The Right Time
"I'm gonna miss you," I whispered into John's ear as he nuzzled my throat.
"Mmph hmph mphs," he responded, his words muffled by my flesh.
The vibration of his voice and lips on my skin tickled and sent shivers down my spine, causing me to pull away from him. That was no mean feat, bearing in mind how our limbs were entwined in the small bed as we relaxed after our lovemaking. He raised his head and flashed a wicked smile at me while I gazed into his mischievously twinkling green eyes.
"What?" he asked, pretending that he didn't already know.
Of course he was aware that my movement had been because he'd tickled me. After all, he'd done it often in the three months we'd been together. He took great delight in exploiting the sensitivity of my skin whenever he thought he could get away with it. As usual I forgave him immediately.
"I said that I'm going to miss you," I repeated.
"Yes, I know. I heard you and I said that it's only two weeks."
"Only two weeks!" I protested, emphasising the first word. Then slightly petulantly I added, "Won't you miss me?"
"Of course I will, you silly sod," he replied with good humour, "but you know I've got to go home and sweet-talk my parents into helping me to get a car." After a brief pause he added, "And you could always come with me for Christmas. I've already told you that Mum and Dad said you're welcome to stay anytime you want. You made a good impression on them."
"Yeah, well, your parents are sweet," I said, mentally contrasting his family and mine.
He'd told me how well they reacted when he came out to them shortly before his sixteenth birthday and when I'd recently gone home with him for weekend I'd realised how lucky he was to have such great parents.
"Of course I'd love to spend Christmas with you," I said as I resisted the temptation, "but I've not seen my family for three months. So I really ought to go home for a few days."
"We can survive for two weeks," he said, resting his head on my shoulder, "and we'll be phoning each other every day."
I sighed and ran my fingers through his curly ginger-red hair, contemplating the fact that in the previous three months no more than a couple of days had passed without us seeing one another. We lay together in peaceful silence for a couple of minutes before he spoke again, this time in a slightly hesitant tone because he realised that he was broaching a touchy subject.
"Mike," he said, "maybe you'd feel more comfortable seeing your parents more often if you told them…"
"I told you before," I interrupted him, "my parents aren't as easygoing as yours and the fact that they keep asking me when I'm going to find a girlfriend doesn't make it any easier."
"But if you tell them you're gay they'll stop pestering you like that."
"Yeah, they certainly will!" I said and laughed without humour. "In fact they'll probably stop talking to me completely."
"You don't know that," he said, looking up at me again and capturing my gaze with his beautiful eyes. "Maybe you just need to choose the right time."
"I've been trying to find a good time for years," I pointed out.
"Yes, and during those years you drifted further and further away from them because you've been trying to stop them finding out about an important part of your life. Maybe if you tell them you're gay you'll become closer again."
"And maybe they'll disown me," I said gloomily.
"Look, you're at university now and less dependent on them and you know you've got me to rely on for emotional support. So now you're in a much better position to tell them than you've ever been before. Like I said, you just have to pick the right time."
Not wanting to go over an old discussion yet again, I pressed my lips to his and remembered our first kiss just a couple of hours after we first met at the Gay Soc welcoming party for new students. Shortly after that, when I'd realised he was as intelligent and kind as he was attractive, I fell madly in love with him. Despite that love, however, his confidence in his own opinions was occasionally a little irritating.
He was much more self-assured than I was despite the fact that I was in my second year at university and he'd just completed his first term. He was still a few months short of his nineteenth birthday and I was almost twenty, but that didn't prevent him from believing that he usually knew better than I did. Much to my chagrin, it often turned out that his belief was correct, though I was reluctant to admit it.
The following morning it was with a heavy heart that I waved good-bye to John as he boarded the train to London. Then with an even heavier heart I waited for the train that would take me to my home town. One of the major attractions of the university I'd chosen was that its location meant that I'd not be expected to live at home with my family. However, the train journey was only about ninety minutes and I knew that my parents had expected me to go home much more frequently than I had. Perhaps if my mother hadn't interrogated me about potential girlfriends during every phone conversation I might have gone to see her more often.
