Julian was something of a perfectionist when it came to choreographing the play. It was not unusual for him to make us rehearse whole scenes over and over again, even when we thought they were perfect. He would keep telling us to make it better. He never let up. He was always encouraging us to ‘put more emotion into it’, to ‘sound as though we meant it’, and to ‘say it with feeling’. Weeks of rehearsals went by, during which we spent hours perfecting our performances, with countless little details that we had to adjust, change and relearn. Some of the other boys found it all rather tiresome, especially as they believed they were already doing the best they could. But I understood exactly what Julian was trying to do. He was never going to tell us that he was happy because at that point we would probably all relax and stop trying. He wasn’t going to let up and say he was satisfied. No. He would keep on pressing us to give more and more until he had elicited from us the performance of a lifetime. And that is exactly what he got.
So, opening night finally came. At last, the culmination of all our hard work was about to transpire. On the day of our first performance, I felt an overwhelming nervous apprehension which grew steadily in intensity as the evening approached. Julian called it ‘stage fright’ and said it was normal to feel a few butterflies in your stomach. I wasn’t so sure. To me it felt like something a little more substantial and rather more aggressive than mere butterflies. I sat in the little dressing room behind the stage, too frightened to do anything, trembling and nauseous, and suffering from a last minute crisis of confidence as to whether I could actually do this. I could hear the expectant murmur of the audience as the cavernous hall was filling up and I seriously thought I was going to be sick. Even Tony’s presence in the dressing room failed to reassure me. For his part, Tony appeared unperturbed, and was his usual outgoing and sociable self. He was already in costume, barefoot and shirtless, and was sitting up on the dressing room counter, in front of the plate glass mirror, having swept the makeup paraphernalia aside, with his feet on a chair, watching the other boys having their stage makeup applied. He sat leaning forward with his wrists tucked between his knees, his back curved ever so lithely, so that you could see the little notches of his spine, sheathed beneath smooth brown skin. He was totally relaxed. I thought how wonderful it must be to have such self-confidence and to be so comfortable with who you are. He chatted to his little clique of friends who were all playing the other big roles in the play, those of Piggy and Roger. Marcus was also there, in his role as Simon. They were all chatting away absently as I sat forlornly in the corner, immobilized with terror, the greasepaint on my face already turning warm and oily on my skin.
To try and calm myself, I got up and walked around backstage, trying not to get in anybody’s way. Behind the scenes the activity was frenetic. Julian was busy giving last minute directions to the boys in the stage crew. He had assigned boys to control the curtains and the lights, and a team of stagehands to facilitate the set changes. He was wearing a headset with a microphone, relaying messages to his assistants, who were in turn strategically positioned behind the stage, in the wings, and at the back of the hall where the lighting console was situated. I chanced a quick glance from the wings to see the audience taking their seats. Boys, parents and siblings were all there. On the front row I could see the special seats reserved for the PTA members and school governors, along with the school Principal. Luckily, I had brought Petey along well beforehand and he was able to sit with his best friend Mikey, who also had an older brother at the school. I could just make them out, a few rows back, sitting with Mikey’s folks, yammering away excitedly. I drew some comfort from seeing him there. It was nice to know that Petey was in the audience, especially since I knew that neither my mom nor Alan would ever have made the effort to come.
Before we went on stage, Julian gathered us all together in the dressing room before curtain up, and stood before us like some revered pedagogue and said quietly, with an intense expression “This is it!” In other words, the culmination of all our hard work was about to be played out over the next couple of hours. The houselights went down, the audience hushed and the curtains opened. Tony went on first for the opening scene, and I hovered about frantically in the wings. Julian was there to give me my cue. And just before I went on stage, he leaned over confidentially with a contented smirk and said quietly, “Break a leg.” From the moment I went on stage, I was on autopilot. It was as though a strange subconscious state took over, where I didn’t even have to think about what I was doing. We had rehearsed it all so many times, the whole production ran like a well-oiled machine. I don’t remember anything after that. I only know that we all entered and exited the stage to deliver our lines right on cue, acted our scenes faithfully, and did exactly what we had practiced endlessly over the last few weeks. I recited my lines with the same intensity and passion that Julian had demanded, and Tony and I enacted our verbal exchanges and our tussles, just the way we had rehearsed them.
