Chapter 12
Brittle as a Bird
“I asked, what are you doing here?” This time Gene’s words sounded harsher. I guess
the last person he expected to see in his house with just a towel wrapped around his
waist was me.

“Your mother asked me stay,” I managed to stammer. Both of us were staring at the
other. I became embarrassed when I realized his eyes were wandering up and down
my body.

He lifted his eyes and met mine. “Why?”

“Allen got hurt tonight,” I informed him, “and I was at the hospital with your mother.”

“Oh.” He let his eyes wander down my body one last time before returning to his room.
I stood for a few seconds and looked at the closed door. I couldn’t believe that I had
just had an encounter with Gene Albright in his hallway with nothing but a towel
wrapped around me.

I don’t know if it was because he was sleepy, and he hadn’t fully comprehended my
presence; but he didn’t seem too upset by it. He acted like running into me in the
middle of the night in his home was a common occurrence. I just wondered how he
would react in the morning.

I walked into the bathroom and turned on the light. I thought was in the bathroom of
a luxurious hotel room. I had seen pictures of suites where movie stars stay. The
bathroom looked like it might have come from there.

The counter was marble, and the walls had a sort of terra cotta finish. The fixtures
were brass, and artificial plants added a feeling of some tropical island. I unwrapped
the towel from around my waist and stepped into the double shower. When I turned
on the water, it pulsated over my weary body. I stood for fifteen minutes letting the
water cascade down my body. I had never felt so relaxed in my life.

After toweling myself off, I left the bedroom and tiptoed across the hall. Before
reaching it, Gene’s door opened and he stuck out his head.

“Is he all right?”

“Yeah,” I informed him. He nodded and then closed his door.

I went inside and walked around the room. I had been too tired to notice anything
earlier. It didn’t seem like a guy’s room. I expected posters on the wall and perhaps
dirty shoes in the closet, but the room seemed to have been stripped of all remains of
Allen.

The furniture seemed immense for a room that a boy would have lived in. There was a
large poster bed with a canopy top. Along the wall was a heavy bureau with a gaudy
lamp on top. The curtains were a thick and heavy material. I assumed that it looked
nothing like it would have when Allen was here. His stepfather probably had an interior
decorator come in and redesign the room.

I put on the pajamas that Mrs. Albright had provided me, and then I lay down in the
bed. My body sunk deep into the plush pillow top mattress. I pulled the pillows to my
head and enjoyed the luxurious feeling. “So this is how the other half lives,” I thought
to myself before I fell asleep.

I don’t know what time it was when I awoke, but I could tell it was late in the morning.
I looked around for a clock, but I didn’t see one. I started to dress, wondering if
anyone was still in the house. After smelling my shirt to make sure I could wear it, I
headed downstairs.

Gene’s door was open when I passed. The bed wasn’t made, and clothes were strewn
all around the floor. It appeared like a typical teenage boy’s room. The television was
blasting a song on MTV; however, I didn’t see Gene.

I found my way to the kitchen, looking around the house as I went. All the rooms were
immense and filled with very expensive looking furniture and pictures. I didn’t know
what Mr. and Mrs. Albright did for a living, but it appeared they were loaded.

I had always assumed that Gene came from a wealthy family. Some people just have
that look, like they were born with a silver spoon in their mouth. You could put dirty,
ragged clothes on them and take them to the poorest area of Appalachia, and they
would stick out like a sore thumb. Gene was one of those people.

I sat down on a bar stool at the kitchen counter and looked around. Since it wasn’t my
house, I wasn’t sure how much liberty I should take in making myself at home. I was
famished, but I was afraid to look around for something to eat.

Suddenly, I heard a tapping on the back door. Star was standing outside and waving in
at me. She opened the door and walked in.

“It’s about time you got your lazy ass out of bed.” I looked at the clock on the
microwave. It read 2:23. I couldn’t believe I had slept so late. School would be out in
about a half hour.

“And what time did you wake up?” She looked at the clock.