As I stood on the cold and windy platform I wondered if perhaps John was right. If I'd already told my parents I was gay then there would be no secret to make me feel so uncomfortable with my family. However, John had never met my parents and he didn't really appreciate my mother's attitude to gay people or my father's apparent obsession with having grandchildren. On the other hand my relationship with my parents was growing more strained as time went by. So it occurred to me that if I revealed my secret and they disowned me because of that then it would merely be speeding up the otherwise inevitable alienation.
I didn't miss living at home and I much preferred the freedom of being away at university, but I did sometimes miss my brother and regretted the fact that a side effect of avoiding my parents was that I also didn't see him. Steve was a couple of years younger than me and before I went to university we'd been quite close, despite the fact that we often had heated arguments. However, our disputes were mostly the result of fraternal competition and rarely involved any real aggression.
My brother and I were very different and apart from the fact that we both had light brown hair and hazel eyes there was little to indicate that we were brothers. We were similar in height, but from his early teens onward he rapidly became much more muscular than I was. Unlike me he loved sports and despite his obvious intelligence he wasn't at all interested in academic study, though he did enough work in his classes to ensure that he would probably achieve his ambition to become a civil engineer.
Another difference between Steve and me was that he got on with Mum and Dad much better than I did and I expected that when he left school he'd probably go to a nearby college and continue living at home. As the second child he'd always been given much more leeway to do as he wanted. So, unlike me, he'd never found it oppressive to live with our parents. To be honest, though, I don't remember that I found it oppressive either until I began to realise that I was gay.
Of course, even as a little kid I always knew deep inside that I preferred boys to girls, but until I was about fifteen I persuaded myself that it was a passing phase. Even when I accepted that it was a permanent part of my personality, it wasn't until I'd gone away to university and met a few other gay people that I began to become comfortable with my sexuality. Indeed, it was only after John and I started a relationship that I became truly comfortable. In fact, when I was with him I positively revelled and rejoiced in being gay.
The problem at home wasn't so much that my parents were anti-gay, but that they regarded it as being a terrible and tragic affliction. All the time I was growing up Mum frequently expressed pity for 'those poor homosexuals who will never know a normal happy life'. Often she went on to say how much she hoped that a 'cure' could be found. From my point of view, to be pitied like that would be only slightly less horrible than being reviled and rejected. Dad not only agreed with Mum when she expressed her views, he also went on to say he pitied the parents who might be deprived of grandchildren.
The somewhat broody attitude my dad had toward grandchildren might have been expected more from a mother rather than a father, but perhaps my dad was unusual because of his background. When he was just a few days old he'd been abandoned in a hospital waiting room and no one had ever been able to trace his mother. Indeed, the day we celebrated as his birthday was only a best guess. Anyway, as far as he knew he had no living relatives and he'd always wanted a large family. Unfortunately, when my brother was born by caesarean section, something went wrong that made it impossible for my mother to have more children. So Dad seemed eager to pass on his dynastic ambitions to my brother and me.
On several occasions it had occurred to me that as soon as Steve got married and had children it would take the pressure off me. Once the bloodline had been reasonably assured by my brother's progeny I could tell my parents that I was gay with less risk of hurting them. However, that scenario was probably not going to happen for a few years. After all, Steve was still young and as far as I knew, none of his girlfriends had lasted more than a few months.
As soon as I closed the front door and entered the hallway, Mum came from the kitchen to greet me with a hug. The warmth of the greeting was a little embarrassing but in its own way it was as welcome as the warmth of the house on such a cold day. As I'd expected, Dad was still at work and Steve hadn't yet got home from school.
"Do you want mince pies with your tea?" she asked, correctly assuming that I would indeed want tea.
"Are they puff pastry?"
"Yes, of course. I know how fussy you are and got them just for you," she replied as if my question had been mildly insulting.
"Okay then, I will," I said with a grin. "Thanks."
"I'll make the tea while you take your stuff to your room," she said, glancing a little disdainfully at my bag on the floor.
Of course I knew she hated clutter and I'd intended moving it as soon as I could. So her comment irritated my a little and slightly cooled the warm feelings generated by her welcome. To make things more irksome, the abundant Christmas decorations adorning the hallway were in my opinion more of a clutter than just one bag tucked against the base of the wall.
