Hand Me Down
by Evan Carlton
As my shoulder healed, we settled into a routine of sorts. Sticking to our side of the bargain, we did our homework dutifully and generally behaved as well as could be expected of two fifteen-year-olds. Gradually our parents relaxed and things went back to normal. The spring holidays were heaven. Connor and I roamed around Napier on our bikes, went to closed caption showings of science fiction movies and even went to a first division rugby match. Charlie and Michael kept out of it, knowing that I would ask them for advice if and when I needed it, but somehow we managed to find our own way most of the time. We didn't feel the need to show the world that we were a couple so we didn't. Ella had re-appeared in our lives and it was actually nice to have her around, her signing sometimes so ridiculously funny that we couldn't breathe for laughing. She made up complicated stories about the families we saw struggling with children and shopping, the tired couples barely able to look at each other, the old people who stared off into the distance as they nursed their cold coffee.
"She was a spy in the second world war. She parachuted in behind enemy lines and helped smuggle British soldiers out of occupied France. She would say adieu with a blow job."
"They tried swinging last night and ended up with a couple who were into bondage."
"He's thinking about leaving her for his neighbour's wife. They share a love of Scrabble and Florentine art."
I slept over at Connor's house once or twice, but since he only had a single bed, one of us ended up on the floor, which wasn't exactly romantic. Connor spent most Fridays at ours. Once my shoulder had healed, we ended up being able to share my bed properly. Charlie had discreetly exchanged my Star Wars duvet for something a little more grown up, and I switched from pyjamas to boxer briefs and a T-shirt. Connor preferred his Bonds and hated wearing a shirt in bed. Waking up to him on a Saturday morning was the highlight of my week. I loved listening for the change in his breathing that meant he was waking up, and the look of pure delight every time he opened his eyes to find me staring at him. We had discovered just about everything we could do with our hands and our mouths, and that was fine for us for now. At least once a week, Charlie offered to supply us with condoms and lube.
"We'll be fine, Dad. Friends who are boyfriends, remember?"
"I just want you to be ready when the time comes."
At school everyone calmed down once I stopped wearing my sling. It was nice to slide back into obscurity. I joined the tennis team, but I couldn't make much of a mark and I didn't make the first team. Nevertheless, my grades were good, and my teachers were happy.
I sensed that people knew I had changed, but they didn't press me when I told them I didn't know what they were talking about. Steven was occupied with his finals, so we hardly saw each other in term four, his last term at Taradale. Barring a complete disaster, he would be starting at Massey University in Palmerston North the following year.
One Saturday, the doorbell rang. Connor looked up at me in confusion as Ian Carter and Kelvin Ngata walked into the living room behind me. He glowered at Ian and looked at me.
-what does he want
-I don't know. Be nice please he's really sorry for what happened
-easy to say
-just listen to what they have to say
I made tea while Ian and Kelvin sat in the kitchen looking uncomfortable. Connor stayed demonstratively in the living room.
"We were kind of hoping your dads would be here," Ian said.
"Charlie's at the station and Michael's shopping. He'll be back in an hour or so."
We wandered back into the living room.
"We come in peace," Ian said slowly to Connor. "I never meant to hurt Ben, and I hope you can forgive me one day." Connor looked at him neutrally.
-I like this. Should I make him suffer some more?
-no. My life at school is really easy now. I want it to stay that way
-shame. Tell him he can stay
"Connor says he forgives you"
"So are you in some sort of trouble? I can contact Charlie at work if it's an emergency."
"No. Well not for me. For Kelvin maybe." I interpreted for Connor and he suddenly looked interested.
I looked at Kelvin expectantly. He looked like he would rather be anywhere else but here. I waited.
"My parents threw me out," he said finally.
"You're kidding. Why?"
"Because I'm gay." My jaw dropped.
-that mountain of Maori muscle is gay? Connor signed. I'm in heaven
Kelvin Ngata was a second row forward and weighed about 110 kilos. He was the straightest acting person I had ever met. And he was gay.
"Okay. This is a tough one. What do you want from my dads?"
"How did they find out?"
"I left my computer on. My mum saw what I had been browsing and we had a huge fight. She and Dad said that they didn't want a gay son living in their house, so I left. Look , I know this isn't really fair, but I've got nowhere to go and I don't think my folks can throw me out like that. I'm sixteen, but that still makes me a minor, right?"
-you need to call Charlie, Connor signed urgently.
-let's see what Michael says. He knows a lot about the law.
-do they know about us?