“Fifteen minutes ago,” she laughed. She walked over to the refrigerator and poured us
both a glass of orange juice. I could tell by the way she moved around the kitchen that
she was a frequent visitor in the house.

“What the hell do these people do?” I looked around the enormous kitchen and then
out the window to the Olympic sized pool.

“Mr. Albright and my father are partners in a corporation that handles defense
contracts for the government,” she said.

“Damn,” I responded. “So they are the ones who charge the military $500 for a bolt?”

“Where did you hear that?” she laughed.

“Well, it is true, isn’t it?”

“I doubt it, Silly.” She hit me gently on my arm. “Actually, I’m not quite sure what he
does. He never talks about his job.”

“He’s probably protecting you from going to prison,” I laughed. Again, she hit me.

I gave her a serious look. “You don’t act like a rich kid.”

She started smiling. “I take it that’s meant as a compliment?”

“Yeah,” I responded. “It is. Most rich kids are stuck up and self-centered. You care
about people.”

“You have to remember,” she giggled. “I don’t have any money. It belongs to my
parents. I’m actually quite poor.”

“Yeah, right,” I huffed. “I could probably live quite well on your allowance.”  I laughed
when she started to blush.

“Let’s talk about something else,” she said quickly. I could tell she was becoming
uncomfortable talking about herself.

“Did you get a chance to talk to Gina? I mean Mrs. Albright.”

“No. When I got up no one was here.”

Star looked again at the clock. “Gene should be getting home soon.”

“Whoopee,” I replied. “I ran into him last night in the hall.”

“What did he say?”

“Not much really. I think he was shocked to see me in his house.”

“Gene’s not a really bad guy.” I rolled my eyes. “Seriously. His father keeps such a
tight rope on him. After what happened to Allen, Gene can’t make a move without his
father knowing about it.”

“What did his father say when he got suspended from school for fighting me?”

“I was over here for dinner that night,” she explained. “Gene lied about it. He told him
you were fighting over some girl.”

“What!” I shouted.

“Yeah, seriously. That’s why it surprised me when I found out you were gay. I knew he
had to have been lying to his father.”

“Why would he do that?”

Star looked blankly at me. “I don’t know. Maybe he was afraid his father would be
angry if he found out the truth.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” I said. “From what I’ve heard about his father, I would
think he’d be happy that Gene had hit a fag at school.”

“I don’t know,” she said. “All I know is that Allen’s name isn’t mentioned around here.
It’s as if he doesn’t exist anymore.”

I now understood the hurt in Allen’s voice when he said he had lost his family. It must
have been hard being thrown out of your home and losing contact with most of your
family. At least his mother still cared about him.

I asked, “Have you talked to Allen today?”

“I called his hospital room, but no one answered.”

“He was probably in therapy,” I laughed. I suddenly saw him sitting defensively in a
chair while Dr. Conrad tried to get him to tell a roomful of strangers why he didn’t want
to live anymore.

“I’m going by there later,” she informed me. “Would you like to go with me?”

“I guess,” I said skeptically. I wasn’t sure if Allen wanted to see me. We still hadn’t
talked about him seeing me in the car with Roger, so I wasn’t sure if he still wanted to
see me again.

“Come on.” She reached out and grabbed my hand.

“Where are we going?”

“To my house,” she said. “I know you don’t want to be around when Gene comes
home.”

“No shit,” I laughed.

We held hands as we crossed the lawn to her house. In the dark the night before, I
could tell the home was huge, but I was immediately surprised when we walked around
to the back door. I had never seen such a beautiful landscaped yard. There was a
gravel path circling an ornate fountain that spanned the backyard. It reminded me of
courtyard in Italy I read about in a magazine last year.

After grabbing a snack in the kitchen, we headed to her room. I grabbed my eyes and
shouted, “I’m blind!” when I entered. Star started giggling. Everything was bright pink.
And I mean everything- the carpet, drapes, bedspread and even the lampshades.

“Too much?” she laughed.

“You don’t like pink, do you?”

“I did when I was about eight,” she said. “I told my father I wanted an all pink room.”