When I came back downstairs and went into the kitchen she was pouring the tea and she suggested that we sat at the dining table while we had our snack. The living and dining areas were at different ends of one large room and were separated by large glass sliding doors that were fully open. So as we went to the dining table I could see most of the downstairs space and there appeared to be more Christmas decorations than usual. I mentioned this observation to Mum as we sat down with our food and drink.
"You know how much your dad loves this time of year," she said, "especially because it's such a family time. So I let him have free reign with the decorations."
"Is that a new tree? It looks bigger than last year." We'd had the same Christmas tree for a few years. It was artificial, of course, because Mum wouldn't tolerate a real one that would shed pine needles.
"Yes," she replied. Then with a small smile and in a tone that was almost conspiratorial, she added, "You know, Steve claimed he was too old to help his dad to decorate it this year, but I soon put a stop to his nonsense. I told him that if he's too old for that then he's also too old for presents and he soon changed his mind."
That evening Mum made a splendid dinner to welcome me home. Steve also seemed happy to see me and I was grateful that his ebullient conversation limited my mum's opportunities for asking questions about my private life. Dad was more talkative than usual, possibly because he was a little merry from the pre-dinner champagne that he'd insisted we had to celebrate my return. Of course Mum did manage to slip in a question about girlfriends, but I just said I'd been too busy with my studies to have much of a social life. Then during dessert she asked a question that I hadn't expected.
"How's your friend? John, isn't it? The one you've mentioned a few times on the phone."
"Oh, er, he's fine," I stuttered, taken completely by surprise. I hadn't realised that I'd mentioned him more often than any other friends.
"From what you said, it seems like he's a very nice boy and…"
"He's hardly a boy, Mum," I interrupted her, hoping to sidetrack whatever she was intending to say. "He'll be nineteen in a couple of months."
Mum gave me one her smiles, this particular one I'd long ago learned to interpret roughly as 'No matter what you say, I know I'm right'. Then I realised that I'd already given away information about him without her even having to ask.
"Oh, so young!" she said with a hint of triumph. "Is he on your course?"
"No, he's studying history," I said, frowning in an attempt to express my reluctance to answer any more questions.
She raised her eyebrows slightly and I prayed that she wouldn't ask how I knew him. After all, if I really was going to come out on this visit I didn't want it to be by admitting that I'd met John at a university Gay Soc social event. Glancing around the table, I was pleased to see that Dad showed only mild interest in Mum's interrogation and Steve, who was wolfing down his last morsel of cake, appeared to show no interest at all. As if in answer to my prayer, Steve diverted Mum's attention from me by standing up.
"Sorry I have to dash off," he said with a grin that didn't seem at all apologetic, "but I'm meeting some rugby mates in town. I'd better go and get ready now or I'll be late. See ya later, Mike."
With a quick wave of his hand he left the room and went upstairs, leaving me a little disappointed that he'd arranged to go out on my first night home. However, it then occurred to me that it would have been unfair to have expected him to arrange his social life around my visits.
After dinner I went to my room, telling my parents that I was finishing my unpacking, though in reality I went to get some privacy so I could phone John. He asked if I'd come out to my parents yet and although I knew he intended it mostly as a joke, I responded with a somewhat grumpy negative. When I told him that I'd been surprised when Mum had mentioned him, he suggested that I could have brought up the fact that he was gay, just to see how my parents might have reacted. However, I pointed out that Steve's presence would have stopped me from doing that even if I'd thought about it at the time.
When I went back downstairs, Mum and Dad had settled down on the sofa to watch a soap opera on TV. As I'd never been a great fan of such programmes I was tempted to go back to my room, but I decided to be sociable and stay with them. When a gay character appeared on the show Mum started expressing her pity for him and that made me even less inclined to bring up the subject of my sexuality.
I didn't dismiss the idea completely, however, and thought there might be a reasonable opportunity to bring up the topic during the two weeks I was going to be at home. Further consideration made me feel that it might be better to wait for a time when Mum and Dad weren't in the same room. Also, I decided that if I was going to mention the subject at all it should be near the end of my visit so that if their reaction was as bad as I feared, I could just leave a little bit earlier than planned. In any case, I didn't want to risk ruining our Christmas, which was less than a week away.
