Everything But Love

by Joel Young

Chapter 8

The First Kiss

On the car ride home from taking Toby to reconnect with his mother, I had time to think. I felt so sorry for Toby. At only ten years old, he had gone through a great deal of pain and suffering. His mother had run away to escape abuse from her husband. Then, Toby had become the object of his father's physical abuse, and he, too, had to run away. He had been on his own for weeks - homeless, hungry, and scared. Toby was in so much need of someone to care for him that when I showed him just a little bit of kindness, he developed an immediate attachment to me. He clung to me for safety and comfort – even after Pastor John had located his mother, and Uncle Nathan had volunteered to drive him to his grandmother's home where his mother was staying.

I thought about how his situation and mine were similar - but also different. Each of our fathers had rejected us and forced us out of our homes. Toby and I both felt abandoned by our parents. Toby's father had physically abused him; my father had loathed me. Not that the abuse I experienced was anywhere near as severe as what Toby had endured. After all, Toby had to watch as his father beat his mother, and he had suffered physical abuse, too. I was lucky to have only been despised, ignored, and spat upon by my father. My parents sent me to live with relatives. After Toby left home, he was on his own. I had the advantage of coming from a wealthy family. Toby's family was dirt-poor. Yet, the emotional impact of our situations was similar, and somehow, we sensed that in each other. I think that was the primary reason why we had bonded almost instantly. In a sense, we gave each other a kind of love that was missing in our lives.

That observation made me reconsider my current situation. Yes, I felt unloved. And I wanted someone to love me unconditionally, just for being the person I was – sissy or not. But being needed by Toby was somehow very satisfying to me. Maybe I could find the love I desperately wanted by showing love to others – people who needed a friend or a kind word. Perhaps it was up to me to find love by being a loving person myself. Before falling asleep in the car that night, I decided that I needed to give more appreciation and support to the people around me. Begrudgingly, I decided that I should include Mason, too.

When Uncle Nathan and I got home from our trip to Bellevue, Aunt Gretchen woke up. She wanted to hear all about Toby's reunion with his mother. "I've never seen two people so happy to see each other," I said. "You could feel their relief when they were finally able to hug each other again. It was pretty cool to watch." Uncle Nathan and I stayed up for close to half an hour, telling the story and answering Aunt Gretchen's questions.

Since it was almost morning, I took care of the chickens and then went to bed. I got up for the day around noon. Right after lunch, Mark called me. "Want to go bike riding?" he asked. That sounded good to me, so we agreed to meet at my house at 2:00 that afternoon.

"How was the Sadie Hawkins dance?" I asked Mark as we were peddling down Butterfield Highway. He pulled over to the side of the road.

"That's what I wanted to talk about," Mark said. "Let's sit down."

We moved our bikes away from the road and put the kickstands down. We sat on the ground to talk. "Debbie and I had a good time at the dance," he said. "We hung out with Sylvia and Danny. And we talked with Justin and his date for a while. Then Debbie wanted to go outside for a break. We went out to the football field, and she took my hand and led me under the bleachers. She started kissing me – like with her tongue in my mouth. Then …" Mark hesitated. He looked embarrassed.

"Mark," I said. "We're good friends. You can tell me anything, and I won't repeat it to anyone."

"She started feeling me up!" Mark said. "And she took my hand and put it on … her private parts."

"Wow," I said. "It sounds like Debbie really knew what she wanted."

"No kidding!" Mark replied. "I mean, I've never even dated anybody before."

"Were you okay with what happened?" I asked.

"Well, it felt great when she was rubbing my dick through my jeans," Mark said. "I even - ah, well, you know."

I knew what Mark meant, even though he didn't want to say it. He had had an orgasm while Debbie was fondling him. I wondered if he had 'returned the favor,' but I didn't ask.

"James, do you promise – I mean really promise - not to say anything about this? If I tell you the rest of it, you can't say anything to anyone, okay?" he asked. "Not even Sylvia!"

I put a hand on his shoulder. "Mark," I said. "You're my best friend. You have my word, and I will never break my word to you. I will keep whatever you tell me just between the two of us."

"After I – you know, Debbie lifted her skirt and put my hand inside of her pants," Mark said. "I tried to please her, but – well – I guess I didn't know how to do it very good. We finally gave up, and she was mad at me for the rest of the night."

"Oh, Man!" I said to Mark. "That must have made you feel awful. But I think it was her fault – not yours. She had no right to treat you that way!"

