Not Always Easy
Chapter 10 - Lunch With A Friend
Paul is now back as the main focus of the story, which continues from his viewpoint.
Just a few minutes before noon, I turned my car into Dan's driveway. As it was a beautiful warm spring day I'd been driving with my windows down and was worried that my hair would be even more untidy than usual. So while the trees still hid me from Dan's house, I stopped the car and combed my hair. All morning I'd been fussing about my appearance and had changed clothes three times after my shower. Each time John saw me in different clothes he smiled knowingly and raised his eyes toward heaven. He had enough sense and sensitivity to realise that any verbal comment from him would not have been a good idea. Eventually, I'd decided to wear a light grey shirt over a pale yellow T-shirt, with loose dark-grey trousers.
Once I was satisfied that my appearance was as good as I could get it while sitting in a car, I drove up and parked outside Dan's house. There were three steps leading up to the maroon-painted doorway, and I stood on the middle step to ring the doorbell. Dan appeared almost as soon as I pressed the button and he looked so fabulous that I felt like a donkey standing next to a racehorse. At first I was mesmerised by his beaming smile and deep brown eyes, then my gaze took in the rest of him. The sun glinted on the slight curls of his silky black hair and his lightly tanned skin seemed to glow. His tight black T-shirt showed off his slim build, but also indicated that he had good muscle definition, and his stonewashed black jeans looked as if they were made to measure.
He greeted me enthusiastically, then grabbed me by the hand and pulled me into the house. I was embarrassed when my own greeting emerged as a croak, so I smiled and pretended to be clearing my throat. The inside of the house was very nice, but not as imposing as the exterior, and this observation made me feel more at ease. As I looked around the oak-panelled hallway and saw the ornate wooden stairway, Dan told me that the house had been a rectory in Victorian times and that he and his parents had lived there for all his life. Dan gave me a mini-tour of the lower floor of the house, and I was impressed that the rooms were all so large and well furnished. The tour ended in the kitchen, which appeared to have every gadget known to mankind.
"Hope you don't mind eating lunch in the kitchen," he said. "I thought the dining room might be a bit formal for just the two of us."
"It's fine by me," I replied with a grin. "Anyway, your kitchen's grander than our dining room. Is your family all out then?"
"There's only me and my parents, and they're both at work. I hope you brought an appetite with you. Are you ready for the first course yet?"
"First course? How many courses are there?"
"Just three, but don't look so concerned, they're just some light snacks I threw together, so if you don't like them just let me know."
"Well I'm ready when you are," I said with a smile.
It was clear to me that lunch would not really just be something he'd 'thrown together'. His tone of voice, everything he'd said on the phone the day before, even the way he was dressed, all told me he was trying to impress, and so far he was succeeding very well.
I offered to help, but he declined my offer and politely indicated that he'd rather I just sat at the large rectangular wooden table. I took that to be a gentle hint that he didn't want me to get in the way. Although the kitchen was very clean and tidy and looked almost new, I could tell that it was a well-used 'working kitchen'. While he put together the first course, we chatted about his family, the house, and the fact that he'd been cooking as a hobby since he was twelve.
"What persuaded you to take up cooking," I asked.
"Well, I like to be creative but I'm useless at all forms of art. I can't draw or paint, and when I was little everything I tried to make with modelling clay always turned out looking like The Blob."
"But why did you get so interested in cooking?"
"Everyone likes food of some sort, and eating is an experience that can be shared." His voice was filled with enthusiasm, and I knew I had found a topic close to his heart. He continued, "Whether you make food simple or complicated, it can be a relatively easy way of bringing pleasure to other people. And I enjoy making other people happy..."
His voice trailed off as he stopped preparing the food and stood facing me. He looked embarrassed and his gaze dropped to the floor. "Sorry, I got carried away. I bet you think I'm some stupid food-fanatic now."
"Of course I don't think you're stupid. Or a food-fanatic!" I protested. "I think it's great that you have a hobby that gets you so enthusiastic. And, as you say, other people get to share the results of your efforts. Actually, I think it's very sweet of you to choose a hobby that can give so much enjoyment to others."