At about ten thirty Dad, who had an early Saturday shift, decided to go to bed and Mum went to the kitchen to make herself some tea. Bored out of my mind, I sprawled in the armchair and started flicking through TV channels. While her tea brewed, Mum returned to the living room.
"Steve's late," she said, looking at me as if it were somehow my fault. "He knows that I expect him to be home by ten thirty. If he's not here in five minutes I'll have to phone him."
"Maybe you should give him a bit longer than that," I suggested. "It's a Friday night and he's not a little kid. You'll embarrass him in front of his mates if you phone him to tell him to come home straight away."
"He is a kid, though," she insisted. "He's only seventeen."
"He'll be eighteen next month," I pointed out. Then to distract her, I added, "Anyway, don't let your tea stew too long."
Almost as soon as she left the room I heard the front door close with a dull thud and that was followed by what sounded like suppressed laughter. Then Steve, grinning and looking flushed, appeared in living room doorway. There was someone in the hallway behind him, but from where I was sitting I didn't have a clear view.
"Hi, Mike! Where's Mum?" Steve asked with what seemed to be a slight slurring.
"Kitchen. Making tea," I responded, mildly amused, mainly because I'd never before seen him even slightly inebriated. Then more quietly I added, "You'd best not let her see you like that."
"Like what?" he asked with an apparent innocence which I felt sure must be fake.
"I'm just mildly merry," he said. "Like I was after the champagne Dad gave us earlier."
"The effects of that should have worn off by now," I pointed out, amazed at his nonchalant attitude toward what I expected to be an imminent maternal explosion.
"She can't be sure of that," he said, moving closer and exhaling in my general direction, allowing me to detect a strong smell of mint. "Anyway, I'll just go and tell her that Paul's staying over."
It was typical of Steve that he'd 'tell' Mum something like that when I, of course, would've asked her permission. It was just as typical that he'd probably get away with it, or at most get a mild scolding. However, I didn't think Mum would be fooled by the minty smell and I still expected her to make a big fuss about his drinking.
He disappeared in the direction of the kitchen, leaving me with a better view of the hallway and the person I presumed to be Paul. The young man had short dark hair and appeared to be about the same age as my brother, though he wasn't as tall or as muscular. He was, however, very attractive and I thought the sheepish look he gave me before averting his gaze was quite cute. However, before he caught me looking at him lustfully, I quickly turned my eyes back to the TV. Then I heard my brother's slightly raised voice.
"He can't get home because he missed his last bus," he said.
I was completely amazed that Mum had apparently not reacted to the fact that my brother had been drinking alcohol and could only guess that either she'd not noticed it or had assumed it was the after effects of the pre-dinner champagne. In any case, when she spoke to him it was so quietly that I couldn't distinguish her words, but from her tone it didn't seem as if she was annoyed. A few seconds later Steve reappeared in the doorway and spoke to me.
"Mum says to ask if you want something to drink, Mike. I'm getting juice for me and Paul."
"Yes, please," I replied, "but let Mum have her tea. You can get me a Coke."
Knowing my brother, I didn't expect him to refuse my request, though I half expected that he'd make some joke or snide comment about not being my slave. However, possibly because of the presence of his guest, he just nodded his acquiescence. Before returning to the kitchen he went to take hold of Paul's arm and brought him into the living room.
"This is my friend, Paul," he said. Then, without reciprocating the introduction, he turned to Paul and added, "Make yourself comfy on the sofa and I'll go fetch the drinks."
As soon as Paul sat down, Steve immediately left the room, leaving the two of us sitting in an embarrassed silence. Before things became too uncomfortable I thought I ought to say something, no matter how banal it might be.
"I'm Mike, Steve's brother."
"Yeah, I know," he responded very quietly, giving me a shy smile. "Steve said you were home."
There was no slurring in his voice and I couldn't detect any other signs of inebriation, but I didn't study him closely because I didn't want him to think I was staring at him. Again the silence was becoming uncomfortable, but this time we were rescued by the appearance of Mum and Steve when they brought in the drinks.
"Hello, Paul. It's nice to see you again," Mum said cheerfully. "Steve tells me you did well in your mock exams this term. Better than he did, in fact."