Then I only remember the final curtain, when the houselights went down briefly and we had just a few seconds to assemble on stage for the curtain call. For those few brief moments that the hall was plunged into darkness, the houselights went out, the last lines of dialogue having been spoken, and the whole room erupted in a tumultuous roar of applause. It was so loud and so enthusiastic that for a moment I doubted this reception could be for us. But it was. And when the curtain rose and the house lights came on again, the entire audience were on their feet applauding, whistling and cheering. There were roars of appreciation. That was when we knew that it had all paid off. Our performance was a sensation. Then I remember that in the excitement and delight of all this riotous adoration, Tony and I stepped forward to take a bow, the other cast members gathered behind us. As we absorbed the adulation of the audience, it was like a wave of energy washing over us both and Tony turned to me and gave me a very distinct and deliberate wink. I was amazed that he would even have the presence of mind to do something like that. And in the joy of the moment, as he stood beside me, I felt his hand reach out and grasp mine. I reciprocated, automatically latching onto his hand and, with our clammy hands linked, we took a simultaneous bow, at that moment united in our moment of glory, basking in this rapturous exaltation together. We were standing so close together, I doubt that anybody noticed. But I did. I squeezed his lean palm as hard as I could, bolstered by his wonderful gesture of solidarity, spontaneous though it was, and my heart soared.
When we came off stage, I became aware that I was saturated with sweat. We hurried back into the dressing room. When I took off my costume, the tunic was wet through. The other boys were all hyper and excitable, still pumped with adrenalin, and we all congratulated each other. There was a round of mutual appreciation during which all the other boys were complimentary and full of praise towards me, alas not something I was accustomed to, but their approval sure made a nice change from the cutting remarks and criticisms I was more familiar with. It felt nice to be so appreciated by them, and good to be a part of this triumphant little troupe.
Then Julian came into the dressing room and shut the door, leaning back against the closed door and surveying the room sternly. His expression was grave and somber. We instantly hushed, seeing that he was clearly not in the mood to share our revelry. For a moment we felt slightly foolish, as though our expressions of self-congratulation were maybe a little premature, and we all wondered what was wrong. But we needn’t have worried. Julian broke into a smile, having fooled us all for a split second, and raised his arms in an expansive gesture.
“Well done!” he exclaimed, “You did it!”
And we all slipped back into party mood again.
Julian came round and spoke to each of us in turn, expressing his gratitude and appreciation. I allowed myself to be swept along by the general euphoria of celebration and success. Then Julian went back out briefly and returned to the dressing room a few minutes later, this time with Mr. Perkins, the Principal. The Principal wanted to thank each of us personally, he said, for putting on such a great show, and for all our efforts. To be congratulated by the Principal in person was considered to be a great honor. Then Julian told us there was going to be an after-show party for us all, laid on by the Chairman of the PTA, as a reward and special treat for our hard work and commitment. It was a welcome if unexpected development, and would have been a wonderful enough treat in itself. But then Julian brought in the Chairman of the PTA, to introduce him to the cast, and I was amazed and delighted to see that it was Mr. Slater. The Chairman of the PTA was none other than Tony’s dad! He came in and shook us by the hand, uttering a few complimentary words to each of us. As usual, he was very smartly dressed and clean shaven, and when he came to me, I looked at him with an air of reverence and respect, so overawed by him that I barely remember what was said. I only remember that when he spoke to me, I could detect that he was wearing a very distinctive cologne with a delicious citric scent. I couldn’t believe that this handsome, distinguished man whom I had secretly admired for so long, was actually here talking to me and shaking my hand. He hung around for a while afterwards, chatting amiably to the other cast members and affectionately draping his arm around Tony, whom he held close to him the whole time. It was such a pleasure to see how comfortable they were together, and how Tony seemed to relish his father’s proximity, quiescently allowing his father to give his shoulders an occasional squeeze. Mr. Slater in turn regarded Tony with a proud and adoring glance from time to time, and I wondered what it was like to have a father who was so loving and affectionate and tactile. He even hugged Tony and was not ashamed to kiss him on the forehead. The way they flaunted their fondness so openly was in itself something I envied – that they were comfortable enough to be so uninhibited about their closeness in the presence of others was a rare and precious thing indeed, and I wished that he would kiss me on the forehead too, just so that I would know what it felt like.
