In Skater's Time

by Rick Beck

Chapter 12

Replacement Friends

With all the pieces in place, Free would take and pass the GED test with flying colors, but the one thing Free didn't need any help with, math, was the score that impressed his recruiter most, and in short order, he sat Free down with a math test that was right out of the navy's schools, where they placed recruits in fields that were consistent with their intelligence.

"He said that I qualify for a weapons' computer system school. I'll be going to the Great Lakes, after boot camp, and I learn about the electronic systems on the war ships. He told me it is one of the gravy fields in the military, and once I've had enough of the navy, I'll be qualified to work for civilian military contractors, who create and built the weapon's systems," Free said.

"That's great. I don't know how I feel about you helping the military kill people, but someone has to do it, I guess. You really think you'll like it?" I asked.

"A month ago, I wondered if there was anything I could do. Now, there are no limits to what I can do. Lucky says, if I do really well at the Great Lakes school, and I could apply for the officer candidates program. Computer geeks make up a large number of sailors that qualify for that program."

"I'm happy for you, Free. I want you to do well. I want you to do what you think is best for you. You deserve some good stuff, after you've had so much grief in your life. You are a good person, who deserves some good stuff," I said.

I was happy for Free. I loved him. I wanted him to do well. I just wished he could do it, while staying with me, but life simply didn't work that way. Whatever it was he found, that made his life worth living, I didn't think it would be anywhere near El Cajon.

I wasn't going to cry, until after he was gone. I wasn't going to measure my lost, and look for my path forward. Free had decided on how he wanted to go, and it didn't include me, and once he was gone, I'd figure out my way forward.

The day Free was to go to boot camp, he asked me to go with him, to meet Lucky, his recruiter. I wasn't prepared for the gray bus, half filled with today's recruits. I was beside Free, when he walked to the front door of the bus. It was open, and a large, perfectly dressed uniformed navy recruiter came down the steps to greet Free.

"Glad to see you Recruit Wentworth. You brought your guard with you? I'm Chief Petty Officer Andrew Jackson Brown, and you are?" He asked, presenting me with a white gloved hand.

"Just Z," I said, shaking his hand once, and quickly letting go, before he had a chance to squeeze. I was sure, if he squeeze, I'd never use the hand again.

The recruiter laughed, as quickly as I retrieved my hand. He even managed to smile, showing a mouth full of pearly whites.

"Andrew Jackson?" I said. "You should be in politics."

The recruiter laughed deep inside.

"That's what my dear mother told me. It's why she gave me that name."

His voice was deep and warm. I really wanted to hate the guy, because he took Free away from me. I didn't see the attraction, but it was too late now.

Andrew Jackson got back on the bus, and his booming voice told the recruits what to expect, and then he got off the bus, stood next to me, as the door closed, and the gray bus lurched into motion.

I watched Free's face, until I couldn't see it any longer. My heart literally dropped out of my chest. It was over.

"Z, is it?" Andrew Jackson Brown asked.

"It's Z," I said.

"Z, you have a pretty smart friend there. I've been recruiting for five years, after being wounded in the Gulf War, and Anthony is one of the boys that come through here. Few boys leave an impression on me at that age, but he did."

"I know the feeling," I said. "He hasn't had a break in his life."

"He's gotten one now. I know it's difficult saying goodbye, to some you..., are close to, but he's on his way. I alerted my commander that Recruit Wentworth is officer material. If he does the work, he'll go a long way in this man's navy," Andrew Jackson Brown said. "And you, Z, have you considered a life of high flying adventure on the seven seas? The navy will give you a home."

"No," I said, leaving no doubt about it.

He laughed a laugh from deep inside him.

"I thought not," he said, pivoting on the shiny toe of his right foot, smartly marching himself back into the recruiter's station.

I laughed as the impressive man left. I bet he could charm a little old lady in a wheelchair to join up.