She threw one of her 'score one for me' smiles at my brother before she left the room, leaving me to ponder the fact that Paul was obviously both well known and well liked by my mother. So I guessed that he was probably a good friend of Steve's. I felt a little sad that I'd grown so far apart from my brother that I hadn't even known the name of one of his apparently close friends.
The two of them sat close together on the sofa, drinking apple juice and exchanging just a few occasional very quiet words that I couldn't distinguish. However, the tone and the body language indicated that Paul was nervous and that Steve was reassuring him. They soon finished their drinks and Steve immediately took the glasses to the kitchen. As soon as he returned, he announced he was going to bed, whereupon Paul stood up and they both said goodnight. At that moment Mum came in from the hallway carrying a load of bedding.
"You're going to bed already?" she said as the three of them almost collided in the doorway. "I just thought that as Paul can't use Mike's room as usual I'd bring some pillows and blankets to make up a bed for him on the sofa."
"Oh, erm, thanks," Steve said, "but I thought he could sleep in my room. That way Paul won't be waiting for Mike to go to bed and he won't be disturbed by Dad in the morning."
If Mum intended to respond to that, she wasn't quick enough and all she had time to do was to dump the bedding into Paul's arms before he and my brother quickly left the room and went up the stairs. Looking a little bemused, Mum gave a small shrug and looked at the clock.
"Just time to catch up on the news before going to bed," she said as she took the TV remote control from the arm of my chair and went to sit on the sofa.
Realising how tired I was and how much I was missing John, I decided to go to bed. Just as I got almost to the top of the stairs, Steve and Paul tumbled out of the bathroom together and mumbled an embarrassed good night to me before disappearing into Steve's bedroom. I went into the bathroom to brush my teeth and when I emerged a little later I saw Mum tapping on Steve's bedroom door.
"Don't forget there's the air mattress in the cupboard under the stairs," she called out.
"It's okay, Mum," my brother replied, his voice muffled and barely audible. "We're comfortable now."
She gave a little shrug of her shoulders and went to her bedroom. Quietly, I went towards my own bedroom and as I passed my brother's door I thought I could hear quiet laughter. Then, as I was passing the partly open door of my parents' room, I heard my dad's voice. Although I shouldn't have listened in, I couldn't help myself.
"Paul's staying over again, then?" he said.
"Yes," Mum replied. "He's in Steve's room tonight."
"Don't you think that's a bit, erm, odd?"
"No, they're best friends," she replied brightly. Then in a slightly wistful tone she added, "I remember when I was their age my best friend would stay over and we'd stay up half the night gossiping."
"Yes, but Steve's a boy," Dad said. "Boys don't gossip like girls. When I was a lad, I never stayed over with a friend."
"But you never had any really close friends, did you, my sweet?" Mum said gently and a little sadly. "Anyway, nowadays boys aren't so hung-up about such things."
Apart from the small sounds of movement from within the room there was silence for a few seconds and I was just about to creep away quietly to my bedroom when I heard my mum speak again.
"Anyway, I'm sure we don't need to worry about our Steve," she said reassuringly. "He's had a few girlfriends and he's always been into sports. Mike's the one who's never had a girlfriend."
"Oh, I shouldn't worry about Mike just because of that," Dad said in an amused tone. "After all, you were my first real girlfriend and I was twenty when we met. Mike's always been a very quiet and thoughtful boy. So I expect he'll be like me. He won't need to play the field and he'll just know when he finds the right girl."
"Aw, Davie, sometimes you can be such a sweetie."
Thinking that I could detect a tiny sound that could be a kiss, I beat a hasty retreat and quietly tiptoed to my room.
That night I didn't sleep well, partly because I missed John and partly because I was thinking about the conversation I'd overheard. I was rather surprised that Steve was apparently sharing his bed with his friend and I briefly wondered if he and Paul might be more than just friends. However, after a little thought I was convinced by my mother's arguments and decided that my very masculine brother was indeed heterosexual and merely behaving with his characteristic self-confidence. As usual he was either unaware of how his actions might appear to others or even more likely he didn't really care much what others thought.