-I don't think so. Ian has always thought we were together but I never told him or anyone else. Steven and Ella are the only ones who know.
"Why are you just signing? Are you talking about me?" Kelvin sounded paranoid.
"No. It was private. About us. Connor and me. Look it's all going to come out eventually anyway, but Connor and I have been a couple for the last eight weeks. I'm not out at school and I don't want to be right now, so could we just keep everything within these four walls for now?"
Ian stared at me and then at Connor.
"Thank God. If you two hadn't got together I think the Pacific Rim would have exploded sooner or later. I'm really pleased for you both." Connor stared at him and then smiled.
-maybe he's not such a prick after all.
-I told you
Michael went into overdrive as soon as he got home. He called Charlie and then took Kelvin into the kitchen, closing the door firmly. A few minutes later, Charlie pulled up outside the house in a police car and marched into the house with a determined look on his face. I pointed towards the kitchen. Connor and I sat nervously with Ian in the living room. I saw a momentary flash of pain on Ian's face when we heard loud sobbing. Finally, Kelvin emerged from the kitchen, his eyes red and his face puffy. He smiled ruefully.
"Ian wasn't wrong, Ben. You have the coolest dads in Napier."
- damn right Connor signed.
Charlie and Kelvin drove off together and we all sat down together. Michael did his best to hide his fury, but I could tell he was close to losing it.
"Can they throw him out, Professor Drummond?" Ian asked.
"No, Ian, they can't. But he's sixteen, which means that if CYF decides their living situation is too volatile, they might agree to place him in a home until he's eighteen for his own safety. More likely for theirs, come to think of it. He's a big bugger, isn't he?"
"How can a mother just throw her own child out?" I said angrily. "She's a nurse at the hospital. She must see the results of domestic violence every day. It's ridiculous."
"She's very religious apparently, and she's worried how the Maori community will react."
"But he's her son," Ian exclaimed. "What does it matter what anyone else thinks. And doesn't the Bible preach love and tolerance? It's all so hypocritical." I stared at him, amazed at his passion.
"You did the right thing by bringing him here, Ian," Michael said. We talked amongst ourselves while he made a huge plate of sandwiches.
-so what happens next? Connor signed.
"Charlie's going to try and persuade them both to see eye-to-eye. If that doesn't work we'll have to look at contacting CYF."
"Can he stay at mine?" Ian asked. "My mum won't like it, but it's just not fair."
"Why won't your mum like it?" I asked suspiciously. I was beginning to get fed up with homophobia.
"Oh it's not that. It's a bit embarrassing, but since the divorce, things have got a bit tight financially. My sister started at St. Hilda's and my Dad is refusing to pay. He says she can go to Napier Central. Mum's still only working part time, so there's not much money coming in. But I won't stand by and watch Kelvin go in a home just because his mother is worried about what the marae will think of her. It makes me so angry."
"Well he's old enough to live away from home as long as someone assumes guardianship. Would your mum do that?" Michael asked.
"Maybe. It's a bit out of her comfort zone but she likes Kelvin, so it's worth asking."
A few minutes later, Charlie's car pulled up again outside. We all relaxed when we saw he was alone, but the news Charlie gave us wasn't good.
"They agreed to take him back when I threatened them with a fine for abandonment. But they've told him he needs to be out by the end of the month. The elders from the marae are supporting them, I'm afraid."
Ian stared at him, shaking his head sadly.
"What about Tamati?" I said. "He and Millie have a spare room and he doesn't get involved in the marae at all, does he?"
"It's different being outside of the marae and actively going up against them. He would be cutting all ties for good. It's a lot to ask. Let's just see if the situation gets any better. I've told Kelvin there's a bed for him here if things get really bad."
Ian and Kelvin came round again the next evening after school. Things were pretty bad at home, but Kelvin was more worried about what would happen at the end of the month. Mrs. Carter had told Ian she couldn't take Kelvin in. She was barely able to make ends meet as it was, and Ian's sister would probably have to leave St. Hilda's at the end of the year. Charlie and Michael listened in silence, and then excused themselves to talk about things in the kitchen in private.
Connor chose not to come over on the Friday. I looked at him nervously when he told me.
-I just want to spend the evening with my mum. She's lonely, I think.
-so we're alright?
-of course. I'll make it up to you he said, wiggling his finger lasciviously.
-okay but come for breakfast on Saturday. I'll miss you.
-you can see me out of your bedroom window
-tell C and M not to worry.
-they'll worry no matter what I tell them
-where are they, anyway?
