by Will S
In the last week of school before summer vacation, they didn't run every day, which was probably a good thing. That gave Wright a chance to run at his pace, not the slower pace that Chris needed. At one point early in the week, Chris suggested that maybe they could hang out again on Friday night. "You know," he said, "another one of our 'non-dates.'"
Wright smiled. "Sounds good."
The Friday night plans didn't get discussed again, and Wright simply assumed they'd decide at the last minute, and that would be fine with him. Still, his heart seemed to speed up a bit at the thoughts of spending another evening with Chris.
In the couple of weeks or so that they'd been running together, Wright had relaxed a little and begun to think of Chris as a friend, a good friend, but just a friend, nothing more—despite his sensual daydreams about Chris and his X-rated nighttime dreams. If he allowed himself, Wright could get frustrated about the deeply buried secret desire he had for Chris versus the reality. But he reminded himself that Chris was just this straight kid who for some reason seemed to enjoy his company.
But that closeness was only when they were together and running; at school it was different. Things were getting really weird because as friendly as Chris seemed when they were running, it was not at all like that at school. If Chris saw him in the hallway or in a class, he'd say hi, or nod in his direction, but he always seemed to be holding back. They never talked about their running, and somehow Wright knew mentioning their "non-date" was way off the table. In school, Chris was nothing like the boy Wright had come to know on their morning runs. Instead, from a distance, Wright saw Chris acting like the running Chris with his football and baseball friends, and of course, with the girls that hung with them.
Once, Wright had seen Chris in the lunch line, and he'd asked about maybe meeting a little earlier the next day because a teacher wanted to see him before school started. Chris suddenly was acting more like Wright than Chris Donnelly. "Umm…yeah, sure. Text me." Then he turned back to the food counter, ordered the sloppy joe, and called out to one of the guys on the baseball team. Wright was left holding his lunch tray, feeling like a stood-up groom at wedding. He tried to tell himself that it was nothing, but he wasn't very convincing. And if he needed further confirmation that something weird was going on, it came the next morning.
"Hey," Chris had said when they'd finished their run and were doing their cool-down, "it'd be better if you want to talk about schedules and stuff if, you know, maybe you just text me." He gave Wright a smile, though not his usual sparkling-eyes smile. "Cool?" he said.
Wright wanted to say, "No! It's not cool! It sucks," but suddenly he wasn't trusting himself—and maybe more to the point, he wasn't trusting Chris—and so what came out of his mouth was a non-committal, "Yeah, whatever."
And then Thursday arrived, the last day of school—finally—and that was when things took a serious nose-dive. At the very best, it was a wasted day; everyone was restless, just wanting things to be over. Just before the last bell of the school year, Wright's teacher asked him if he'd mind dropping off a box of lost and found stuff in the office on his way out of the building. Wright was happy to oblige.
When the bell finally rang, he and everyone else were on their way, but his office delivery meant a little detour, and when he back stepped out of the office, he practically collided with Chris and his girlfriend, Liz. They were holding hands, their fingers laced between each other's.
"Hey," Chris said coolly. He somewhat awkwardly let go of Liz's hand.
Wright wasn't sure what to say, so he just nodded. He could feel the heat in his cheeks.
Now Chris's girlfriend spoke, "You're Wright, right?" She giggled at something Wright had been hearing all his life. He forced a smile that lasted about three nanoseconds.
"Yeah," he said. The uncertainty in his voice was even more obvious than usual.
"I'm Liz," she said with a smile. "Chris says you're a good runner—"
"A great runner, Lizzie, I said 'great,'" Chris interjected. He stole a glance at Wright. Chris's darting eyes seemed to suggest he was as nervous as Wright was.
Liz continued, "He said that you were helping him work on his running."
Wright shot a look at Chris and nodded. "Yeah…I guess that about sums it up." His words just seemed to die in the air.
"Well, nice to meet you," Liz offered.
"Yeah," Wright breathed, hoping what he really was feeling would be somehow masked to the two of them.
Then Liz suddenly seemed to get an inspiration. "Hey," she said, looking first at Wright, and then up at Chris. "Chris and I are going to the movies with some of our friends tomorrow night. You want to come? You can bring a date, of course." She smiled a genuinely friendly smile. Clearly she thought she was doing something kind. But of course, what Wright was feeling was just about 180 degrees in the opposite direction.