Mark looked totally perplexed. "What do you mean?" he asked. "A guy is supposed to like it if a girl comes on to him like that. It's me who was the problem. I was the one who couldn't – satisfy her. I'm such a loser!"

"You are not a loser!" I exclaimed. "Maybe she's the one who has a problem. Maybe it was just a situation that didn't feel right. Mark, you shouldn't put yourself down. You're a great guy, and if Debbie Dickson is such a - selfish person, then put her out of your mind. Just forget about her."

"But what if she talks about me behind my back?" Mark asked. "I'll die if she spreads rumors about me all over school!"

"If she does, just remember that two can play at that game!" I said. "We can start rumors about her, too. And I guarantee she will regret talking bad about you!"

"Thanks," Mark said. "It's really nice to know that you've got my back. By the way, I was worried about you last night. I hope you didn't feel left out just because of the Sadie Hawkins dance. Did you find something else to do?"

"Well, you could say that. In fact, I had a very unusual Friday night," I said. I told Mark the story about finding Toby in the church and all that had happened after that.

Mark seemed fascinated, and he asked lots of questions. "You're a hero!" he said. "You might have saved that kid's life!"

Mark and I finished our bike ride and got back to the farm shortly before diner. Aunt Gretchen asked if Mark wanted to stay and eat with us. She was making fried chicken, mashed potatoes, biscuits and gravy, green beans, and coleslaw. Mark eagerly accepted the invitation. Just as he was about to call home for permission, Aunt Gretchen suggested he spend the night and go to church with us the following day. Mark and I thought that was a great idea, and his mother had no problems with the plans. She even dropped off his church clothes and a few other things he would need for a sleepover.

Mark enjoyed his dinner. He told my Aunt Gretchen how good the food was and how much he appreciated the invitation. Mason was out with some of his friends. So, my aunt, uncle, Mark, and I had a very relaxed and enjoyable meal together. Mark and I cleared the table and did the dishes. We took care of the chickens before we went upstairs for the evening.

We each took a shower and got ready for bed. We played several games of Battleship before settling down and crawling between the warm sheets and blankets wearing just our skivvies.

I was lying flat on my back when Mark turned and propped himself up on an elbow and looked at me. "You're an amazing friend, James," he said. "I feel so much better about things after spending the day with you."

Mark's words caught me off-guard, and I felt myself blushing. "Thanks," I managed to say. "You're pretty amazing yourself."

"Have I told you how great you're looking?" Mark asked. "It's not just your contact lenses and getting your braces off. All that running and weightlifting you're doing are paying off. You're turning into a stud, Dude. Several girls have noticed and talked about it."

I became embarrassed. "Yeah, right!" I said. "That must be why no one asked me the Sadie Hawkins dance."

"Yeah, I don't understand what happened about that," Mark said. "If I were a girl, I would have asked you to go with me."

When Mark said that, I became very uncomfortable. Was he telling me that he was attracted to me? Was he saying that we might have a different kind of relationship if we weren't both boys?

"Oh, my God!" Mark exclaimed. "I shouldn't have said that! I'm sorry. I didn't mean to embarrass you – or me. I was just trying to tell you – that - geez, I don't know what I meant. I'm sorry. Please don't hate me."

"I don't hate you, Mark," I said softly. "If you had asked me to the dance, I would have gone with you."

Mark and I looked into each other's eyes, and I felt an intimacy with him that scared me.

"Don't get the wrong idea," he said. Then, he leaned over and kissed me on the lips. It was a closed-mouth, gentle kiss that lasted for several seconds. When we separated, Mark looked nervous. "I don't know why I did that," he said. "I guess I'm just feeling close to you right now. Did I do a bad thing?"

Did I think Mark had done a bad thing? Well, not really. After all, I had wanted him to kiss me the night of the first sleepover. And I had been jealous of Debbie Dickson when she took Mark to the dance. But something about what he had just said bothered me. I was upset because I didn't know what Mark was really thinking. What did 'don't get the wrong idea' mean? If a guy kisses another guy on the lips, doesn't that mean he is attracted to him? Can a kiss like that mean they are just close friends?

"It wasn't a bad thing, Mark," I finally said. I decided to try to joke around to break the tension. "Just don't do that at church. Mrs. Carter would have a heart attack!"

Mark laughed. "Let's get some sleep," he said. "Can I cuddle with you for a while?"

Of course, I didn't say, "No."