The next morning I slept in late and by the time I got out of bed Steve and Paul had already got up and left the house. It was a beautiful sunny day, although it was quite cold and there was a touch of ground frost. Knowing that my brother enjoyed being outdoors, I guessed that he was outside doing something sporty. Because Dad was working a Saturday shift I was alone in the house with my mother until immediately after lunch when, much to my relief, she went out to do a little Christmas shopping. I guessed that as she'd gone out without Dad, it was likely that his present was on her shopping list. After she left, I went for a walk around the local park and when I got back about an hour later I found Steve in the kitchen making a snack.
"Want a sandwich?" he asked. "I'm having ham and tomato."
Offering to make me a sandwich wasn't the sort of behaviour that I'd normally have expected from him. It wasn't that he was inconsiderate, but merely that as the older brother I'd usually been the one doing such things for him. Although his offer to make me a sandwich was only mildly surprising, combined with his easy compliance the previous night when I asked him for a Coke, it aroused my curiosity.
"Yes, please," I replied, still pondering his behaviour. "I'll have the same."
Without another word he made an extra sandwich for me while I made some tea. As he seemed to have something on his mind, I didn't break the silence until we'd both sat down at the kitchen table and he'd taken, chewed and swallowed a huge bite.
"I guess Paul went home okay this morning," I said. Then after he nodded his affirmative, for no particular reason I added, "Did he sleep okay last night?"
At first Steve looked startled, as if he didn't know what I was talking about. Then, appearing to be a little embarrassed, he smiled and said, "Oh, Paul can sleep anywhere."
Normally my brother was very lively and talkative, and sometimes irritatingly so, but he went back to eating his sandwich in silence. A couple of times I tried to start a conversation, but his responses were brief and he seemed distracted by other thoughts. Mum came home before we'd finished eating and Steve, with a strange expression that I thought might indicate disappointment, announced that he was going out to meet some friends.
After helping Mum to unload the shopping from her car, I went up to my room to read one of the books I'd bought specifically for this visit. I'd got the books not just to tide me through the expected boring times while I was staying with my parents, but also to distract me when I was missing John. Furthermore, for the last few months I'd had almost no time to read just for pleasure and I was looking forward to immersing myself in a good novel. The first book I chose was very absorbing and before I knew it Steve was knocking on my door. Without waiting for me to acknowledge his presence, he came into my room, announcing that dinner would be ready in about five minutes.
"Are you busy tonight?" he asked as he hovered by the doorway. "I was wondering if you wanted to come out with me."
This question struck me as odd for several reasons. First, in my experience my self-confident brother never hovered uncertainly in doorways or anywhere else for that matter. Second, even when we'd been quite close before I went to university, we rarely socialised much outside of home, not least because our groups of friends were very different. I didn't get on well with his large number of sporty pals and my small number of non-sporty friends quickly bored him. Third, I was pretty sure he knew that since going away to university I'd lost contact with most of my local acquaintances and there was no reason that he should think I might be busy.
"Who with?" I asked.
"Just me," he replied. Then with uncharacteristic deference he added, "and maybe Paul… if you don't mind?"
"Why should I mind?" I asked. "He seems like a nice person."
Although I actually said the word 'nice', in my thoughts it was replaced with the word 'cute'.
"Oh, he is," Steve said.
"Where are you planning on going?"
"Probably to the Nag's Head," he replied, his look showing a hint of defiance.
"Presumably because they serve underage drinkers there," I said a little disapprovingly.
"Actually they don't," he replied as if scoring a point. "Paul's eighteen and he buys the beer."
"And doesn't anyone notice that he passes on some beer to you?"
"His cousin is the barman," he replied as if that explained everything. "So we'll go out about eight then?"
"Okay," I replied, though he'd gone before I'd finished saying the word.
When Steve and I arrived at the pub we found that it was festooned inside and out with Christmas decorations and as we passed through the main door a man dressed in a Santa costume rattled a collection box at us. Without bothering to ascertain what exactly he was collecting for, I dropped a few coins into the box. Inside the pub was quite busy but we quickly found Paul, who was sitting in a relatively quiet corner and sipping what appeared to be glass of Coke. As the eldest I felt it was my duty to buy the first round and Steve wasted no time accepting my offer, asking for a pint of lager. After a little hesitation I nodded my head in agreement. Given that it was less than a month until he'd be old enough to drink alcohol legally, I decided that I could be a little relaxed in carrying out my duties as a big brother.