He turned away from me, ostensibly to carry on preparing the food, but in reality I think it was to hide his embarrassment.
The first course turned out to be homemade salmon mousse wrapped in smoked salmon, served on a bed of watercress and roasted peppers. The second course was Coronation Chicken with wild rice and asparagus, and we finished off with a strawberry sorbet. The portions were not too large for a luncheon, so I was just nicely full at the end of the meal. To say I was impressed would be a gross understatement, so I complimented Dan on being a gourmet cook and asked how long it had taken to prepare such a feast. He smiled shyly and said that he'd started preparations as soon as we'd finished speaking on the phone the previous evening.
During the meal Dan began to tell me about his family and his early life. He seemed to glow when he told me how he first met Steve at junior school and how Steve had rescued him from the bullies. As he talked about his friendship with Steve and how they had grown up together, it became clear that Steve was a very important part of his life. We finished eating just as Dan was telling me about how he came out to his parents. I told him that I hoped my parents would react more like his mother than his father when I told them I was gay. Before continuing his story, we cleared the table and retired to the living room, where I sat on a large black leather armchair and he sat on the matching sofa. Once we were comfortable there, he resumed his tale, telling me about his first trip to a gay pub.
Again, Dan's whole being glowed with pride when he told me that Steve, though not gay himself, had volunteered to go with him to meet other gay people. I was surprised by the strength of the anger and bitterness that rose up in me when he first mentioned Ben. Then, when Dan began to speak about being attacked, his voice cracked, his shoulders shook and tears brimmed in his eyes. He was trying hard not to cry and was finding it difficult to continue speaking.
"You okay? Can I get you something to drink?" I asked.
"Please, just some water."
By the time I'd been to the kitchen and brought back a glass of water, he seemed much calmer and more in control, and as he sipped the water I sat next to him and tentatively put my arm over his shoulder. I wanted to comfort him even though we didn't know one another very well, but I wasn't sure how comfortable I felt with this degree of physical contact. He seemed comfortable. however, and gave me a big smile before he took a deep breath and continued with his story. Of course, when he mentioned Sue I interrupted him and tried to get that point sorted out before he carried on.
"You really think Sue was the girl involved in the attack?" I asked.
"Almost certain," Dan replied. "Look, I'm sorry that I talked about Sue after I promised John I wouldn't. I'm not the sort of person to break my promises, but as she's Mike's girlfriend, I was worried what might happen if she found out you're gay. And I couldn't see any way to give you the full story about me and Steve without at least mentioning her."
I nodded, and although my thoughts were filled with questions about Sue, I allowed him finish his story without further interruptions.
"Well," Dan concluded, "at least now you know why Steve and I aren't boyfriends and never have been boyfriends."
"Yeah, I understand," I said. "You're really lucky to have a best friend like him, just as I'm really lucky to have Mike. And I think in a similar situation that Mike would have looked after me in the same way that Steve looked after you."
Pausing for a couple of seconds, I thought about the significance and implications of his story. I was mildly amused when it occurred to me that my mind was digesting his words just as my stomach was digesting lunch. Then I realised my arm was still around his shoulders and we were both leaning back on the sofa. Bearing in mind Dan's feelings for me, I began to feel uncomfortable staying in that position. The most discreet way I could think of to extricate myself was to make the excuse that I needed to go to the toilet.
When I returned I sat next to Dan on the sofa, but was careful not to be in contact with him. He seemed to notice this and gave me a sad look. This in turn made me feel guilty. At some level I wanted to hug him, but on the other hand I felt it would be cruel to encourage his feelings if I wasn't sure I could return them.
"Well," I said, trying to ignore my complex feelings, "it seems to me that you and I are friends now, and Mike's my best friend, so the two of you are likely to meet up sometime, or at least your name will crop up in conversation. Mike's very comfortable with me being gay, so would it be okay if I let him know about you?"
"Unless he's avoided all school gossip, or unless he's incredibly dense, then I'm sure he knows about me already," Dan said with a wry grin. "Go ahead and tell him what you like."
"Aren't you worried about being hassled at school?"
