myself.
"Yes, North against South. How original," Ivan blurted. "Good thing we've never had to do that. Maybe the Swedes would come over to show us how to fight if we ever do."
"The North are commies," I said, suddenly seeing the answer in black and white.
"How convenient for us," Ivan said. "So happens we hate commies. That's a fine reason to go to Vietnam to kill... Vietnamese?" Ivan said, suspiciously sounding less than convinced about that deal.
The American general had requested a few thousand troops to defend the advisers who have come under fire. A couple of Americans were killed.
'A thousand troops? That was no big deal,' I thought.
"The masters of war are working overtime to get us knee deep in the weeds," Ivan told me. "They're running the country and are arming the entire world, just in case."
By that time a few thousand more troops had been sent a half dozen times, and they weren't coming home. They were being attacked by someone called the Viet Cong. That sounded bad. No wonder we needed more troops.
I immediately thought of King Kong. That was one bad dude.
"What's the Viet Cong?" I asked Ivan.
"Viet is a big clue. It's Vietnamese who don't necessarily like foreign troops being inside their country. Think British," he said.
"I think they're whatever they need to be to get rid of the foreign troops we keep sending into their country," Ivan explained.
The number of troops in Vietnam kept going up an article Ivan handed me mentioned. Ivan let things like that excite him. I didn't. I trusted my country and our leaders. There had to be a good reason to be in Vietnam. I'd wait until they came up with one. I didn't want to rush my government.
I remembered the story of Ivan's grandfather escaping after the Soviets entered Lithuania to help them. The Soviets were bad guys. America was the good guys. We were trying to help the Vietnamese. Both things sounded similar, but we had our reasons. I was sure of it.
I heard President Johnson promise to protect the free people of Vietnam, which didn't make a lot of sense to me, but he probably left something out. He was a busy man. He'd explain it later.
I believed people should treat each other respectfully and stop trying to run other people's lives. If you didn't like something, avoid it. If you didn't like someone, avoid them. It wasn't complicated to me.
Why did people want to get into the middle of other people's lives anyway? Did they want people telling them how to live their lives? I thought it would be way better when we left each other alone.
When folks attended to their own business, they didn't have so much time to mess with other people. That made sense to me. Vietnam didn't. What was so different about them that they couldn't take care of their own business? Maybe they didn't want to fight. No amount of training would change that.
I didn't want to fight. I wasn't mad at anyone. I wasn't mad.
Why not let people solve their own problems? Didn't they let us solve ours? People in other countries can figure out what is best for them. It was 1965 after all. We were allowed to figure out what was best for us and no one came to America to show us how to think.
I lived at Ivan's the summer I was fifteen. We swam, fished, and explored the river, the gulf, and our beach. I felt like Huck Finn to his Tom Sawyer each time we made a new discovery. We were beach boys and beachcombers.
Then there was our work on the Vilnius Two. Once a way for Ivan to spend more time with his father, we were now deckhands. Our labor went a long way to taking some of the weight off Mr. Aleksa's shoulders. He was having a very good year, and he credited Ivan and me for much of his success.
Telling me this would have had me doubting him about my value, but when he told my father, and I heard about it at the dinner table, it was the kind of credit that made me feel comfortable with the work.
I'd never been darker or happier than I was that summer. This was the summer we began going out once a week with Mr. Aleksa on the Vilnius Two. We went for three days and two nights. It was just enough to enjoy the adventure and not so often that I wasn't looking forward to it.
The gulf fascinated me in a way nothing had before.
This was the summer when I was no longer round to Ivan's tall. I grew four inches by summer's end and I was five nine to Ivan's five eleven. The swimming, hiking, exploring, and work on the Vilnius Two contributed to the changes in me.
Being in constant motion from sunrise, until long after sundown, had Mama asking, as I picked food off whatever dish she was trying to get to the dinner table, "Are you sure you feel okay. You look thin to me, Clayton."
Mama knew how to make me feel good, but I do believe she thought I wasn't getting enough to eat. It seemed to me that I spent all my time eating or in search of food. I couldn't get enough.
My baby fat burned up in the Florida sun and people called me thin.
I was made stronger and more confident as my body matured. I didn't become good at anything besides being Clay, but there was hope. Not that much interested me if it didn't involve Ivan Aleksa, the son of my boss. His being my boss bought me a lot of freedom.
Ivan gained weight and got more handsome each day. We weren't boys any more. We would enter high school in the fall. We were on the final leg of our formal education.
I saw school as a necessary evil to keep my parents and educators happy. Ivan saw it as brainwashing with a few helpful hints tossed in to make you think you were thinking for yourself.
Ivan listened to Dylan a lot? I'm sure Dylan felt the same way Ivan did about school.
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