"Thanks," Wright interrupted, "but I can't. Got something else going." Or I thought I had, Wright's brain fumed. All week long, he'd been thinking about stuff he and Chris could do on their second "non-date." But all that had just been totally blown out of the water. Wright fought to keep his eyes from welling up. "Um…I gotta get going," he muttered, and casting the briefest sideways glance at Chris, turned and practically raced out the door.
On the bus, he stuck himself in a back seat, jammed in his ear bubs, put on his fav indie rock group, and fumed. Once he got home he went straight to his room, and body slammed himself onto his bed. He just felt so…so stupid, so gullible. So betrayed. He'd been an idiot to ever think Chris Donnelly would really want to be his friend. But he'd been sucked in—sucked in by the Donnelly magic charm. Well, not anymore. "Bastard," Wright muttered aloud, and then "idiot," a descriptor that he directed at himself. That's what really angered him. It was that he had allowed himself to be charmed. He'd let it happen, even though he knew it could never be what he conjured up in his fantasy. "I'm never going to be with someone," he breathed, and then the tears began to flow.
The next thing he knew was that his phone beeped. He'd gotten a text message. When he checked his phone, he realized he must have fallen asleep. Two hours had gone by, and he'd gotten seven texts, five of them from Chris. They were all about the same: "text me. let's talk." Wright decided he'd ignore them. But when another hour had passed by, and he'd gotten three more texts, he replied to the last one. "can't run tomorrow"
There was no reply to his message.
At dinner, Wright's dad asked, as was his habit, "You and Chris running tomorrow?"
Wright stared down, and poked his fork at his green beans. "No, I'm gonna take a day off." That got a look from both his parents.
"Something wrong?" his mom asked.
Wright looked up and was ready to explode, but what was he going to say? Yeah, my fantasy boyfriend has dumped my homo ass for his one true love? Yeah, right, he thought. There was nothing he could say, and anything he did say would only end up in an argument.
"Nah," he mumbled softy. "School's out. Just thought I'd take a break." He glanced up and could see his folks weren't buying it.
Wright didn't run Friday, and he didn't run Saturday. Not running threw both days completely off. He felt almost sick, almost like he was in a different dimension, and no matter what he tried to do, it seemed pointless. He felt worthless.
Get over it, he told himself. But it didn't help. Everything had been so good. And then, in a flash, it all fell apart. Even that made him angry. Everything hadn't been good. He'd been fooling himself. He was infatuated with some super stud straight guy. Like anything good could ever come out of that. It was a formula for failure. But, he argued, the guy had been leading him on. In fact, Chris Donnelly had initiated everything. He was the one making all the coy comments, he was the one setting the rules of the game. Wright was simply trying to follow the play book.
Late Saturday night, his phone beeped. After almost 36 hours of hearing nothing from Chris Donnelly, there was another text message: "pls talk 2 me." Wright was tempted, but he shut his phone off instead.
It was Sunday morning, and he knew he had to run, and so he did. It felt good going through the warm-ups and then setting out at his own pace—no one else's.
He'd turned onto to Wheeler Street, and was running along the familiar roadway, when he caught movement out the corner of his eye. When he turned his head, he almost stumbled to a stop. To quote Yogi Berra, "It was like deja vu all over again." Across the street was the dark-haired boy. He wasn't smiling, he was actually pretty grim-faced. In fact, he looked like he hadn't slept in a week. Wright wanted to look away. He wanted to resume his run, but he was frozen there. The other boy had not taken his eyes off Wright since the moment they had made eye contact. As he stared at him, Chris continued to run. And unbelievably, as Wright watched him, Chris Donnelly plowed headlong into the exact same tree that had taken him down before.
Wright couldn't believe his eyes. He stared over at the unmoving figure, turned and looked to see if anyone else was around, shook his head, and sprinted across the street. When he got to the body sprawled on the sidewalk, he knelt, but before he could speak, Chris opened one eye, and stared up at him. "Well," he said, "two times is a charm."
He faked it, Wright fumed. He started to get up, but Chris grabbed his hand and held it tight. There was no way Wright was going to be able to pull away.