“And Daddy buys Star whatever Star wants.” I tried to make it sound like a joke, but it
came out as an insult.

“I’m not a spoiled, rich kid,” she responded defensively.

“I’m sorry. I know you’re not. It just came out wrong.” She pouted before leading me
over to her bed, complete with pink satin covers.

“I’m going to redecorate this room next summer,” she said. “I’m so sick of pink. I gag
when I see Pepto Bismol anymore.”

“Just don’t tell your father you like green,” I laughed. “He’ll have your room looking like
your backyard.” She slapped me on the arm. “What time are you going to see Allen?”

“Probably after dinner,” she replied. “Are you going?”

Reluctantly I said, “I’ll meet you there. I’m going to Ticker’s and clean up.  I’ll be there
around seven.”

I stayed for about another fifteen minutes. Star said she‘d give me the money for bus
fare, but I felt like walking. I wanted to clear my head from what I’d been through the
past twenty-four hours.

                                                  ********

Ticker’s father offered to drive me to the hospital, but Ticker insisted on taking me. I
was sitting on his bed waiting for him to get dressed. “You only want to go so you can
see Star,” I kidded. His ruddy cheeks turned even redder.

“Shut up, Fucker,” he said playfully.

“Admit it,” I insisted. “Tell me you don’t like her.”

“Of course I like her.” A sad expression came over his face. “But..”

“But, what?” I had an idea where this was going to lead. We’d had this conversation
before. Ticker thought that because of his size, no girl would ever be interested in him.
I had argued that most people were more interested in what someone was like inside,
rather than what they looked like on the outside. However, I had never convinced
myself that was true.

Ticker had just walked from his closet, pulling over his head one of his new
sweatshirts. He had taken a shower and shaved, so I knew he was trying to make a
good impression.

“Look at my fat ass.” He turned and looked at himself in the full mirror on the door.      
“I’m just kidding myself.” By the look on his face, I was afraid he would burst into tears
at any moment.

“Look, Ticker.” I walked up to him and put my hand on his arm. “You’re one of the
nicest people I’ve ever met. You care about people, and you don’t turn your back on
your friends. You’re big, so what? You have a heart just as big, and that matters. If
you were gay, I’d have you as a boyfriend.”

He stared at me a few seconds, and then a big grin appeared. “That’s about one of the
nicest things anyone has ever said to me.”

“Well, I mean it.” I held out my arms. “Give me a hug.”  He looked around the room
before reaching out and pulling me into a giant bear hug. I loved it when he did that.
After a minute, he stepped back.

“Too gay?” I laughed.

“No.” His face began to turn a crimson red. “But if we keep doing this huggy shit, I
might have to take you up on that boyfriend thing.” I looked down and noticed the
beginnings of a bulge protruding from his pants. I fell back on the bed and roared with
laughter. It was time for Ticker to find himself a girlfriend.

                                                *********

“Who is this Allen?” Ticker and I were walking down the corridor of the hospital to the
elevators. The receptionist had told us that he was in room 4112.

“We kind of met by chance a couple of weeks ago,” I said. “I guess you could call him a
friend.” I really didn’t know how to describe our relationship. There was a bond
between us, but that didn’t really qualify as friendship. If anything, we had only briefly
shared each other’s pain.

“You guess?” Ticker pulled me by my arm and stopped me from walking. “I’ve known
you for a long time, Joey. You’ve put up a wall stopping people from getting near you.
What I saw last night wasn’t the you I know.”

“What do you mean?” I didn’t think I had acted differently than I had in the past. I was
just trying to help someone who had fallen down a flight of stairs.

“I can’t explain it.” He stared at me, as if trying to analyze something. “When I saw
Allen in the backseat with his head on your shoulder, and you were holding him tightly
telling him everything would be all right, I don’t know. I can’t explain it. It’s like you
two fit or something. You know what I mean?”

I had to think about what he was saying. It was true. Allen’s fall had scared the shit
out of me. I was worried all the way to the hospital that he had really hurt himself. I
even wished that it was me who had fallen and not him. I couldn’t stand to see him
suffer any more than he had already.