As I fell asleep in Mark's arms, I thought about what he had told me about how Debbie Dickson had treated him. And I thought about the brief kiss he and I had shared. "Take things slowly," I told myself. "Mark didn't like it when Debbie became too aggressive on their first date. He wants to take his time on things like that. If I want him to be my boyfriend, then let things progress at a slow and natural pace."

At that moment, I realized that I was in love with Mark and that I desperately wanted him to love me back.

As planned, Mark went to church with Aunt Gretchen and me the next morning. Pastor John had the sound system back up and working. After the opening hymn, he began the Bible readings – making full use of the microphone. Then, he read several passages from the New Testament about forgiveness. Pastor John told the congregation the story about Toby. He explained the suffering Toby had experienced and the abuse he had received from his father. He relayed all of the events of Friday night that resulted in the return of our sound system. And more importantly, the return of Toby to his mother.

"I have to give a great deal of credit to James Covington and his uncle, Nathan Dwyer. Without them, this situation could have turned out very differently," Pastor John told the congregation. "Because of their willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty, Toby is where he belongs – with his mother. And we have our sound system back."

After the services, everyone seemed to be talking about Toby. Several people came up to me and said nice things. And, of course, they wanted more details that could be shared all around town with friends and neighbors. Aunt Gretchen and Mark stayed by my side while I answered question after question. They both seemed proud of me. That made my day. Unfortunately, the good feeling from that morning didn't last very long.

On Monday morning, I went to school. The first thing I saw was Mark walking down the hall, holding hands with Debbie Dickson! I couldn't believe it! I was upset all morning. At lunch, I saw Mark and Sylvia sitting at a table with Debbie Dickson and Danny Rundles. Some of Debbie's friends were there, too, and the table was full. Justin and the Pack were a few tables away, so I went to join them.

"Hey, James," Justin said. "Have a seat, but the price of admission is a good joke."

"No problem," I said. "I've been saving this one for you guys." I set my tray on the table and sat down. "Okay, Superman is flying around Gotham City, right? And he's horny as Hell. Suddenly, he looks down and sees Wonder Woman sunbathing on the roof of a building. She's just lying there - naked and spread-eagle! Superman thinks, 'This is my chance!' So, he swoops down faster than a speeding bullet, bangs her, and he's gone in the blink of an eye. Wonder Woman says, 'What the blazes was that?' The Invisible Man rolls off her and says, "I have no idea, but it hurt like Hell!"

The Pack laughed and hooted loudly. Several groups of students in the cafeteria, including Mark's table, looked at us to see what was so funny. I looked at Mark just as members of the Pack started a round of high-fives. "That's pretty good, Covington," Justin said.

After classes finished for the day, I went to my locker. Mark was standing there, waiting for me. "You were certainly having fun at lunch today!" Mark said, sounding a little irritated. "You didn't even stop and say, 'Hi.' Don't you think that was pretty rude?"

I was pissed. "If Mark wants to kiss me on Saturday night and then go around holding hands with Debbie Dickson on Monday," I thought to myself. "Then he's got a lot of nerve saying that I was rude just because I lost track of time while having fun with some other friends."

I remembered that I had decided to show more love and support to others in the hopes that I might find love myself. But that day, I couldn't keep my sarcastic mouth shut. "I was having fun at lunch today – more fun than Debbie Dickson had with you under the bleachers last Friday night!"

I regretted those words as soon as I said them. Mark looked shocked – and then hurt – and then angry. "Go to Hell, James!" he said as he stormed off.

That evening after dinner, Sylvia called me. "What did you say to Mark?" she asked. "He's furious at you."

"He called me rude for not stopping by your table in the cafeteria today. Your lunch table was full, so I sat with some of my other friends," I explained."

"You're not telling me the whole story, James," Sylvia said. "You must have said something that pissed Mark off. He wouldn't be this mad just because you didn't say, 'Hi.'

I thought for a while before answering. I couldn't tell Sylvia what I had said without violating Mark's trust. "Well, I guess I said something about Debbie Dickson that he didn't like."

"Well, I don't blame you for that. Debbie can be a real bitch sometimes," Sylvia said. "But Mark seems to like her, so I think you should apologize. Give him a call. It's important, James. Don't risk your friendship over this."

I thought about Sylvia's advice for a long time before I decided that she was right. Nervously, I dialed Mark's number. He answered right away. "Mark," I said. "This is James. I want to apologize to you. I should never have said what I did."

