Hand Me Down
by Evan Carlton
He was waiting for me outside when I got home from school at four the next day. He stared at my garish blue and yellow blazer and then looked down at his own stylish uniform.
-you look like an advert for IKEA
-ha ha. I know.
-come to mine? He looked over his shoulder to his house. I shrugged and followed him.
Inside, Sandra greeted me like a second son and automatically started making platefuls of sandwiches. Connor rolled his eyes and pointed upstairs. I grabbed a tuna sandwich and followed him up to his bedroom. I stopped at the door and stared at the chaos. Clothes were strewn everywhere and books and toys covered just about every surface, including the unmade bed. Posters of aeroplanes covered most of the walls. He opened a window to let out the stale air and looked at me apologetically.
-I banned Mum from my room. She snoops.
My signing still wasn't good enough to hold a proper conversation and I couldn't be bothered to type so I spoke slowly, letting him read my lips
"I thought you'd had a break-in."
-we can't all be perfect like you.
I helped him pick up most of the clothes and watched as he threw his duvet over his bed. He grabbed his laptop off his desk and beckoned me to sit down on the bed. After a few minutes, he turned the laptop around and I read his long message.
-I've had hearing friends before who started to learn NZSL. A few weeks later they gave up because it was too hard or because they just lost interest. After the third or fourth time, I kind of lost interest in hearing kids as well. I didn't mean to offend you, it just didn't come out right. To answer your questions:
1. I admit I'm an arsehole sometimes. I get angry and frustrated because sometimes people say stupid things or look at me like I'm a freak when they don't even know me. I'll try to be better.
2. Yes. I could hear until I was three so I hear things in my dreams, but I can't remember what words sound like so mostly the people in my dreams just make noises. It's not nice and I wish it would stop. I'd rather not hear anything.
3. I wanted to be an airline pilot but that's obviously not an option. I've started looking into journalism, but most Uni courses combine spoken and written word so I have to see if I can get in just on my writing. Otherwise I'll probably study English Lit and become a freelance journo.
Can I ask you some questions?
I turned the laptop back to him and nodded. He typed again and then turned the screen back towards me.
- Why don't you tell C and M you're getting bullied?>/li>
- Do you want to be my friend because you like me or because you fancy me?
- Are you going to keep going with NZSL or will you give up like all the others?
Answer the second question first.
I laughed and thought for a few seconds before I typed my answers.
- The first time I saw you I thought you were very handsome. Then we hung out and I realised I needed a friend more than a boyfriend. I'm just trying to stay sane after all that's happened, and I don't need romance right now.
- It's mostly just stupid teasing and I can ignore that. If C and M get involved it will escalate and I'll be just a snitching bitch at school.
- I love NZSL. I sign all the time and I hope I'm going to have a tutor after Xmas. Even if you don't want me as a friend I'll keep going.
That was the moment when the silences between us stopped being awkward. For Connor, silence was just background noise, and as we sat staring at each other on his bed, I let the roar of silence wash over and comfort me.
In the days leading up to Christmas, Connor and I hung out almost every day, my signing getting better without being good enough to hold more than a basic conversation. Connor read my lips whenever I didn't know a sign, and I could always fill in with finger-spelling or by using my iPhone if nothing else worked. He taught me the single-handed alphabet and signed slower than usual for me, so I picked up three or four new signs every day. Michael had contacted Tamati, the guide from the Aquatic Museum, and he had agreed to give me some lessons after Christmas as well.
One day we went to the shopping centre to look for a gift for Connor's mother, fighting our way through the teeming crowds of shoppers. He found a pretty case inlaid with paua shell for her reading glasses, and then declared himself exhausted. A table in front of a café emptied just as we were walking past and we dived in and claimed it before anyone else could. I ordered two flat whites and we sat back to watch the Christmas stampede of harassed parents and ill-tempered children.
-is it loud?
-very. Like an earthquake I said, using one of my favourite signs.
-sometimes being deaf isn't all that bad
-why don't you ever talk about your Dad?
-you never asked
-I'm asking now
-he left when I was five. He married again and moved to Kerikeri. That's it
-do you see him ever?