"Wait," Chris said. "Please. I have to talk to you." He looked straight into Wright's bright sea-blue eyes. "Please."
Wright Steinbeck stared at this boy who had so turned his life upside down. There was something different about him. He seemed unsure of himself. Wright saw a vulnerability in the boy that he'd never seen before. "It's 'three time's a charm,'" Wright muttered softly.
Chris eased his grip on Wright's hand, and together the two boys stood. "Well, if this works, it'll be a charm," Chris said soberly. "Wright, I'm so, so, so sorry. It's my fault, all of it. At school, I was acting like a jerk. I'm sorry."
Wright wasn't ready to let him off the hook so easily. "Did you and your girlfriend have a good time at the movies?"
Chris looked at him for a second, and then answered softly, "No, not really." He studied Wright for a moment longer and then spoke again. "Look, it's not Liz's fault. She's…she's a nice person." And then so softly that Wright almost missed what he was saying, Chris added, "And I'm not treating her very good either."
"Well," said Wright with brittle, sharp words, "maybe you should go apologize to her."
Chris dropped his head, gazing down at his feet. "Yeah," Chris mumbled, and then looked back up at Wright. "I can't. She's gone to camp for the summer. She's a C-I-T. I went up with her yesterday when her folks took her." He seemed to be uncertain how to proceed, but then swallowed and looked again into Wright's brooding eyes. "I like Liz. She's nice. Not like a lot of the girls…" He stopped and shook his head. "That's not what I really wanted to say. Wright, Liz is moving. She's got all her stuff packed up, and over the rest of the summer, her folks are packing the rest of the house. In August, they're moving to Arizona. Her mom's flying back at the end of camp season and getting her." Again Chris seemed to hit a wall and appeared unsure of how he should proceed. "She's really upset. She'll be starting a new school in her senior year. There's just so much wrong about that." He frowned now, and almost seemed like he might start crying. "I know we talked about doing something on Friday, but I forgot that was going to be her last night here—like forever—and I at least owed her that much. We had sort of a surprise thing for her after the movies." He gave a little smile. "At Dabney's."
By now Wright was beginning to see things in a little different way from how he'd been feeling. Yes, he'd been hurt, but that was preventing him from seeing that other people were hurting, too. And, after all, Liz was Chris's girlfriend, and now who knows what was going to be happening with that. "I'm sorry about Liz," Wright said softly, "but you should have told me."
"I know, Wright. I screwed up. I know." It looked like he was going to say something else, but then he just blurted out, "Look, can we go somewhere and talk. My car's just around the corner."
And that's what they did. They walked around the corner and sat in Chris's car and talked. At first, it was mostly about Liz. Chris really did seem to like her, but as Wright listened, something wasn't quite adding up. Finally he realized what it was. Chris had never used the word, "love." He never once said, "I love her." The closest he'd come to that was saying he liked her. As he talked, it was almost more like he respected her. That seemed strange.
Finally, when the conversation slowed down and there was a space, Wright took a breath and swallowed hard. "I…I don't know what to make of you," he said softly. "One minute I think one thing; the next, something else. I don't know if you like me, you know, like a friend, or if you just want me to help you…like Liz said…with running stuff."
"Wright…" Chris bit his lip and closed his eyes. After a few seconds, he shook his head. "Wright, remember that day at Walgreen's?"
Wright nodded. "Yeah," he breathed.
"It was like I saw you for the first time." The dark-haired boy offered sort of a twisted grin. "Hope this doesn't sound too weird, but I sort of wanted to get to know you…you know, to hang out with you." Chris held Wright in his gaze. "But it just seemed too weird for me to come up to you and say, 'Do you want to be my friend?' Ya know? It would've seemed like we were in kindergarten or something. And I'd seen you run at a meet, like I said, and I thought maybe I could get you interested in running with me…" Now he smiled again, like he always smiled with great dimples and sparkling eyes. "And then there was the tree branch…and everything just clicked."