When he had finished dispensing with the pleasantries, Mr. Slater got up and announced that there were drinks and snacks waiting for us at his house, to celebrate our success, and that we were all invited. Parents of the cast who had been in the audience were also invited to the after-show party. Conveniently, Petey had cadged a ride home with Mikey’s mom and dad, so at least I knew he would get home okay. I was able to ride over to Mr. Slater’s house with Julian, by now totally comfortable in his presence, and relishing the fact that our relationship was now way beyond that of a student and teacher. Since we had hung out together outside of school, I considered Julian to be a special friend and someone in whom I had absolute trust and respect. I was mindful of the fact that Julian was the only reason I was even here, on this triumphant evening, and that it was entirely due to him that these wonderful things were happening in my life.
* * * * * *
Tony’s house was even bigger than Julian’s, a sprawling, ultra-modern construction. It was one of a number in a secure compound, way over on the other side of the school district, in one of the nicer areas of town, where the more affluent neighborhoods were to be found. Many of the houses round about were occupied by families with the same distinguished credentials. The residents of this gated complex were obviously accomplished, moneyed and successful. It was an exclusive community which ensured that you were made aware that you were just a visitor, which was apparent from the moment we pulled up at the big iron gates and had to be buzzed inside. The grounds were lush and green and well manicured, with automatic sprinklers and beds of carefully tended shrubs and neatly trimmed hedgerows. The houses were all two or three storeys high, with wide driveways and arched doorways and three-car garages. Some of them had windows so tall that it was easy to peer inside and snatch a glimpse of the opulence within.
We entered the house through a double front door that was about ten feet high and carved out of solid wood, like it was the gateway to some elite fortress. A Hispanic woman greeted us all at the front door and ushered us into a large, airy lobby, where an elegant staircase curved its way up to the next storey. Beyond the lobby was a reception room with sofas and armchairs and a little cocktail bar, and an elaborate buffet laid out with all manner of hot and cold snacks and party food. There was also a very colorful array of cakes, cookies and desserts. Drinks were handed round as we arrived. The grown-ups all drank wine, holding their wine glasses by the stem, swirling it around and sniffing it like they were all connoisseurs, whilst I and the rest of the boys in the cast were given soda and juice.
When we had all assembled, Mr. Slater came in and greeted everyone and then made a short speech. Mr. Slater’s speech was quite amusing, and we all listened intently while he spoke of his hopes that the success of the school play would encourage the school to invest in a dedicated drama department, and that this should become an annual event and a source of positive publicity for the school. Clearly there was more to the whole thing than I and the other cast members knew or even cared about. We weren’t interested in the politics of it all, and neither was Julian. In fact, whilst Mr. Slater was speaking, I noticed Julian slip off to the side and was furtively nibbling away on pretzels and potato chips as he sipped his wine, not even really listening. Something told me that Julian didn’t really enjoy the pleasantries and small-talk that went on at such events. I think he was a very private person, and having to contend with the PR that went hand in hand with being the director of the school play was something he didn’t really relish.
During Mr. Slater’s speech, Tony’s mom stood by her husband so that I also got to see Mrs. Slater for the first time. She was slim and elegant, with immaculate makeup, expertly manicured nails and blond, honey-colored hair that was shiny and carefully coiffed. I knew straight away that she was Tony’s mom. I knew just from her demeanor, and the way she admired him, that this was definitely the woman that had brought this beautiful young man into the world. She stood by her husband as he was talking, as though to show her support, and to demonstrate what a tight couple they were and how much she adored her husband. How nice it was to observe a couple that were so supportive and still very much in favor with each other – a stark contrast to the regime I was more familiar with, which was witnessing the strained relationship between my mom and Alan, which seemed to vacillate between them either shouting at each other or not talking at all.
Finally, Mr. Slater thanked Julian for his hard work on directing the play, and everyone drank a toast to him. Julian gave humble thanks, but redirected the appreciation towards the cast. He seemed intent not to take all the credit and was genuinely embarrassed by all the attention. That was another thing I liked about Julian. He was very modest and unassuming, and didn’t really enjoy all the mutual backslapping that went on.
After the speeches, everyone started to mingle again and the party got under way properly. The noise level in the room rose to a quiet background hum, and Mr. Slater immediately came over to me. Of course, Tony had already introduced us, but finally I was able to chat with his father privately – was actually able to converse with this well-dressed, handsome man whom I had admired for so long. I told him that I had enjoyed being involved in the play and that it was nice to get to know Tony. He told me that he thought my performance this evening was ‘outstanding’ and that he had been looking forward to meeting me. He even confided that he didn’t entirely approve of all Tony’s friends, but he could see that I was a nice boy and congratulated me on being so talented, intelligent and well-behaved. I was flattered, still very much in awe of being invited here into his home, that to be complimented by him in such a way was an added and very much unexpected bonus.