-no. As long as he sends a cheque every month that's enough for Mum and me. He has another family now. Can we talk about something else?
I noticed that two teenage girls were watching us from a table inside the café.
-I think they like us I said, flicking my head in their direction.
I turned just in time to see one of the girls waving her hands in the air, mocking our signs. The other girl was pulling faces as if we were mentally retarded. I stared at her in disbelief and she stopped, pretending not to be embarrassed. I felt a stab of anger and was about to get up and say something when Connor grabbed my arm.
-don't. It's a waste of time. You get used to it after about ten years
-I don't want to get used to it
-just stupid teasing, remember? If you can live with being teased, so can I.
We drank our flat whites in silence. When the girls left, they walked right past our table, daring us to say something. I made the sign for trash and Connor laughed into his hand. I liked NZSL even more after that.
-do you have any money? Connor asked suddenly.
-about fifty – why?
-come with me
We finished our coffees and Connor practically pulled me across the shopping centre to a hairdresser sandwiched between two toy shops. I ran my hand through my awful curls and smiled as he pushed open the door. Fifteen minutes later I was sitting in a chair, my hair washed and ready to cut. Connor was showing the hairdresser something on his iPhone. She nodded and went to work on me.
-don't I get to decide?
-sorry not today
-as long as it's not too short. I look like a stick with ears when I have short hair
-shut up and wait
Twenty minutes later, Carly was done and I stared at myself in the mirror, astonished. My hair was short around the sides and wavy on top. It suited me. I grinned at Connor and gave him a thumbs-up. I looked cool for the first time in my life.
-what did you show her?
-don't be mad
-just show me
He turned his phone around and I burst out laughing when I saw a picture of Troye Sivan, the Australian Youtube star.
-he's gay as well
-I know. Why did you think of him?
-You have the same shaped face. You look good.
Charlie and Michael cheered when I walked through the door at home.
"Thank God. We were trying to work out how to tell you you needed a haircut," said Michael.
"Blame Connor. He ambushed me."
"God bless him," said Charlie, running his hands though the curls over my ears. "At least we can go out with you in public now."
"You know you guys can tell me if I'm doing something wrong, okay?" I said, concerned. "I'm not made of eggshells. I can handle it."
"Ben, every day we pray that you'll do something wrong. Break something. Be a moody teenager. Shout at us," said Michael. "We did all that training and we want to put it to good use."
I looked at them both, searching for the right words. "I don't want to do anything wrong. I love living here. You guys are amazing. Every day when I wake up, I can't believe how lucky I am just to be here. With you both." My voice trailed away as I felt a blush spreading upwards from my chest. I cleared my throat and started heading for the stairs. I turned when I heard Charlie's voice. He was standing next to Michael, their hands draped loosely around each other's waists.
"We feel the same way, Ben." His voice was thick with emotion. "Every minute of every day."
I was starting to panic about what to get Charlie and Michael for Christmas – it was only a few days away and I didn't know what kind of stuff they liked. I looked through their CD collection and worked out who listened to what. I still had fifty dollars from my pocket money and I would get another twenty that Saturday, so that should be enough to get them each something.
On the last weekend before the Christmas holidays, we all headed out to Haumoana to spend the day with Evan and Steven. Connor had never been out to their house before and he was really excited on the drive out there, signing like crazy and making little whispering sounds that sounded like he was out of breath. Connor had explained to me politely that when you sign you have to use facial expressions to communicate what emotion you are conveying. As he explained it, if you were saying something like 'you shouldn't do that', you could change the meaning by the look on your face. You could look like you were angry, sad or even joking. So now in addition to signing and speaking or mouthing the words, I was learning to pull faces at the same time. Once I got over the initial feeling that I was making a fool of myself, it kind of made sense. I watched Connor's over-excited signing, understanding less and less as we got closer to Haumoana.
-slow down you're making me dizzy
-sorry I'm just enjoying myself
-it's ok. You want vegetarian food? or sausages?
Connor put his hand over his mouth and pretended to be shocked. I mimed laughing. Apparently the sign for sausages could be misinterpreted, like plenty of other signs.