I turned back toward where the bus disappeared. It was long gone, and so was Free. I felt sick. I wanted to cry, but I wouldn't do it there. My loss was a private affair.

I'd been sick since the day Free told me his plan. I didn't tell him how much it hurt. I'm sure Free realized that I was in pain. Except for the one night, when he initiated sex with me in my bed, we stopped having sex, because he didn't start it again.

I memorized our love making. One last time he'd ridden me out beyond the moon, as we dashed among the stars, and deep into a blackness, where time and distance had no meaning, until we drifted on the wings of clouds, settling back down in my bed.

Being with Free, made it the greatest night of my life.

Afterward, once we came back to earth, I didn't have a thing to say. It was over, and I accepted that. Ordinarily, I was a gabby Gus, but not that night. It was the first, and last, love making we did, once Free's future had been made clear to me. What was there to say?

Of course, I didn't know it was the last time he'd initiate sex, and I wouldn't initiate sex. I may have accepted the inevitable, but I still had to work on letting go of Free. I'd do all within my power to help him get where he was going, while hoping he'd change his mind, and not go in the navy.

Certainly it was an illusion, but to adapt to losing him, there had to be slight of hand, to get me from one hurdle to the next. Being with him, while I was losing him, was the hardest part. Had he came home and said, "I'm out of here," the process would have gone faster.

He had a shot, and he took it, and I was alone again. This time alone was not as demanding as it had been before. I had no need to rush out, and start another fling with another boy.

There was no other boy. There was only Free.

I went to work every day. I began staying late to put all the canned goods on the shelves from the last delivery. It wasn't hard work, but I needed to pay attention so I didn't put the tomatoes where the peanut butter belonged, and I didn't put the apple sauce where the apple jelly went.

Something about the routine, the repetition meant I didn't need to engage my brain too much, and not engaging my brain kept me from thinking about Free. I didn't take breaks for the same reason. I ate lunch while I worked.

Mr. Hitchcock came to the isle where I was putting up canned goods, shortly after unloading the truck that brought the boxes, and he'd watch for a minute or two, before walking away. I didn't look at him or engage him in conversation.

I didn't have much to say to anyone. My parents asked if I was OK, but they knew something was wrong. I no longer gobbled up whatever was on the menu for dinner, and they were still ordering the meal with the idea of feeding Free. It wasn't a lot of food.

It was the following week, after Free left, and I was still working most of the time, after attending my classes. I didn't go to the mall, I didn't do much skating, except for going to work and going home. I told day that I would be working late, and he shouldn't stop for me for a while.

I was in isle three, stocking lima beans and succotash, which went next to the corn, creamed corn, and the peas, and peas and carrots, when I became of someone standing behind me. I kept reaching into the box, and reaching to reach the upper shelves. I did not want to talk to anyone, especially a customer.

I'd placed the last can where it belonged, when I felt someone standing behind me. Go away, I thought to myself, concentrating on pinto beans, great northern beans, navy beans, and blackened peas. I wondered why the black eyed peas didn't go with the peas and peas and carrots. I was sure there was a reason. Like there was a reason someone was still standing there. I waited for the telltale clearing of their throat. I could ignore that. I wasn't in the mood.

"You OK, Z," Brenda asked.

"Me? I'm fine."

I placed the large lima beans next to the black eyed peas, and I wondered why they weren't with the green lima beans. I suppose size mattered in this case. Green lima beans weren't large at all. Funny I had noticed these things before.

I hadn't even said hello. I wanted to get rid of her, and I had, but now I felt bad about it. She'd spent a lot of time helping Free, and she deserved a hello. I don't think I'd said hello to her father, when I dashed in from school, anxious to get lost among the canned goods. Hitchcock's shelves had never been this full. There was always room for one more can.

I hadn't run into Brenda that often, because she went to school at SDSU, leaving there, on her way to work at the store, at about two thirty each day. If we saw each other, it was to say, hi, bye, and not much more.