After that, Mr. Slater moved off and Tony, who had been standing next to me, turned and leaned over to whisper something conspiratorially.
“This sucks,” he confessed, taking me into his confidence, “Let’s split.”
I nodded, chuffed to find myself in league with him. Clearly he didn’t like all this grown-up formality. Neither did I. I wasn’t comfortable with all these strange people. The only person I really knew was Julian, who had been cornered and was at that moment being drawn into polite conversation by the parents of some of the other cast members.
“Wanna see my room?” Tony asked.
“Sure,” I replied, delighted at the prospect of being granted such intimate access to his personal environment.
Tony led the way, brushing past Mr. Slater who was standing talking to one of the other PTA members at the foot of the stairs.
“We’re going up to my room,” he said, “Okay dad?”
“At least get your guest a drink,” Mr. Slater chided, having to remind Tony of his manners, and noticing that I didn’t have a drink in my hand.
Tony gave a little pout of objection, having already bounded up the first few steps, at that moment anxious not to be inconvenienced.
Then Mr. Slater relented.
“Okay, you go ahead,” he said, “I’ll bring you some drinks up.”
At the top of the stairs, Tony led me down a short hallway, past the open door of a large room that was clearly not a bedroom, with all manner of desks and other equipment in it. It turned out to be his father’s office. Tony explained that his dad was an architect and this was his home design studio. One corner of the room was dominated by two broad desks with computers which had enormous screens and little cups stuffed full with all manner of writing utensils. Another corner had a bookshelf of large format books which went up almost as high as the ceiling. There was also a rack of square pigeonholes which had rolled up drawings sticking out of them, which Tony said were blueprints of his father’s designs. Apparently, he designed skyscrapers. There was also a whole bank of workstations with high seats, where big angled drawing boards with sliding rulers were set up. On the walls there were some very arty black and white prints in frames, all photos of his completed projects. Mr. Slater must have been a very accomplished architect and this looked like such a glamorous occupation. The studio was slick and modern, with all the latest technology, and I could just imagine what it must be like to work in this vibrant environment.
Just next door to the studio was Tony’s bedroom. It was huge – probably three or four times the size of mine – and had an ensuite bathroom. It was a cavernous room, with ample floor space, dominated by a very large bed at the center, and a ceiling that was as high as it was long. I looked up and saw that half the ceiling was constructed entirely of glass, through which the night sky was clearly visible.
“Wow,” I exclaimed, impressed.
“My dad designed this room especially for me,” Tony explained.
It was a beautiful room. Not only because it was so high and spacious, but because of the polished wooden floor and the bare walls that had been stripped right down to the neat brickwork, so that it was obvious that the room had been extended up and out from the original house. Tony’s dad had clearly spared no expense, right down to the way he had installed full length windows at the far end of the room, which overlooked a lush, green yard, with a lawn that was so well tended that it had the appearance of a rich, deep carpet. At the back of the house, there was also a small pool and a terrace with outdoor furniture. Tony’s family were certainly well-to-do by my standards. His father obviously had a good income and provided well for his family, with a standard of living that I could only dream about. I wondered how it was that Tony and I – who were clearly from opposite ends of the social scale – came to attend the same school.
Tony took the time to show me around his huge bedroom, pointing out the posters and framed prints he had hanging on the walls. There were little knickknacks and other mementos placed variously around the room, an assortment of things he had been given or had picked up on his many foreign vacations. Each one had a little story to tell. Tony had traveled quite a bit with his folks, and he was so much more streetwise and worldly than me.
With the initial tour over, Tony immediately switched on an enormous plasma TV that was on the wall, not really taking note of what was on, but he did it in such a way that you could tell it was simply force of habit. He was probably used to the TV being on all the time. Then he kicked off his limited-edition sneakers and jumped up onto his enormous bed, bouncing back up on the springy mattress and losing himself amongst a pile of cushions that were scattered there randomly. He seemed to be inviting me to join him. I levered off my worn and slightly grimy sneakers and sat gingerly on the edge of his big bed. I noted straight away how wonderfully soft it was, and how the mattress was so deep and yielding it almost felt like it would swallow you up. It was certainly a far cry from my hard, lumpy old bed.