"Not any more. After my dad talked to Blaine there haven't been any problems. A couple of people made whispered comments, but everyone else acts the same as they did before the attack. Even if they think I'm gay, they don't say or do anything about it."
"But what about Sue?" I asked.
"What about her?" he responded with a shrug. "You saw John's reaction when I mentioned her, and if Mike loves her then his reaction will be much worse. Besides, the only evidence that she was there when I was attacked is the opinion of a poof who was half mad with fear and pain. My advice would be to keep quiet about her, and don't let her know you're gay, or even that you know me."
"Thanks for the advice," I said after a few seconds thought. "I think that's just what I'll do."
For a couple of minutes there was silence, during which I tried to sort out all the thoughts and emotions crowding through my mind. Dan was calmly studying my face, as if attempting to read my thoughts. Then I looked across the room to the carriage clock on the mantelpiece.
"Shit!" I exclaimed.
"What is it?" he asked, startled and with a look of concern. "Was it something I said?"
"Sorry, no, it's nothing you said. I just noticed it's almost two thirty and John's expecting me to take him into town so we can buy our presents for Mike's birthday."
"Guess you'd better get going then," he said, obviously relieved but also a little sad.
"I thought you were coming with us?" I said, my intonation turning the statement into a question.
"You sure you still want me to?" he responded, uncertainty in his voice and on his face.
"Why shouldn't I?" I asked, genuinely puzzled by his question.
"Well, now I've told you about Sue..."
"You were right to warn me about Sue," I interrupted. "And you certainly gave me a lot to think about. And not just about Sue. I'll probably have lots of questions later."
"And, erm, " he continued, "now you know how I feel about you, I thought you might feel uncomfortable with me around..." His voice trailed off into silence.
"Of course I won't feel uncomfortable! I'm flattered that a cute guy like you should find me attractive."
"Not just attractive," Dan said very quietly.
He apparently hadn't intended to say that aloud because his face went very red. Until I saw him blush like that, I had thought I was the only person who blushed so easily and so deeply.
"Anyway, I'd like you to come with us. I'll just give John a call to tell him we're on our way, then we'd better get going."
When I spoke to John I could tell he was getting a bit anxious and would probably have phoned me soon if I hadn't called him first. However, he wasn't annoyed at me, and in fact he made an amused remark about how long it took us to eat lunch. I could tell that I was in for some major teasing when he next had the opportunity to mention it in private. About thirty minutes later, the three of us got into town, and John kept irritating me by constantly looking from me to Dan and back again with a knowing smirk on his face. As we knew exactly what we wanted, we bought the ring and picture frame quite quickly, and it didn't take long to get them engraved. Dan seemed quite impressed with the engraved ring and he said he might get something similar for Steve's next birthday.
When we finished in town, I drove Dan home, and as he got out of the car and John moved from the back seat to sit up front with me, I thanked him again for such a lovely meal. As soon as Dan went indoors, John started asking me about lunch, so I described the food Dan had prepared.
"Yeah, sounds great," John said, clearly not really interested in the food, "but you were with Dan for over two hours. Surely you weren't just eating all that time."
His insinuations weren't exactly subtle, and when I took my eyes off the road for a second to glare at him I saw that annoying smirk again.
"We ate. We talked. That's all," I said curtly.
"So wotcha talk about, then?"
"Lots. Him and Steve. About telling his parents he's gay. Things at his school. Ya know, lots of things." I was being as vague as possible and I certainly wasn't going to mention Sue.
"So Dan and Steve really aren't a couple then?"
"No. Steve's straight. They're best friends."
"Didn't Dan talk about how he fancies you, and likes you a lot?"
"He mentioned it," I said evasively.
"So you gonna 'do it' with him then ... ya know, like ya did with Rob?"
"Sheesh, John!" I almost yelled, glaring at him again. "Why is it that all the straight people who know I'm gay are so fascinated by my sex life? And why do they assume that whenever two gay guys get together they have sex?"
"Dunno," John said after a pause, sounding defensive. "Sex is interesting and gay stuff is, well... unusual."
"You don't keep asking Mike about his sex life do you?"
"He's not my brother. And he sometimes tells me even if I don't ask!"
