The Messenger

by Joel Young

Chapter 5

They Just Couldn't Accept That I'm Gay

The following Saturday, I wanted to sleep in late. I was tired after a long week of school and all the tension at play rehearsals. So, when I heard the phone ringing, I tried to ignore it.

"Joey, the phone's for you," my mother called. "It's Mr. Califonte."

"Just a minute," I yelled.

This was not how I wanted to start my weekend. I was not done sleeping. I hated being called Joey. And, I didn't want to talk to Ben. I was still pissed at him about what had happened at Thursday night's rehearsal.

"Hope I didn't wake you - Joey," Ben said when I picked up the phone.

"Not a problem - Benito. I've been up for a while," I lied.

"So, I've got to go antiquing for some set pieces," Ben said. "Do you want to come along? We could get some breakfast first. I'm starving!"

I was very surprised at Ben's invitation. And, I wasn't sure I wanted to go. But, I was the Student Director. Helping Ben was my job.

"I guess I can do that," I said.

"Great!" Ben said. "Percy and I will pick you up in 20 minutes."

"Percy? Who's Percy?" I asked.

Ben said, "Percy's my car, Joel."

"You named your car?" I asked.

"I'll introduce you two when I get there," Ben said.

I gave him my address and directions to the house. Then, I took a quick shower and got ready. When I came downstairs, I told my Mom about the plans. She didn't seem at all surprised that I was going out to breakfast and shopping with a 'teacher.' I guess Mom was used to it. Mrs. Weber had frequently picked me up for debate tournaments.

"Just remember to order à la carte ," she said. "No one needs all the fat and sugars restaurants pack into their breakfast specials."

Mom was a Clinical Nutritionist at a local hospital. To me, it seemed as if she were always on the job. Sometimes, it got on my nerves.

Mom told me that she and my Dad were spending the day with their friends Darren and Kelly McAndrew in Rochester Hills. They were David's aunt and uncle. I felt myself getting excited. Maybe I'd hear some news about David. Maybe I'd get his address or phone number. At the same time, I was afraid that if I got my hopes up, only to be disappointed again, the emotions that were always ready to resurface would take over - and it would hurt.

"We'll be back around 11:00 tonight," Mom said. "Do you need any money?" She gave me $10.00. She and Dad left about 20 minutes later. Ben wasn't there yet. He was late.

When Ben did pull into the driveway, I went out and got into his car. It was far from new, but it was spotlessly clean.

"Is I-Hop okay?" Ben asked. "It's about the only place I can afford."

"I-Hop sounds great," I said. Ben headed toward I94.

"How'd understudy rehearsal go last night?" Ben asked. I told him about our progress and that everything was going well.

After that, things felt a little awkward. Ben and I had never really talked about anything other than the show. I think neither one of us knew what to say. Finally, I asked about Percy. "So, tell me about naming your car."

"Well, there's not much to tell," he said. "When I first came to Detroit, I didn't know anybody. I was kind of lonely. The only place where I felt at home was in my car. So, I gave him a name. Percy was the name of the character I played in my very first show back in high school. I know it sounds silly, but it made me feel better at the time."

"That's not silly, Ben," I said. "Being lonely is – well – it sucks."

"Yea," Ben said. "There wasn't a 'Jacob' around telling 'Eli' that he could be his friend."

I know Ben meant that comment as a joke, but it didn't make me laugh. It just reminded me that I was still upset with him for making me improvise a gay flirting scene in front of the cast.

"So," Ben said. "What do you do for fun, Joel?"

"You know," I answered. "I do the usual high school stuff - going to basketball games and school dances. Mainly, I just hang out with friends. Sara and I are pretty close."

"Yea? Are you guys going together?" Ben asked.

"No," I told him. "Sara's going steady with my best friend, Jim. He's a foreign exchange student this semester, so Sara and I spend a lot of time together."

"So, there's no one special in your life right now?" Ben asked.

His question made me uncomfortable, so I decided to shut down further conversation along those lines. "You know, Ben," I said. "If I answer that question, turn-around will be fair play."

"So, how about those Pistons?" Ben said, obviously changing the subject as quickly as he could. "Think they'll finally have a good season?"

Just then, a car sped past us and swerved into Ben's lane, leaving only inches between the two cars. Ben slammed on the brakes to avoid rear-ending the other car. It scared the Hell out of me, and it infuriated Ben.

"God damn idiot!" Ben screamed. "Did you see that crazy shit-head? He almost fucking killed us!" Ben quickly got into the left lane and pulled up next to the other car. He gave the driver the finger. "Asshole!" he screamed.

I was terrified, not only because we had almost crashed, but also because Ben's road rage seemed totally out of control.

Neither Ben nor I said anything until we got to the restaurant parking lot. By then, Ben had calmed down a little.

"Are you okay, Joel?" Ben asked. "I know you must have been scared back there. First, that idiot almost crashes into us, and then I make it worse by screaming obscenities and flipping him off. I'm really sorry. I was hoping we could have some fun together this morning. I guess things haven't started out so great."

Once again, I found that a few kind words from Ben made it impossible for me to stay mad at him. "It's okay," I said. "Let's forget about it. You got me here with the promise of food. So, let's eat!"

Of course, I-Hop was packed on a Saturday morning, so we had to wait. Eventually, we got a small booth along one side of the crowded dining room. Ben ordered coffee and the Ultimate Sausage and Bacon Breakfast. I ordered orange juice and oatmeal.

"Is that all you're eating?" Ben asked. "If I ate such a small breakfast when I was your age, my mother would have had a heart attack!"

Ben looked at me with an exaggerated expression of shock. "Benito! You gonna starve!" Ben said in a thick, Italian accent. "Then, whole neighborhood thinks I'm terrible Mama. Here, let Mama make you good Italian breakfast!"