Tony had an accumulation of remote controls on the nightstand next to his bed, so that you could see he had all the latest technology at his command. He picked up the games controller and asked me what video games I liked. I awkwardly admitted that I didn’t have a games console.
“That’s okay,” he said, “You can play on mine.”
I was amazed at how considerate he was – never uttering an adverse comment or criticism. In my experience, boys who came from such privileged families were generally spoilt and materialistic, and always seemed overly dispassionate and self-centered. But Tony wasn’t like that at all. In fact, his approach was always so inclusive and full of compromise. I had never met a boy who was as kind and generous as him.
Tony picked up a disc from the pile of CDs and DVD cases that were abandoned around the console beneath the TV, and fed it into the machine. Instantly, Tony arranged himself cross-legged on the bed, tossed another games controller to me, and challenged me to a game. It was one of those racecar games which involved a dizzying array of menus with an enormous range of different cars, circuits and locations, which Tony flipped through at lighting speed, finally settling on a street circuit and two supercharged road cars. The graphics were very realistic.
So we played the game for a while, Tony heavily engrossed in the race, his car having disappeared into the distance and mine trailing hopelessly behind. Of course, Tony was much better at the game than me. I kept crashing my car on the banking and was unable to control it from veering off on the bends. Tony was just too good, a consequence of having had so much more exposure to all this, I guess. Whilst I wasn’t really a fan of video games, I was enchanted by the opportunity to engage in something with Tony which meant that we were both focused on something purely for the hell of it. To me, the game was irrelevant. The fact is, here we were, simply hanging out together. Not so long ago, that would have seemed a highly implausible and somewhat fanciful aspiration.
We were still sitting there playing the game when there was a soft rap on the door and then Tony’s dad came into the room. He brought in a tray of drinks and set them down on the workstation next to the PC which was near the door.
“Hey T, here are your drinks,” Mr. Slater announced.
“Thanks dad,” Tony replied, without even looking up from what we were doing, still firmly mesmerized by the antics on the screen.
I noticed his dad’s affectionate way of addressing Tony simply as ‘T’. I thought that was so cool. In fact not only cool, but a really nice little foible that they shared, something that was personal to them. You could tell how close they were and how they had this really easygoing, down to earth rapport that hinted at what a wonderful relationship they had.
Eventually, I put the games controller down, conceding that I had no hope of achieving anything noteworthy in this game, and just watched Tony, fascinated by his mastery of the game. I watched how his nimble fingers and thumbs clicked away on the controller buttons and how the colors of the screen were reflected in his pupils, as though he was hypnotized by it, so absorbed by the game that it was as though he had been transported into the screen.
“What about our drinks?” I asked Tony, when I saw that he wasn’t about to get up and bring them over.
“What?” he said, looking up momentarily, clearly having forgotten all about the drinks, “Oh, you go ahead and have yours.”
I padded across the room in my socked feet and brought the tray of drinks over, setting it down on the floor by the bed. When I saw the way that our Cokes were prepared, with ice cubes and bendy straws, I just knew that it was Tony’s mom who had prepared them. They were poured into tall, thick, frosted glasses and she had even dropped in a little slice of lemon. I took a sip of my drink. I liked the heaviness of the glass in my hand, and even the way the ice cubes clinked against the side of the glass as I raised it to my lips. It was nicely chilled and the lemon tasted delicious. I drank nearly a third of it almost at once, the bubbles of the sweet, biting drink eliciting a little tear from my eye. I decided it was probably the best Coke I had ever had.
As I sipped the rest of my Coke, I just watched Tony playing the video game by himself. For the moment I was content just to sit and observe, overawed by the fact that I was actually here, sitting in his bedroom, alone with him, playing with him, chatting and just hanging out, as though we’d been friends for ages.
When Tony glanced over and noticed me sitting there watching, he paused the game and put the controller down, looking concerned.
“You okay Ben?”
I nodded contentedly, not at all peeved that he was so focused on the game.
I think Tony detected that I might be in danger of getting bored, and was too polite to let that happen. He hesitated for a moment, as though considering what to do to keep me amused, and then a crooked little smile crept across his lips. He narrowed his eyes mischievously. His eyes were drawn to my socked foot where I had one leg folded up on the bed, and he suddenly reached down and grabbed my toes which were pointed towards him. I let out a hysterical screech of laughter, withdrawing my foot urgently, and guffawing uncontrollably. I was very ticklish there.
“Oh ticklish eh?” Tony observed, getting set to pounce playfully.