I could tell without looking that John was grinning.
"Anyway," he continued, "what d'ya mean by 'all the straight people'? I thought only me and Mike talked about your sex life."
"Well, there's Rob's parents." My annoyance induced me to speak before thinking, and I hoped he wouldn't follow up on it. My hopes were in vain.
"Rob's parents? Do they ask about your sex life?" John sounded shocked.
"No, but they seem to assume Rob and I are having one. Or at least will be having one."
I told John briefly about Rob's parents saying I could stay over anytime and saying we should be 'safe'.
"Wow!" John said, clearly impressed. "D'ya think they'll be so easy-going with Marie?"
As soon as I heard that I wondered what had happened to my sweet, innocent little brother who wasn't even fifteen yet.
"No," I said firmly. "Rob's older than Marie and he can't get pregnant."
For the next few minutes John was quiet, and when we arrived home I sighed with relief.
That evening was hectic, and whatever sense of relief I felt when I arrived home rapidly dissipated. My parents knew I'd been invited out to lunch, and when they arrived home they asked me all about it. They were impressed when I told them about Dan's cooking skills and the subject came up again during dinner.
"So Dan's another new friend, like Rob then?" Mum asked.
I almost choked on my mashed potato, then managed to sputter, "What d'ya mean, like Rob?"
Mum raised an eyebrow, and suddenly Dad seemed even more interested in the conversation. John kept his eyes glued to his plate, but I could tell he was listening intently and I could almost see his ears twitch.
"Well, you have these new friends," Mum said, " and it seems like they're quite close friends, but we've never seen them or heard of them before. You've not made so many new friends so quickly since you started secondary school."
She left the statement just hanging there and looked at me. The only expression I could read on her face was mild curiosity, and Dad seemed like he was deliberately trying to maintain a blank expression.
"Guess I'm just more adventurous now," I said to fill the silence. "And now I have the car I can get about more."
Maybe it wasn't a brilliant response, but it was enough to end that topic of conversation. As soon as I could politely escape, I left the table and went to my room, closely followed by John, who shut the door behind him. I sat on my bed facing him as he leaned with his back against the door. I was beginning to feel trapped, as if all my options were gradually disappearing and events were moving faster than I could control them.
"You gonna tell them?" John asked, and I knew exactly what he meant.
"Yeah, I guess," I replied.
"They're not stupid. Sooner or later they'll guess, and they may even get around to asking directly."
"But how can they guess? Do I suddenly look gay?" I asked, frowning.
"No, you don't look different. Mike and I never guessed, did we? At least not by looking at you. But like Mum said, you never used to make new friends so quickly, and at least one of them is a bit 'delicate'. And look what you've been up to recently, like rescuing people in the middle of the night, and now someone you've never mentioned before cooks you a lunch. They never heard of Rob till a couple of weeks ago, now you're inviting him to your best friends party..."
"Nothing gay about all that!" I responded, maybe a little too forcefully.
"What about Rob staying overnight, twice?" John continued. "Apart from Mike, you've never had anyone staying over. They must suspect something, and they know you won't be doing drugs, so what else could it be?"
I didn't give an answer because I couldn't think of any. He gave me a look of sympathy.
"S'pose I should tell them, then," I said eventually.
"Yeah, and sooner rather than later. They'll be okay with it, I'm sure. And I'll be there for ya. I'll be on your side."
John smiled at me, and I realised that no matter how annoying he could be, I loved him dearly and couldn't imagine life without my little brother.
"Thanks, John," I said. "I love you."
He seemed to be a little embarrassed, probably because although we were a loving family, we hardly ever actually used the word 'love' with one another. He nodded, smiled again, and left the room.
When he'd gone I began to think about what he'd said. He was almost certainly correct in assuming that my parents would accept my sexuality, so why was I so reluctant to tell them? In a moment of insight I realised that I was ashamed to tell my parents. Yet I knew, at least intellectually, that there was nothing shameful about being gay. Despite that, there was a part of me, emotional and almost subconscious, that did feel a bit ashamed.