Sitting in the front seats, both boys were twisted around so they could face one another. It was as if they were trying to figure each other out. Finally, Chris spoke again. "You said you don't know what to make of me." He took a deep breath and shook his head once. "Well, partner, I can't figure out what's going on inside there, either." Chris reached out and tapped Wright on the head. "Sometimes when we're talking, I feel like there's a whole other conversation going on inside that beau—" Chris abruptly stopped, and looked almost as if he'd been jolted with a cattle prod. "…inside that blond head of yours, and I'm never gonna know what you're thinking, no matter what I say."
Wright was actually shaking now, but he knew he had to try to explain—at least a little, at least as much as he dared. "I don't have a lot of friends." He could see Chris start to protest, but he held up his hand. "No, I know. It's true. I don't. I guess I'm just kind of a loner. That's kind of why running works for me. I mean it's cool when you're practicing with other guys, but I like being out running on my own." Now it was Wright's turn to stare unblinking into Chris's dark chocolate eyes. "But when you talked to me at Walgreen's…well…that made my day. And when you asked if you could run with me, I thought, life was pretty damn good. It's great running with you. You're awesome. Seriously. You are. You know you are." Wright grinned at him and blushed up to his temples. "But at school, you're different. It was almost like you don't know me…or want to know me."
"No. Wait. This is hard for me. I never talk like this. To anyone. But there are just things I can never talk about…ever." Wright wondered if Chris even heard him say that, and if he did, what he'd make of it. But he had said it, and he, Wright Steinbeck, knew exactly what it meant, even if no one else could never know just what those secret things were. But in his mind, he hoped maybe it might explain at least a little why Wright was the way he was. "Let me finish, or I might never get this out." He nodded, and Chris nodded back. "It was confusing, and it hurt because I didn't understand…I don't understand. And Thursday when…well…when we talked…it just seemed all my fears had come true. And that's why I stormed off like spoiled little brat…and that's why I didn't answer your texts. It just hurt too much." Wright reached up and wiped a tear from his eye.
Chris again reached out, and for an instant, Wright thought he was going to take his face in his hands, but he didn't. Instead Chris settled his hands on Wright's shoulders. "Wright, I am so sorry. You're right about everything you've said. I've been a jerk—at least a jerk, but I will not be a jerk again. You may have to tell me if I'm screwing up, but next year in school, it'll be different." Wright felt Chris press down even more firmly on his shoulders. "I slept like shit these past couple of nights. And it wasn't because of Liz. Well, maybe it was a little, but mostly it was because of you…because…" Color flooded into Chris's cheeks. It was the first time Wright had ever seen that happen. Chris looked straight at Wright. "…because I was afraid I'd lost you…um…your friendship. I don't want that to happen."
Chris could feel the blond-haired boy trembling under his grasp; he saw him struggling to say something.
"You might not say that, if—" Wright began.
"Shhh…" Chris hushed. "Don't…There's nothing you can say that will change my mind. You said there are things you can never talk about to anyone. I get it. I understand. I guess we all have secrets. Wright, I have secrets."
"No…I don't need to know any more. Nothing. I just want to try again, and I want to get it right this time."
The silence grew awkward, and both were desperate to find something to say. It was, not surprisingly, Chris who came up with just the right thing.
"Hey, wanna go for a run?"
Wright smiled a huge smile. "Yeah. But, you're gonna have to let me go."
"Never." He gave Wright a really goofy look. "Oh, I get it. My hands." Chris released Wright's shoulders. "Well, if I have to." He blushed again.
Wright shook his head and gave Chris a look. "And we're gonna have to warm up first," Wright instructed.
Chris rolled his eyes. "Always the taskmaster."
They got out of the car and did their warm ups. Then they started out on their run. Before they'd gone twenty feet, Chris spoke again. "I had two choices today to try to get your attention. Either the ol' tried and true tree limb. Or…" He gave Wright a leering glare with a grin to go with it. "Like we'd talked about a couple of weeks or ago, I could have run down Wheeler Drive naked."
Predictably, Wright blushed a deep red. "Hard choice," he muttered.
"Tell me about it," Chris agreed. "I chose the tree because I wouldn't wanna cause a traffic jam on Wheeler Drive." He laughed like he'd just made the best joke ever.
Deep inside, Wright Steinbeck trembled at the image that had instantly formed in his head. Outwardly, a smile stretched from one side of his face to the other. Maybe things were going to be alright. Maybe.
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