And that is exactly what he did. My ticklishness gave me away, and Tony was intent on exploiting that. Seeing that he had caught me unawares, he rose up and scooted across the bed on his knees, his mischievous grin growing ever wider, and he hooked an arm around my neck. He pulled me down, forcing me to lie down on the bed. I tried to fight back, but he was too strong. He mounted me playfully, straddling my tummy much like he had done earlier on stage during the fight sequence, and he pinned me down, tickling my armpits with vigor and some relish. I squirmed away beneath him, laughing hysterically, trying to fight him off. His tickling was unbearable. He dug his fingers right under my arms and all I could do was scream and flap about wildly like a landed fish. I was laughing so hard my chest was hurting and I struggled for breath. Meanwhile, Tony seemed to derive a strange kind of pleasure by holding me in place between his knees, as though he was riding a demented bull at a rodeo. He was consummately tickling me, seemingly undeterred by my struggling, unfazed by my pleading for him to let me go, and oblivious to the mess we were making of the bedclothes.
“You give up?” he demanded, taking on a tone of superiority.
I was still hyperventilating in his clutches, but he stopped for a moment. Seeing that he was game for a fight, I dared to face up at him and wondered if I could escape his hold. I summoned my strength and tried to make a break for it, letting out an almighty yell.
“Never!” I yelped, and tried to get up and throw him off me.
“No you don’t!” he puffed back, still holding me down.
He was too strong for me, and quickly suppressed my bid for freedom, throwing me back down on the bed so that the back of my head hit the rumpled bedspread and almost bounced off again.
“Give up?” he demanded again.
He tickled me some more, holding my chest down with one hand, tickling my armpits with the other, and I couldn’t control my laughter. Tony’s mock fight and tickling had simply reduced me to a quivering wreck. My chest was starting to hurt from laughter and shortness of breath, until I had to beg him to stop.
“Okay, I surrender,” I pleaded, “Please stop!”
So he did. He stopped tickling me and I took a few seconds to get my breath back. Tony stayed perched on top of me, apparently not yet ready to let me go. I laid there facing up at him, totally at his mercy, not really minding that he had just totally humiliated me in a tickle fight. The truth is, I enjoyed this new rough and tumble closeness. I like Tony’s propensity to be physical, and the fact that he was so demonstrative and tactile. I had never had a friend to do stuff like that with before. So I relaxed, sinking into his spongy mattress, and submitted to him, with my arms laid up on either side of my head, as though in surrender, just as I had in the play earlier. In fact, it seemed oddly familiar, a juxtaposition we both felt comfortable in, simply because we had rehearsed it so many times. But now there was one difference: this time we were not acting. This time there was no audience. He was being playful and real, and doing this because he wanted to, for our own private amusement. But instead of clasping my wrists, pinning my arms down, Tony sat upright, perched astride my midriff with an air of superiority, and he was staring straight down at me as my breathing slowly returned to normal. His body was strong and heavy on top of me and I knew that I would never be a match for him in a real fight.
Bolstered by this newfound closeness and intimacy between us, I felt emboldened to confide in Tony. Actually, there was something I had wanted to ask him all evening, and with our energy sapped for the moment, suddenly it seemed a good opportunity.
“Why did you hold my hand earlier?” I asked him, tentatively seeking confirmation that it was a conscious and deliberate action on his part, and not merely an absent gesture borne of the excitement and jubilation of the curtain call.
He smiled nervously, clearly not expecting me to ask him about it, and perhaps not even remembering having done it.
“I dunno Ben,” he said thoughtfully, “I just wanted to. I never noticed you much before, but since we’ve been acting together, it’s like I’ve got to know you a whole lot.”
I was stunned by the sheer candidness of his reply.
“You like me don’t you?” Tony asked me, straight out, in a tone that implied he was seeking confirmation for something he already knew.
Suddenly, our conversation took on a far more serious and intimate tone. For some reason, trapped beneath him like that, I felt that I could be open and honest with him. I did not try to avert or deflect, and was not afraid to tell him the truth.
“Yes,” I conceded, “I like you a lot. I’ve liked you for a long time.”
He continued to stare down at me.
“Thought so,” he said, knowingly.
“How… How do you know?”
“From the way you look at me,” he confessed, “You have a way of staring.”
“Sorry,” I said.
“You don’t mind?”
He shook his head, causing his long blond hair to wave gently.