I realised that this feeling of shame was probably because of all my time at Catholic schools, where it was often made clear that homosexual acts were wrong. Indeed, according to them any sex outside marriage was wrong. Still, I was no longer a believer, and for the last couple of years I hadn't been to church on Sunday. However, it seemed that the mental conditioning produced by my schooling had not yet worn off. It occurred to me that one way to help overcome that conditioning was to overcome my feelings of shame and tell my parents about my sexuality, so I decided to come out to them at the earliest appropriate moment.
While I was considering when and how to come out to my parents, there was a tapping on my open door, and I saw Mike grinning at me. I must have been so lost in thought that I hadn't heard anyone enter the house or come upstairs. As usual, just seeing him brightened my mood, and I returned his cheerful smile.
"Hey, you," I greeted him. "Come in."
"Hey, you, too," he responded. Then he sat facing me on the other bed. "I hear you had an interesting lunch!"
"Has John been blabbing again?" I asked with a frown.
"No. Actually, it was your mum. She asked if I knew a friend of yours called Dan, and I said that I didn't think I did. So who is he?"
"Well, in fact you might know him. He goes to your school and he's in your year." As soon as I said this, he raised his eyebrows .
"So the rumours are true then," he said quietly, almost to himself.
Although I guessed what the rumours were, I wanted to hear the version that had reached Mike.
"Yeah, there's a Dan in my year, but I only really know him by sight. Some people say he's gay and that he's got a boyfriend in the Upper Sixth. What I do know for sure is that he was beaten up at school just before the summer hols last year. So is it true then? How did you meet?"
"It's true that he's gay but he doesn't have a boyfriend. His best friend, Steve, is in the Upper Sixth. We met at the GLYG ages ago, but only recently became friends. And he was beaten up because some people found out he was gay."
"How come you haven't mentioned him before?" Mike asked.
"Well, if I'd mentioned meeting him at GLYG then I would have been outing him to you, and I couldn't do that without his permission. Just cos I don't keep my secrets from you doesn't mean I can give away someone else's secrets." As soon as I said this I realised that there was one secret that I was still keeping from him, and that was what Dan had said about Sue.
"That's okay then. Just shows what a trustworthy friend you are." He smiled proudly at me, and I felt a bit guilty, but I knew that mentioning Sue would be a huge mistake.
"So, is Dan a potential boyfriend?" he asked bluntly with a conspiratorial grin. He was always direct and always went straight to the point, at least with John and me.
"He wants to be," I said, "but I'm not sure. I can't stop thinking about Rob."
"But you said Rob just wants to be friends."
"I know, but I can't just switch off my feelings. I mean, having sex with someone makes a bond ya know, at least for me."
"Yeah I know," he said. "Same for me."
Hearing him say that just made me feel worse about Sue, and knowing me so well he must have noticed.
"So why are you looking so worried? Surely it's not just a complicated love life?"
Fortunately I had a ready and truthful excuse that didn't involve Sue.
"Well, when you arrived I was thinking how and when I should tell my parents that I'm gay."
"Ah, yes," he said. "I think it should be sooner rather than later."
"Have you been talking to John about this?" I asked. "He just said the same thing, and even used the same words."
"Nah, I've not talked to John about it, at least not recently. It's the way your mum asked me about Dan. That's the first time I can remember her asking like that about your friends, and she seemed more than just a bit curious. I reckon she's beginning to suspect something."
"Mmm, I guess you're right. I'll have to tell them as soon as I find the right time."
He nodded and smiled at me, and there was a companionable silence for a few seconds. I hadn't asked why he'd come over because we didn't need a reason for visiting one another. We just enjoyed being together.
"Anyway," Mike said, "the reason I came is to say the weather forecast for tomorrow is good, so I wondered if you and John wanted to go on a bike ride round Summer Hill."
Summer Hill was visible from most areas of our town because it was the largest of the hills that almost surrounded it. Even at night we could tell the location of Summer Hill because of the lights on the tall radio and TV masts positioned on its summit. On the nearer side of the hill was a park with a large lake and some cycle paths, but there were also some rougher tracks that went around the circumference of the hill. Cycling and swimming were my two favourite forms of physical exercise, if we don't count sex. Unlike me, John preferred to play soccer at every opportunity, but he also enjoyed cycling.