While she was helping Free, we didn't have time to talk, because she was focused on Free, which was what she'd said she would do. Long after I'd gone back to work, they'd be sitting on the five gallon cans, talking over English.

I remember, one afternoon, when business began picking up, Tammy passed behind me, going to the register to check customers out, and she said, 'Mr. Wentworth is smarter than I am, when it comes to math. He can solve most of the problems in his head, and I can't do that, Even with a piece of paper to figure it out, I still get some problems wrong."

Brenda and I hadn't done more than nod at each other, during the summer. Once I started school, my hours were nine to five, and Brenda and I were there for a couple of hours each day. When she volunteered to teach Free English, we talked seriously for the first time.

I didn't want to talk, and now she probably wouldn't talk to me. I wasn't there to please the owner or his daughter, well, maybe the owner, and the earth wouldn't end if Brenda never talked to me again, but it went against my idea of how you treated people. I couldn't explain it to her, and I doubt she'd understand. Besides, she usually wanted to talk about Free, and that wasn't happening.

As I stocked cans of pork & beans, Campbell's, Van Camp's, and Bush, Brenda was back. I found that baffling. I was sure she wasn't speaking to me.

Today, she didn't want to talk about Free. She wanted to talk about me, and what was there to talk about, besides me being rude.

"Pop's worried about you," Brenda said. "I'm worried about you. He's not going to violate your space. He doesn't want to lose you, but he doesn't know what to say to get you to talk to him, Z. This is not at all like you."

I removed cans from the box, one at a time, setting them on the shelves.

"Z, I'm a teacher. We're taught to look out for kids who may be in trouble. They spend a lot of time warning us to be aware of depression, signs of abuse, and kids who are too quiet or withdrawn. It doesn't take a genius to see the pain you're in, and Pop is worried about you. He thinks a lot of you , Z. If there is anything we can do, just let me know. It's not hard to connect this with Free's departure. He was a pleasure to be around."

"There's to do, Tammy. Free is gone. I'll get over it."

"He was more than a good friend, wasn't he?" Tammy said.

"I know gay guys at school. I can see how they look at each other, when they're in love. It's nice to see that, see love in motion. That's how you and Free looked at each other. Like those gay guys, who were in love," she said.

"You've found me out, Tammy. There's still nothing you or Mr. Hitchcock can do. I need to deal with him leaving. I'll get over it," I said.

"Can I tell my father what it is. He's really worried. He's afraid of losing you, and he's rather fond of you, Z."

"Sure. Tell him what you think is best. As long as I'm doing my job, I hope it won't make a difference. I need the job, Tammy," I said, knowing all people didn't like gay people.

"He'll be able to relate to your lose. We lost my mother five years ago. He knows what losing the person you love is like," Tammy said, sympathy in her words.

As I suspected it would be, talking about it made it even more raw, more painful. I finished the box, broke it down, hung my apron on the hook next to Mr. Hitchcock's office, and I left through the loading dock.

I skated past two skaters I recognized, but I didn't slow down, until I got to where I was going. I picked up my board, and I walked into the woods, following the narrow path to where Free slept. The pillow and two blankets were still there. I spread out one blanket, used the other for my head, and I held the pillow full of his scent, and I cried and cried. This was all that was left of Free.

I took the pillow and threadbare blankets with me. I needed the pillow to furnish me with the support it gave me. It proved there was a Free, and that we once were in love. His smell reassured me both things were true.

When I left work that day, I didn't know if I'd return, but then I remembered how Mr. Hitchcock's clerks, always walked out on him, without a word. They simply didn't come back, and I wouldn't do that to him. I needed the job, without it, I might not survive losing my first love. I was there, on time, the following morning.

"Morning, Z. Nice to see you," Mr. Hitchcock said.

"Morning, Mr. Hitchcock," I said.

I wanted to tell him I wouldn't walk away, as so many others had done, but I was no longer certain of what I might do.

During the morning, after I unloaded the second delivery that morning, Mr. Hitchcock passed behind me in the isle, as I put up canned goods.