"Is that just Coke?" I asked Paul, "or is there something in it?"
"Actually, it's Pepsi and there's nothing in it," he replied with a wry smile. "I thought I'd better stay sober tonight as I've borrowed Mum's car so that I don't need to worry about catching the last bus home."
"Not staying over at our place tonight then?" I asked half joking and without any real thought.
He looked slightly flustered and exchanged a brief glance with Steve before he replied.
"No," he said a little nervously. "I don't think tonight would be a good idea."
My curiosity was aroused more by his tone than his words and I was about to ask him why it wouldn't be a good idea when Steve spoke up.
"Hurry up and get the drinks, Mike," he said. "Preferably before I die of thirst."
With a mental shrug I abandoned my question and went to the bar. After returning with the drinks I sat next to Steve and we settled down to drink and chat amiably for a little under two hours. By the time Paul gave us a lift home Steve and I had each drunk three pints and he seemed quite tipsy whereas I was just mildly merry. The evening had been very enjoyable and I was suffused by a warm glow as we entered the house.
When he went into the living room from the hallway and greeted our parents I hung back, wondering how they might respond. I felt sure that if I'd ever been in Steve's position I would have received a verbal roasting. However, as I'd half expected they merely returned his greeting, though peeking over Steve's shoulder Dad's forehead briefly creased into a slight frown. Mum asked if we'd enjoyed our night out and offered to make us a cup of tea. While the four of us drank our tea she made some pointed remarks about how nice it was that Steve and I could enjoy an evening out together and what a pity it was that I didn't come home more often. Although I partly agreed with her, I didn't respond to her remarks.
As soon as they finished their drinks, Mum and Dad went upstairs to bed, leaving Steve and me lounging side by side on the sofa. For a few minutes we both stared at the TV but the old movie being shown didn't interest me and I doubted that it interested my brother either. However, the remote control was on one of the armchairs and I couldn't be bothered to go and get it. I decided to go to bed and just as I leaned forward to stand up, Steve spoke.
"What did you think of Paul, then?" he asked without taking his eyes off the TV.
Although his tone seemed neutral, I thought that I could detect a tension in his voice and a slight tensing of his body. I remained seated in my upright position as I answered.
"He seems really nice," I said. Then, thinking that sounded a bit too bland, I added, "Much more interesting than your other sports buddies."
Even before I finished saying it, I realised that it wasn't the most tactful thing to say and that alcohol had probably reduced my ability to think before speaking. This time his body definitely tensed up, but he still didn't look at me.
"He's not a sports buddy," he said.
His attempt to maintain a neutral tone wasn't very successful and I noticed that there was no apparent slurring of his words. I wondered if perhaps he wasn't quite as inebriated as I'd thought.
"No," I said hastily, "that's not what I meant. I meant that I like him and I like him a lot more than any of your other friends that I've met."
"Good," he said, looking at me and meeting my gaze, "I'm glad."
He looked back at the TV and assuming the conversation was over, I began to stand up. However, I'd moved only a couple of inches when he said something that made me sit down again.
"I love him," he said, his voice barely audible.
My mind churned and my thoughts seemed to bounce around inside my head as I considered the implications of those three simple words. Surely he didn't mean love as in sexual love. However, he wasn't the sort of person to use the word when referring to a friend, not even a best friend. I couldn't even remember the last time he'd said he loved anyone, even Mum. Yet I couldn't believe that my butch, masculine, sporty brother was gay. Well, to be honest I didn't want to believe it. Selfishly, I realised that if he really were gay, then it would make my relationship with our parents even more difficult and complicated than it already was.
While these thoughts swirled around inside my head, the silence between us grew longer and longer until he turned and looked at me with a worried, almost fearful expression. This just confused me even more because he looked so unlike his usual confidently competitive self. I'm not sure what he read into my face and body language, but whatever it was made him frown.
"Do you hate me?" he asked with a hint of defiance that seemed to be at odds with his words.
"H-hate you?" I stuttered, surprised by his question. "No, why should I?"
"Cos I'm in love with a bloke," he replied as if he were challenging me.