-vegetarian if you cook for me otherwise sausages
I felt that lurch in my stomach that happened whenever he said something nice to me, but to hide it I pretended to be shocked and we goofed around laughing at the rude joke.
Max and Moritz went crazy when we arrived, jumping up at me like I was a long lost friend. Connor immediately fell in love with them and got down on his knees to let them lick his face. I showed Connor the downstairs bathroom so he could change into his swimming things. I almost stopped breathing when he emerged wearing speedo shorts that were even tighter than mine. They showed off his round bum and a very pronounced bulge in the front. He was stockier than me but on him it looked strong and healthy.
-these look smaller than last year
-I grew four inches
There was more laughing and goofing around at that. I changed after him, sighing when I saw my skinny body in the mirror. My hair didn't fall down to my shoulders in girly curls anymore, but I looked like I was thirty pounds underweight, which I probably was. The bulge in the front of my shorts was half the size of Connor's as well. 'Well here goes nothing', I thought to myself as I headed out to the pool. Connor and Steven were already splashing around, but they both turned round to watch as I arrived at the edge of the pool. I saw a momentary flicker of something like curiosity on Connor's face, but then it was gone as he turned round and splashed water towards Moritz, who was standing at the edge of the pool barking in excitement. I dove in as well and swam over to join them, signing to Connor how cold the water was then telling Steven at the same time how fantastic the PS4 was. I remembered to sign at the same time to include Connor in the conversation. Steven grinned at me.
"You're signing is unbelievable. You must practise every day."
"I enjoy it. It's my favourite language."
"Show me the sign for 'happy'."
-you're happy, he signed
-yes I am
"Good. I've been thinking about you. I'm glad you and Connor have become friends." I could see he was asking me a question with his eyes, so I shook my head slightly as I answered.
"So am I. He's hard work but it's worth it." Connor looked outraged but he was grinning as he started splashing me. I ducked underwater and swam for safety, Connor in hot pursuit.
As the afternoon turned to evening, Charlie and Michael dived in and we somehow started a huge wrestling match with Connor on Charlie's shoulders and me on Michael's. They had their hands on each other's upper arms, as did Connor and I, and the aim of the game turned out to be for Connor to try to wrestle me off my battle steed, or be unseated in the process. Charlie and Michael made it even harder by trying to dunk each other under the water at the same time. By the time Connor managed to wrestle me into the water we were all laughing so hard we could hardly breathe.
As Evan lit the torches lining the pool, we curled up in two loungers and signed stupid jokes to each other while we ate veggie burgers and watched the sun go down.
That evening Steven sent me an email with an attachment, and suddenly I knew I had the perfect Christmas gift for my foster parents.
Even though the days before Christmas were happy and relaxed, the nights were a different story. The nightmare had returned, scaring me witless. Mum repeated her angry accusations, her eyes full of disappointment and scorn. I choked and gasped, pleading silently for her to stop. Twice I woke up to find Michael and Charlie staring worriedly at me from the doorway. They asked me over and over again if I wanted to talk to someone about it, and I could tell that they were both thinking about what I had said to the judge during the hearing. I told them it could wait until after Christmas, but I could see they weren't happy about it. On Christmas Eve I made myself stay awake as long as possible so that I would sleep through the night and mercifully we all woke up on Christmas morning refreshed and in the mood to celebrate. Connor and his mum had driven up to Rotorua to visit her family and Evan and Steven had flown to Fiji for a week, so it would be the three of us and Charlie's parents, who were driving down from Gisborne.
We had breakfast together, still in our pyjamas, and then Charlie announced it was present time. I rushed over to the tree and grabbed my gift to them and handed it to Michael to open. He made a big fuss about wondering what it could possibly be, but when he opened it, he went very quiet. He showed it to Charlie, who looked at it in silence for ages, which made me quite nervous. I was beginning to think I had made a dreadful mistake when Charlie looked up at me.
"Thank you, Ben. It's absolutely perfect. The first of loads of happy memories, I hope."
Steven had sent me a photo he had taken with his EOS as we were all wrestling in the pool and I had had it framed. We all looked so happy, the water cascading over us and the warm setting sun bathing us in orange light. Michael and Charlie, half out of the water, were looking at each other with such love in their eyes that it made you feel warm just to see it. I suppose the word for the look on my face was 'carefree'.