"Free was a fine boy," he said. "I can see how easy it would be to love such a boy. I'm sorry, Z. I don't know about these things, but I'm sorry," he said, not waiting for a reply, or to see the tears that dripped on the cans I put on the shelf.

The circle was closed. I wasn't going to be fired for loving another man. I didn't figure I would be, but you never know. I'm not sure that Lucky, the recruiter, didn't sense that the boy who accompanied Free to the bus ride to basic training camp, wasn't Free's lover.

Free did write once a week. The envelopes arrived with his navy number and with the name, Anthony Wentworth on the envelop as well. He didn't have a lot to say. He was worn out, and the four or five hours of sleep a night was never enough. He was learning the things you needed to know to be in the military. Most of it sounded like they were busy separating Free from himself. I hoped the thing that made him more special than anyone I'd known, wasn't removable.

On my eighteenth birthday, Mr. Hitchcock gave me a twenty-five dollar savings bond. He smiled and wished me well. I guess my birth date was listed on the paperwork I filled out, when I applied for the job. I shook his hand and thanked him.

The oddest thing happened, and it made my day, even though I didn't get it until I went home for dinner. It was the day I went by the mall on Broadway for the first time, since Free left, and I sat on the patch of grass on the far side. Two boys said, "Hi, Z," as they skated by. I waved, not knowing their names.

We'd been off from school that day, and my father took me to work, on his way into town. I began stocking shelves shortly after seven, and I left at three. I wanted to remember what it was like. In a few months, I'd graduate, and I'd go back to that schedule permanently, and I wanted to start living again. I'd never forget Free, but now, it was time to move on, and I thought I was ready.

There was a birthday card from Free, waiting for me, when I got home. How did he know it was my birthday? It was a rather ordinary card, but Free wrote, 'I wish I was there to help you celebrate turning eighteenth. I turned nineteen in boot camp, so I'm a little over a year older than you are. I asked your mom, when your birthday was, before I left. I'm sorry I couldn't go shopping, and send you a nice gift, but this place doesn't have anywhere to shop. We do get to buy candy and chips from the PX. That's the Post Exchange. I miss you a lot. I wonder if I'm doing the right thing, Z. Being with you was the best part of my life so far.' He signed it, Love, Free.

I sat down to write him that night. "Free, your are absolutely doing the right thing. I know that you're going to be the best navy guy ever. Don't get distracted. Do your work, and I predict that great things will happen to you."

I signed it, Z.

I remembered what Brenda told me about Free. I also remembered what Chief Andrew Jackson Brown told me. I wouldn't tell Free that, but Free passed his GED with flying colors, and I was sure he was headed for big things. His life had been bad news so far, but every once in a while, people who have terrible starts in life, turn out to be one of the best. It's what Free would do.

Free's card was a precious surprise. My parents got me some clothes. They were hoping I was feeling better, but they realized it would take time for me to get over losing Free.

I don't know if they knew we were lovers, or if they thought we were just friends, but we actually weren't making love, save that one time, while Free slept in my bed with me, every night, and my parents knew where Free slept. It had to cross their mind, but they learned to care about Free, and they were sorry to see him go. They still talked about him at the dinner table, and it was fine. We even laughed about some of the things Free did, while he was there.

It was the card that helped me get back onto steady ground. Something as simple as a birthday card, with him telling me he was questioning his decision, because I had been the best part of his life so far, made our love real. Free hadn't forgotten me. He hadn't been too busy to think about our months together.

Even if we didn't see each other again, our love was real to both of us.

That night, for the first time since Free left, I opened up my journal on my computer. I started a new section. I labeled it: Free.

When I first saw Free, he was with two guys John warned me about. Little could I have guessed, within the hour, I was making incredibly delicious love to the first boy I was destined to fall in love with. Free was my everything.

Having felt ..............

Talk about this story on our forum

Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]

* Some browsers may require a right click instead