"There are some things you just can't take back, James," Mark said in an angry but quiet tone. "You hurt my feelings on purpose. You knew how embarrassed I was about what happened with Debbie under the bleachers. Well, she and I made up after church yesterday. And now I know who my real friends are. I'm hanging up now, so leave me alone. We're not friends anymore."

I was numb when my phone call with Mark ended. I was shocked and hurt, and I felt very guilty about what I had said to Mark earlier that day. I chastised myself for not doing what I had set as a goal – showing more love and support to other people. I finished my chores and went upstairs to go to bed. As I thought about how mean I had been to Mark, I started crying. I prayed to God for forgiveness and strength. But what was in my heart was asking for God's help in getting Mark to forgive me. But that didn't happen. Mark completely ignored me – for months.

I sulked around for a week or two, feeling sorry for myself and trying to blame Mark for the end of our friendship. I finally got tired of thinking about Mark and me, and I accepted that our relationship was over. As I had learned to do at home in Connecticut, I threw myself into activities that distracted me from the pain I felt from being rejected.

I had always wanted to learn to play guitar. Mom had sent me a birthday card saying I should buy myself a present using the credit card she had given me. So, I bought a Gibson acoustic guitar and a book about how to teach myself to play. I had never played a stringed instrument before, but I could read music. It didn't take me long to learn the basics. And I started singing the songs as I played them on the guitar.

Right before Christmas, I told Justin that I was learning to play guitar. He was an excellent guitarist, and he suggested that we get together and play over the break. So, he came over the day after Christmas. He brought the sheet music for some country songs, and we had a great time together. I was surprised that we sounded as good as we did. I had never been a big fan of country music, but that day I found out that I did like it. The country songs we sang were mostly about the misery of 'lost love.' I could relate to that subject since losing my friendship with Mark.

I continued practicing guitar for several more months, and I kept up with my weightlifting and running routines. I was very pleased with the results of my efforts.

I would see Mark in school from time to time. He would walk by me as if I didn't exist. Sylvia ignored me, too. I spent most of my free time with Justin, and I became a full-fledged member of 'The Pack.'

"There's a country music talent contest on March 15 th at Arkansas State in Jonesboro," Justin told me at school one day. "And they've got some big-name celebrities doing the judging – Skeeter Davis, Charlie Rich, and Glenn Campbell! It's not a long drive. How about we go and play a song together?"

"I'm not ready to play guitar for an audience!" I answered.

"You can do it!" Justin said. "You're really good for a beginner. And you've got a great voice. Besides, even if you just smile and look cute, the audience will love you."

I was surprised at the compliments Justin gave me. And I was somewhat embarrassed when he had implied that he thought I was cute. But I ignored all of that, and I let him twist my arm into signing up for the talent contest.

Only twelve musicians or musical groups could sing for the judges. People had to submit tape recordings in advance so that the program staff could select the contest performers. Justin and I were surprised and thrilled when we got the invitation to participate. We didn't know how many applicants there were. Maybe we were invited to perform because only a few people wanted to enter the talent competition.

Justin drove us to Jonesboro on the day of the event. I was very nervous, but I loved the song we selected. I was going to sing lead and play background on guitar. Justin was doing the guitar solos and sing as well.

The auditorium at Arkansas State was packed! The program staff directed us to a small backstage area to wait for our turn to perform. When the program started, the MC welcomed everyone and brought out the celebrity judges. "Please give a warm, Arkansas State University welcome to our distinguished panel of judges, each a legend of country music," the man said. He introduced the first judge, Skeeter Davis. She walked out to a thunderous round of applause.

Then, the MC introduced the second judge. "Please give one of our own Arkansas State Indians a good old fashion 'Welcome home!' Charlie Rich, come on out here!" The audience went wild.

I was impressed that the university had recruited such well-known celebrities for a college talent competition! And I was becoming more nervous by the minute. I felt as if I were totally out of my league.

"Well, I'm sorry to pass along some disappointing news that we got today," the MC said. "I know you all were looking forward to seeing Mr. Glenn Campbell here tonight. But unfortunately for us, his schedule got changed today, and he just couldn't make it. He sends his sincerest regrets. But I am delighted to tell you that we hit the jackpot this afternoon when we called around looking for another county legend to fill in. I am so honored to introduce our third judge for tonight - one of the featured stars of the Grand Ole Opry – Mr. Darren McCoy!"

My jaw dropped open, and I almost fell off my chair. My biological father – whom I had never met - was one of the judges for the talent competition, and I was about to sing for him!

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