-Charlie's got a late shift and Michael's away for the night on business. I don't know where.
My phone rang at about nine. Steven wanted to go over the last details for his eighteenth on Sunday. There would be a few of the seniors there from Taradale, which had me worried.
"I've asked Charlie and Michael not to make a big deal out of me being gay. I'm just not ready to be out at school yet. Connor has promised to keep his hands to himself as well, and he says Sandra won't mention it either." I heard Steven sigh.
"Ben, it's going to come out sooner or later. You're asking Charlie and Michael to lie for you, which is pretty harsh."
I felt a flush of anger before I spoke. "It was different for you, Steven. You were popular from day one, and when you came out it didn't make you any less popular. I'm just getting people to accept me this year. I don't want to go back to being bullied, and not having friends again."
"I know, Ben. I understand," Steven said quickly. "But keeping it hidden is just as stressful as being out and hearing people say stupid things. It'll eat away at you if you let it."
"Just a bit longer, please?" I said desperately.
"Of course, Ben. "
"How's Evan doing?" I asked, changing the subject.
"He's up in Auckland with those two guys he used to know. They used to be business partners. Alex and Tim, I think their names were."
"Michael's away as well. And Connor wanted some Mum time, so I'm here alone. Oh well, I suppose it makes a nice change." I smiled as I realised I was signing at the same time. I wondered if I would start dreaming in sign language eventually.
Steven made me promise to come to the house early on Sunday afternoon to help him get things set up, and we said goodnight. A few minutes later my phone rang again. So much for a peaceful evening. I saw Ian's number in the display.
"Just wanted to check up on you, Ben."
"That's nice. Nearly back to normal now. How's Kelvin?"
"Not good. He's sleeping here tonight. He and his dad keep getting into it. I'm really worried things are going to turn nasty one day."
"You're a good friend to him, Ian," I said. "It must be nice for him, knowing he has someone looking out for him. He's always welcome to crash here. I'd hate to think of him ending up on a park bench somewhere. Is your mum okay with him being there?"
"She doesn't know. She's up in Auckland for the night for a girls' reunion. It's weird, you know? She never mentioned it until yesterday and she's never been remotely interested in meeting up with her old school friends before."
"This is weird. Steven's dad and Michael suddenly decided they had to go out of town as well. Do you think they're up to something together?"
Ian laughed. "You mean like a very odd love triangle? I don't think I can get my head round that right now."
I laughed as well, but somehow I knew for sure that it wasn't a coincidence.
"Before I forget; you're not going to say anything on Sunday, are you? About Connor and me?"
"Of course not, even though I don't agree with it. I don't think people will react as badly as you think they're going to."
I rolled my eyes. "Not you as well. Steven just said the same thing to me. Can I just have this Christmas? Then I'll come out, I promise."
"Ben, relax. It's your decision. You don't have to explain."
There were about thirty-five people at Steven's birthday party. I recognised a few seniors from school, but they didn't seem too interested in talking to a fifth former, so I spent most of my time with Connor and Ian. Kelvin had agreed to come, even though he didn't feel much like celebrating. He sat with us, but he hardly spoke all evening. Ian's mother, Lindy, made a special point of asking me about my shoulder and apologising for everything that had happened. She seemed ve ry taken with Connor, who was being so ridiculously charming that I had to beg him to take it down a notch. Everyone seemed taken with Connor, if truth be told. I spent most of the evening interpreting for him. When the catering company started serving dinner, he dragged me into the downstairs bathroom and kissed me fiercely.
-God you look amazing , he signed breathlessly. I missed you on Friday
-it was good of you to stay with your mum. She looks happy tonight
-she's been really cool about us. I think she wants us to tell people
-then let's do it
-we will, I promise. Just not tonight
-why not? He backed away in surprise
-because the boys from school are here
-are you ashamed of me? He looked furious now
-no, not at all, I signed quickly. Never
-because being gay at school makes you stand out so much
-what like being deaf you mean? Except you get to choose apparently
He pulled away and started walking angrily to the door. I put my hand on his shoulder and turned him around.
-why is it so important to you? I demanded
-because I love you so much. Hiding it hurts me in here, he signed, pointing to his chest.
-I love you too, Connor. I would never do anything to hurt you
-THIS is hurting me
-don't say that, please
-let me think about it.
-don't think too long, Ben
He looked at me sadly and turned to open the door. I was about to try and stop him when I heard Steven's voice over the makeshift PA. I begged Connor to wait until the speeches were over, then we'd talk about it properly.
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