His parody was funny, and I couldn't help but laugh.

"No offense, Ben," I said. 'But my mother would call your breakfast a heart attack on a plate."

The waitress brought the coffee and juice. "All on the same check?" she asked.

Ben asked for separate checks. When the waitress left, Ben apologized. "Sorry, Joel. I'm just a poor college student. I hope separate checks are okay."

"Ben," I said. "I expected to pay for my breakfast. No problem." We chatted for a few minutes while waiting for our meals.

When it seemed that we were running out of small talk, I said, "So, tell me more about your family."

"They've lived in New Jersey since moving here from Italy," Ben said. "I've often wondered why they ever left. They want everything to be Italian - especially food and religion. My parents think the only real Catholics are from Italy - where the Pope lives!"

Ben took a sip of coffee before continuing. "Of course, they had big American dreams for me. They wanted me to work my way up the corporate ladder of some big company. Then, of course, I would marry 'a nice Italian girl' and give them lots of grandchildren."

"Were you interested in business?" I asked.

"No way!" Ben answered. "I'm an 'Arts' kind of guy. Business would have bored me out of my skull."

"How'd your parents take your decision to go into theater?" I asked.

Ben hung his head down, looking very sad. He raised his head and looked at me. "They disowned me, Joel," he said. "They just couldn't accept that their son was gay and wanted to 'waste' his life in show business."

Just as Ben said that, the waitress brought our food. I think both Ben and I wondered if she had heard what he had just said. The situation was very awkward. We began eating in silence.

Then, Ben stopped eating. "You had figured out that I'm gay, right Joel?" he asked.

I didn't know what to say. "I – um – you know, try not go judge people."

"Oh, come on!" Ben said, too loudly for my comfort. "You're a smart guy, Joel. If anyone at Joliet can put two clues together, it's you."

"Ben," I said. "Gay or straight, I'm cool with it. It really doesn't matter."

"Oh, it matters, Joel," Ben said. "Wherever I go or whomever I'm with, it makes a difference. That's why I freaked out that night in the teacher's lounge. I was afraid I sounded like I was hitting on you."

Intellectually, I could understand why Ben had said what he did in the teacher's lounge. Still, his words had hurt me. Ben must have seen me react. I have a hard time hiding my emotions.

"Joel, what did I say?" Ben asked. "Why the look?"

"Ben," I said. "It's crowded in here. I'm afraid people can overhear us. Can we go somewhere else to talk?"

"Sure," he said. "But, where do you want to go?"

"We could go back to my place," I said. "My parents are gone for the day. Maybe, when we're done looking for set pieces, we could talk there."

At first, Ben seemed surprised at what I had suggested. Then, he looked amused.

"Interesting," he said. "I tell you I'm gay, and you invite back to your house when you're parents are gone. Should I be nervous?"

"Stop it!" I said. "You know I didn't mean anything like that. Besides, I'm not the one who made me flirt with another guy. That was you."

"Yes," Ben said. "Yes, it was. And you're the one who sent a perfectly healthy Kevin home so that I would have to do the scene with you. Awesome job, by the way."

I knew our conversation was heading into dangerous territory. But, I was beginning to think that Ben was challenging me. And, when I feel challenged by someone, I tend to fight back.

"Ben," I said. "I know how you like to twist things. Don't assume I think up plots like you do."

"Joel," he said. "You don't know me at all."

"Oh, I know you better than you think," I said. "I've figured out your benevolent Drill Sergeant routine. I know you're from New Jersey, and you hate your given name. You want to make a career in theater. I know you named your car Percy, and that you're gay. And, I also know you tried to make me flirt with Kevin just to see how far I'd go with another guy."

"You think I was testing you?" Ben said. Then he paused, and I could tell he was considering his next move - as if we were playing a game of Chess.

Surprisingly, Ben called a temporary truce. "I think you're right, Joel," he said. "People might be listening to our fascinating conversation. How about we just finish breakfast and go shopping? Then, if we still feel like talking, we'll decide where to go."

I lifted up my juice glass and nodded to him, indicating that I accepted his truce. He raised his coffee mug to me. I could feel the tension between us fading away.

After breakfast, Ben and I had lots of fun exploring antique shops. Ben had a good sense of how various old household items could be used on stage. He asked for my opinion on everything, and he seemed genuinely intersted in my thoughts. I complimented him on his artistic imagination. For once, we were in sync with each other.

After several hours of shopping, I was getting tired. But, Ben wanted to go to one last place that specialized in older furniture. The antiques mall was off I75, north of 14 Mile Road. As it turned out, the long drive well worth it.

Ben found a dining room sideboard that had a definite 1930's appearance. It was solid mahogany, and it looked very heavy. "This would be perfect for the Brown's dining room scene," Ben said. "And, if we turn it around, we could use it as the altar in the church."

The only problem was the price. It was much too expensive to work into the school's budget for the play. Ben decided to make a low-ball offer.

"Ben," I said. "You hate business, and I love the challenge of persuasion. Let me see if I can help out here."

Ultimately, I talked the store owner into loaning us the sideboard in exchange for recognition in the play program. I also asked if he could deliver it to the school and pick it up after the show. I told him we were sure we could take good care of it once it was on the stage. But, I was nervous about transporting it on a truck. When the owner gave in and started writing down the dates of our production, Ben was ecstatic. I had gotten him the set piece he wanted - free of charge and without the headache of transportation. We high-fived as soon as we were outside of the store.

"Let's celebrate," I said. "We've got peach ice cream at home. It's my Mom's one indulgence in sweet treats. Do you want some?"

"Sounds great," Ben said. "Let's go."

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