"Sounds good to me," I said. "Just the park or round to the moors on the other side?"
"All round the hill," Mike replied, "so we'll need to get an early start."
He knew I liked to get up late during holidays, and he grinned at me when I groaned.
"How early is early?" I asked.
"No later than eleven."
"Okay then. We better take some sandwiches or something for lunch."
"No need," Mike said. "I know of a nice pub along the route. I know it does nice lunches cos I went there a couple of weeks ago with Sue and her parents."
"John's too young to go into pub," I pointed out.
"No problem. It has a beer garden so we can sit outside with John."
"Have you asked John yet?"
"No," he replied as he stood up. "I'll go and do that now."
He left the room and a couple of minutes later returned with John, who was clearly very enthusiastic about joining us. While Mike was in John's room I'd had an idea.
"How about we make this a social gathering?" I said.
"What d'ya mean?" Mike asked.
"Well, would you mind if I asked Rob and Dan to come along?"
"The more the merrier!" Mike responded.
At first John didn't look so keen on the idea, then he smiled, and in a tone that indicated he was trying not to sound too enthusiastic, he said, "Why not ask Marie as well?"
Mike and I looked at one another and smirked.
"That's fine by me," I said, and Mike nodded agreement. "I'll phone Rob and Dan now."
"Okay," John said. "While you're doing that I want to talk to Mike, so we'll go back to my room."
I called Dan first, and he answered his mobile almost immediately. He gladly accepted the invitation and said that he and Steve loved going cycling together and that Steve was there with him. Taking that as a hint, I asked him if he wanted to invite Steve to join us, and he seemed very pleased that I'd asked. I didn't feel the need to consult Mike because he'd already said 'the more, the merrier'. After a brief pause, Dan said Steve would love to come with us, and we arranged to meet at my house at about ten thirty. I gave him directions, and as soon as we hung up I phoned Rob.
"Hey, Paul. I thought you'd forgotten."
"Yeah, we were going to arrange some times for you to help me with my maths. You've not changed your mind, have you?"
"No, of course not. Today's just been really busy and I just haven't had chance to call before now."
I proceeded to tell him that I'd had lunch with Dan, been shopping, the conversation with my mum at dinner, and that I'd been thinking of when to come out to my parents.
"So you and Dan are getting on well then?" he asked in a neutral tone of voice.
"Yeah. He's a nice guy and a great cook. Anyway, the reason I called was to see if you and Marie want to come cycling round Summer Hill tomorrow."
"We don't have bikes," he said, his voice sounding strained.
His response surprised me as I'd never before met a teenage boy without a bike. There was a brief silence.
"So when can we get together to go over the maths? Tomorrow night?" Rob asked before the silence became too uncomfortable.
"Well, by the time I get back home tomorrow, have a shower and eat dinner, it will probably be about eight. Won't that be a bit late to get your brain thinking about maths?"
"Maybe we could just work out a revision timetable tomorrow night. And I was hoping we could talk about other stuff... you can come here for dinner if ya want."
There was such hope in his voice that I didn't want to disappoint him, even though I had reservations about dinner with his parents.
"Okay then," I said." What time shall I come over?"
"How soon can you get here?"
"Probably about six. Maybe six thirty."
"That'd be great. We could probably sort out a study timetable before dinner," he said.
With that we said goodbye and hung up. I got up off my bed and went to John's room to report.
John and Mike were talking quietly as I tapped on the open door and entered the room, and as soon as they saw me their conversation came to a halt. John was clearly disappointed that Marie wouldn't be joining us, but both he and Mike said that they wouldn't mind if Steve came along. When I told them about my conversation with Rob, Mike commented that Rob seemed awfully keen to see me considering that he'd said he wanted to be just friends.
I asked what they were talking about while I was on the phone, and Mike gave me a particularly wicked grin and said 'Girls'. John looked slightly embarrassed, but didn't say anything. The three of us chatted generally for another half hour or so before Mike went home. With the prospect of having to get up relatively early the next day, I started getting ready for bed.
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