“Do you… like me?” I ventured, hesitantly, almost afraid to know the answer.
He cracked a cute smile.
“I’m beginning to,” he admitted.
“Yeah. You’re not like the other boys.”
“You’re not so much of an asshole.”
“Thanks,” I said, with a chuckle, not sure if that was supposed to be a compliment.
“You’re welcome,” he replied, jauntily.
And we both laughed together.
It was a good-natured, laid-back kind of laughter – the type of laughter enjoyed by two people who were comfortable and relaxed with each other, as though we’d been friends for ages, and I knew then that Tony and I had just affirmed our newfound friendship.
When our moment of tenderness had passed, Tony piped up again with a new suggestion.
“Hey Ben, wanna see something real cool?” he asked.
Tony switched off the games console and asked if I would like to go up onto the roof deck to look out at the night sky. Apparently, he had a telescope set up on the deck. There was a set of steel stairs leading up the far wall of his room, and there was a door at the top which looked like it opened out into thin air. Actually, it opened out onto a small deck that had been built partly over the original roof of the house. As we arrived at the top, and Tony opened the door, the view was stunning. Stepping out onto the deck, it was so high up that I instantly had the sensation of being detached from the world below. And there, standing on the narrow deck, was a fat telescope set up on a tripod, tilted at quite a steep angle, pointing accusingly up at the night sky. Tony stooped to look through the eyepiece, and focused it on some point of interest. Then he invited me to take a look. I stepped forward as he moved aside and was fascinated by the clarity and proximity of the image in the lens.
“Wow,” I exclaimed again.
“You never used a telescope before?” Tony asked.
I stepped back, clearly impressed, and shook my head.
“Not like this one,” I said.
“It’s an eight inch Cassegrain with built-in GPS and a forty thousand celestial object database,” he explained.
Of course, I didn’t know what he was talking about.
I peered through the telescope again, looking around randomly, and Tony stepped closer to me. He put his hand on my shoulder, pointing with the other hand and guiding me to look in the right direction. I felt his gentleness and his benevolence, and I was totally in awe of him. We stood there for a while looking up at the night sky. It was a beautifully clear night, a midnight blue tapestry with a myriad of stars strewn across it. Tony pointed out the names of some of the brighter and more prominent ones, and was able to identify every single one.
We both stepped back from the telescope and just stood there for a while in awestruck silence, slightly invigorated by the chill of the evening air, just admiring the night sky together. Then, Tony did the most wonderful thing. He moved closer and stood behind me, slightly to one side, and draped an arm around my shoulder, resting his chin on my other shoulder. It was such an affectionate, tactile gesture, I knew then that he must have felt some kind of schoolboy affinity for me. We stood there for a good long while. Tony was slightly taller than me, so I could feel him almost stooping over me, and I felt the depth of his magnanimity and fondness, like a warm glow, radiating from his body into mine. I could hear the sigh of his breathing and his floppy, wavy hair brushed my cheek ever so gently as his face peered over my shoulder.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” said Tony, murmuring softly into my ear.
Then he stepped forward, slightly in front of me, and looked out into the vastness of the night sky with a wistful tone in his voice and pointed at a cluster of stars on the far horizon, one of which was bigger and brighter than the ones around it.
“That one’s Altair,” said Tony.
I looked, scanning the night sky with my naked eyes, trying to distinguish the particular little pinhole of light that he had identified. Tony carried on talking, telling me about the distant stars and galaxies, and how many light years away they were. Altair was in the constellation of Aquila, and was sixteen light years away, he said, reeling off all sorts of other fantastic and unfathomable statistics. And as he was saying all that, I wasn’t really focused on the stars. Instead, I was focused on him. I turned slightly toward him and watched how he enunciated his words, and saw how red and glossy his lips were, how pink and soft his tongue was and how white and pearly his teeth were. He was so handsome, with his neat clothes, that long, floppy, golden blond hair, those supernatural hazel eyes, and that flawless skin and tanned, sleek physique that was as perfect as a catwalk model. I stood there diffidently, my heart a-bubble, and could hardly believe my luck. Here I was having my own personal guided tour of the heavens from this boy who was so much more worldly and knowledgeable than me. I reveled in our newfound closeness and the fact that at last I had found a boy who could reciprocate my friendship. Not only had we put on a sensational performance in the play this evening, but I had met Tony’s family and been in his room and everything. And now, here we were, standing out on the deck together, high above the rest of the world, stargazing. It was a wonderful feeling, a culmination of all the amazing things that had happened to me on this, the most auspicious night of my life, and all I could think of at that moment was how much I adored this boy.