My present was a bit odd at first. I held up the bicycle helmet and stared at Charlie politely.
"Excellent." I said carefully. "I was going to save up for a bike so now I won't have to buy a helmet anymore. Really great, Charlie."
It's not that I'm stupid, in case you're wondering; it's just that, back then, I wasn't that good at being given presents. I just hadn't had the practice. So when Michael walked in from the back garden wheeling a mountain bike, it took me a second to realise that the helmet was actually sort of a pre-present.
"Oh my God. It's a bike." You get the picture, don't you? So bad.
"Yes, Ben. It's your bike," said Michael with a solemn look on his face. Then they both burst out laughing as I finally started smiling.
We were interrupted by the doorbell ringing and suddenly the house was full of sound. Charlie's parents were amazing. His dad was an even bigger version of Charlie, with a huge laugh and the loudest voice I had ever heard. His mum was a hugging machine, who only seemed complete when she was firmly attached to another human being. I knew Charlie had probably told them most of my story, but I was sure he had spared them the more intimate details. They only gave me a card for my Christmas present, but they seemed to want me to open it there and then. Inside there was a hundred-dollar note. It was a bit embarrassing as I hadn't got them anything, but I realised that that's the way things are with grandparents. I had grandparents now.
They were a bit suspicious of my veggie roast but they politely tried a bit alongside their turkey and roast potatoes, and Charlie's dad even declared he would consider turning vegetarian if everything tasted that good. Once we had eaten and the adults had all settled down to watch the Bond film, I headed up to my bedroom to chat to Connor using the usual mix of Facetime and messaging.
-Hi how's R-O-T-O-R-U-A?
-Stinky. Like rotten eggs
-It's all volcanoes here
-I like that sign
-So do I
-Did you get anything good?
-Mostly vouchers . V-O-U-C-H-E-R-S. Nobody knows what I like
-I got a hundred dollars from Charlie's parents. And a bike from C and M. I haven't had a bike since I was eight. It's amazing. Eighteen gears.
-we can ride together
-you have a B-I-K-E? Thanks. Bike. You never told me.
-you never asked. That's a rude sign.
-Just kidding. So what's next?
-I'm so full I could burst.
-I mean after today
-The social worker is coming on the 28th. I suppose she wants to make sure C and M aren't beating me up every day, or trying to have sex with me.
-You should be so lucky
-Yes I am
Mrs. Parata didn't approve of gay men raising children. She didn't say that exactly, but then she didn't really need to. She looked like she had sucked on a lemon every time she spoke.
"So tell me Benjamin, do you feel comfortable here with Mr. Drake and Mr. Drummond?"
"Of course I do. They're the best."
"Yes, they make sure I have everything I need and they help me whenever I ask them to."
"What do they help you with?"
"My schoolwork. I'm still catching up from the week I missed. Michael's a Professor."
"Yes, I am aware. Tell me about your privacy. Are you left alone to get dressed and bathe?"
"What are you implying?" Michael sounded furious. I looked at him and shook my head.
"I'm fourteen, Mrs. Parata. I don't need any help taking a shower. And Michael and Charlie aren't interested in seeing me naked. I don't think anyone is, really."
"It sounds like you have a very poor image of yourself."
"They're helping me with that as well. I can talk to them about anything. They're great listeners. And I think it's great that they're gay. It means I can ask them anything I like without feeling embarrassed." Mrs. Parata looked like thunder when I said that.
"I hardly think that is a good thing, Benjamin. You need to be exposed to all sorts of cultures. There's no reason for you to believe that you are gay at your age. Did you have these feelings before you came to live in this house?" I saw Michael tense again, so I answered quickly.
"Always. I've always preferred boys. I didn't miraculously become gay when I moved here, Mrs. Parata. I just became happy. That's all." Out of the corner of my eye I could see Charlie grinning.
"Well I shall be visiting every month until I'm sure that this is a good and healthy environment for you, Benjamin."
"And we'll be glad to welcome you into our house, Mrs. Parata," said Michael through gritted teeth as he walked her to the door, his hand firmly in the small of her back.
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