"You're gay then?" I asked stupidly.
His frown deepened and I got the strong impression that he didn't like me using the word 'gay'.
"Actually, I s'pose I'm really bi, but I just happen to love Paul," he said. Then he added defiantly "and he loves me."
"That's good," I said.
My response wasn't particularly brilliant, but it was the best I could manage at the time and at least it wasn't quite so stupid as my question had been. At first there was a look of confusion on his face as if he'd expected me to react differently to his announcement. Then his eyes narrowed in an expression of suspicion.
"Are you taking the piss?" he asked, a harsh edge creeping into his voice.
"No, of course not!" I protested. Trying to lighten the mood I smiled and added, "I just meant that it's good that he feels the same way. After all, I wouldn't want my little brother pining away with unrequited love."
Looking slightly embarrassed, he allowed himself to give me a small smile in return. Although he switched his gaze back to the TV, I had the feeling that he wasn't ending the discussion, but merely taking time to gather his thoughts. I was grateful for this opportunity to think about his announcement and it was only when I leaned back and relaxed again that I realised how tense I'd been. The obvious thing for me to do was to tell him about my own sexuality. I certainly intended to do so, but I couldn't decide how best to do it and I desperately wanted to avoid it sounding like a banal 'me too'. While I was still sorting out my own thoughts, he spoke again.
"Do you think I should tell Mum and Dad?" he asked, turning his head slightly and looking at me from the corners of his eyes.
That question threw my thoughts into even greater turmoil. Then it felt like my brain overloaded and my mind went blank. I just stared at him stupidly with no idea what I should say.
"Well?" he said, impatient at my lack of response. "What d'ya think?"
"Erm, I dunno," I said hesitantly. "That's up to you. You know what they're like and you're the one who's living with them."
"Yeah," he replied sadly. "Sometimes I wish that I could've moved away like you."
"But then you prob'ly wouldn't have met Paul," I pointed out.
He didn't reply to that and instead he stared vacantly in the general direction of the TV for several seconds.
"I think I should tell them," he said eventually. "I'm sick of hiding things and having to be so careful when Paul's here."
His words amused me so much that I had to suppress the urge to laugh and point out that in my view he wasn't being very careful at all. Obviously his definition of 'careful' was very different from mine. However, I thought it better not to say what I was thinking and instead I responded neutrally.
"Like I said, it's totally up to you."
"Well, if I do tell them, when do ya think I should do it?"
Again I was lost for words and before I could think of an answer he added another question.
"Will you be here when I do?"
It occurred to me that if he made his announcement before I did, and especially while I was there for the Christmas vacation, it would scupper any possibility of my telling my parents about John and me. On the other hand, if I came out to our parents first it would really make things much more difficult for Steve. Feeling confused, at first I thought it might be a good idea to pretend that I hadn't heard his question. However, the pleading look in his eyes persuaded me otherwise.
"Yeah, if you want," I said without much enthusiasm.
To be honest, when I said that, I only half meant it, but then when he nodded and smiled at me, the gratitude in his eyes prompted me to speak again.
"Yeah, of course I will," I added, giving him a smile of encouragement.
I realised that John would be disappointed when I told him that I'd put telling my parents about my sexuality on indefinite hold, but I was sure that he'd understand. Giving Steve priority in coming out would be a sort of Christmas present to him. After all, it was my duty as a big brother to look out for him and, if I were to be totally honest, delaying my own announcement was as much a relief as it was a sacrifice.
"How d'ya think I should do it?" Steve asked after another long silence.
That reminded me of all the times that I'd asked John that very same question and I couldn't suppress a smile as I answered.
"Ah," I said, "I think that it's all a matter of choosing the right time."
He frowned at me, clearly confused by my amused expression as well as by my cryptic words.
"Anyway," I added with a yawn as I stood up, "I think we should sleep on it and discuss it tomorrow when we're not feeling so tired."
Although he looked a little disappointed, he nodded his agreement. Perhaps it was cruel of me, but as I stepped out of the room I couldn't resist throwing a final remark over my shoulder.
"Oh, Steve," I said. "I hope you and Paul will be as happy together as me and John."
Then, not giving him any time to react, I went upstairs as quickly as I could.
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