The final treat of the evening came when it was time to go home. Julian wanted to leave early, and seeing that Tony and I were still hanging out together, arranged that Mr. Slater would drop me home. I of course tried to argue that it was too much to expect, thinking that I was undeserving of such a magnanimous gesture from people whom I had only just met. But Mr. Slater insisted. I tried to decline the offer, but both Julian and Mr. Slater wouldn’t hear of it. So it was that Julian left early, and when the time came, Mr. Slater made no bones about getting the car out of the garage and driving me home, even though I lived almost right on the other side of town.
Mr. Slater called Tony when it was time to go. Most of the other guests had left by then, and Mrs. Slater was already in the process of tidying up. Mr. Slater had positioned the big silver-gray Volvo outside on the sloping forecourt of their three-car garage. Tony and I climbed into the back. Mr. Slater started the engine by hitting a button on the center console and the big SUV roared into life. I put on my seatbelt, engaging the buckle with a satisfying click, and looked around in awe, admiring the leather interior of the car as we pulled away. I studied the controls, scanning the rows of little buttons and switches, and the digital instruments which were all lit up like a little flight deck. It was a beautiful car, clean and new, and I could feel what a powerful and robust vehicle it was. The air-conditioning whispered quietly, just becoming audible as the car sped away.
On the drive through the quiet, darkened streets, Tony and his dad were having a quite animated conversation about the forthcoming trip that they had planned. Apparently, Mr. Slater’s firm had a lodge out by one of the national parks where there was a large lake. He and his family had use of it whenever they wanted. They had planned to go to the lake this weekend and were talking about what time they should leave and what they were going to do when they got there. They ran through various options, by the sound of it all things which they enjoyed and regularly indulged in. They talked about hiking in the forest, swimming in the lake, cycling in the mountains, maybe having a cookout or taking out the skiff and going fishing. As they were discussing it, Tony’s dad spied me in the rearview mirror, sitting there quietly, a silent party to their conversation, clearly having overheard everything.
“Hey T?” he said, turning to Tony, taking his eyes off the road briefly, “Why don’t you ask your friend Ben if he’d like to join us?”
Then Mr. Slater focused on me in the rearview mirror. I could just see his nose and eyes in the narrow strip of glass.
“Would you like that Ben?” Mr. Slater asked, “You wanna join us on the trip? There’s plenty of space.”
I hesitated, completely at a loss as to how to respond to that. These people had done so much for me already, it seemed such an overly generous offer, and I couldn’t understand what I had done to deserve such kindness.
“Yeah Ben!” Tony enthused from the seat next to me, apparently delighted with the idea, “Why don’t you? It’ll be great!”
It was an exciting prospect, which I wanted more than anything, but I wasn’t even sure if I would know how to contend with such a situation. Actually it scared me a little. I had only just met these people, and now they were inviting me to go away with them. I had never done anything like that before. I had never even been away from home.
“I… I dunno,” I stammered, “I’ll have to think about it.”
“What’s to think about?” Tony replied, “We’ll look after you and you’ll have fun.”
“You sure?” I asked, still disbelieving at how quickly things were moving between us.
“Sure I’m sure,” said Tony, “It’s okay, isn’t it dad?”
Mr. Slater nodded from the driving seat, and gave me a very inclusive and encouraging grin in the mirror.
“We’d love to have you along Ben.”
Then there was a few moments of silence while I considered the offer. The truth is, I liked Tony so much, I was utterly smitten by him. I so enjoyed spending time with him, the prospect of getting to know him and his family in a more intimate way was tremendously exciting. But I also thought of Petey. I never wanted to leave Petey unattended for very long. I didn’t trust my mom to look after him, especially as she was apt to bawl him out and even hit him. But I knew that Petey would understand if I told him how much this meant to me. He would even want me to go.
“So what do you think?” Tony asked, at that moment turned to me enquiringly, waiting for my answer.
I saw how hopeful their expressions were and how genuine their kindness, and I almost felt I couldn’t disappoint them.
“Okay,” I said, finally.
“Oh awesome!” Tony affirmed, and then turned to Mr. Slater up front, “Dad, Ben’s coming to the lake with us!”
There was general happiness and approval all round, and I could see they were genuinely enthused by the prospect.
Things just continued to get better and better.
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