“I think you’re full of it,” I laughed. I turned and headed to the elevator, wondering if
what Ticker had said was true. Did we fit?

I hesitated outside Allen’s room. Ticker waited patiently for a minute. “You going in or
not?”

I took a deep breath and opened the door. His mother and Star were sitting in chairs
beside the bed. Star jumped up, ran over and hugged Ticker. He blushed and looked
over at me with an embarrassed smile.

Mrs. Albright stood and gave me a hug. “I’m glad you came,” she whispered in my ear.
Star then walked over and hugged me.

I looked down at Allen, but he turned his head away. “You have company,” his mother
announced harshly. “Don’t be so rude.” She looked over and gave me a worried look.
She had assumed that Allen and I were close, so I think she was rather surprised by
his behavior.

He looked over at Ticker and said hello. He then closed his eyes and pretended to fall
asleep. I can’t describe how hurt I was. I knew he would probably still be angry at me
for being in the car with Ralph, but I wasn’t prepared for his outright hostility.

We sat in awkward silence for several minutes. With Allen unwilling to speak, no one
knew what to say. I think everyone was surprised with Allen’s attitude towards me.
Ticker just minutes before had us married. Star was completely baffled. She knew that
there had been some falling out the day before, but even she didn’t understand Allen’s
coldness towards me.

“I need a cup of coffee,” announced Mrs. Albright softly. She looked over at Star.
“Would you go down to the cafeteria with me?” She looked at Ticker. “And bring your
friend.”

I started to get up, but she put her hand on my arm and stopped me. “Someone
should stay here with Allen. Do you mind?”

I knew what she was doing. She was trying to get me and Allen alone so we could talk
without anyone around. Call it mother’s intuition, but she understood that something
was wrong with our friendship, and the only way we could solve it was by talking about
it- alone.

When Allen heard everyone leave, he opened his eyes and looked around the room. A
disgusted look appeared on his face when he saw me still sitting beside him.

“How are you feeling?” I asked nervously. He laid his head back on the pillow and closed
his eyes.

“What is wrong with you?” I asked angrily. “Why won’t you talk to me?”

He sat up and gave me a deadly look. “How long have you been a fucking whore?” His
words were filled with so much venom that they stuck into my heart like a knife.

“Fuck you!” I spat back. “You’ve got some right to call someone else a whore. That's
why you‘re sick now.” As soon as I said it, I regretted it. The expression of his face
went immediately from anger to hurt. He closed his eyes and laid his head back on his
pillow. I could see tears falling down his cheek.

“God, Allen.” I rushed over to the side of the bed and grabbed his hand. “I’m so sorry.
I didn’t mean to say that.” He pulled his hand away as his shoulders began to shake
with emotion.

“Please, Allen,” I begged. “Don’t cry. I’m sorry.”

He turned his head and looked at me through tearful eyes. “I thought you were
different. I was starting to really like you.”

“You don’t understand,” I pleaded. “I had to survive.” I walked over to the chair, sat
down and buried my head in my hands. “I had to survive,” I muttered very softly. I
wasn’t sure if I was trying to convince Allen or myself.

After a minute, I stood and looked down at Allen. “I really am sorry. The last thing I
wanted to do was hurt you.” He kept his face to the side, refusing to look at me.

I walked over to the door. Before opening it, I turned and said, “I was beginning to fall
in love with you.” I heard him let out a loud wail as I closed the door.

                                                  ********

So I’m at the lake again. Figures, doesn’t it? It’s my refuge. It’s where I can get away
and think. The lake is too cold to swim in today, so I’m skimming rocks across the
water. I’m not very good. Most of them hit the top of the water and sink; but I’ve had
a few that have sailed across the lake.

Life’s a lot like that. Some people can just sail across a lake, unaffected by the waves
that form on a clear day. Other people hit the water and sink to the bottom. I’m one of
those who sink.

I guess I’m having another pity party. Damn. I can’t believe I told Allen I was falling in
love with him. Me. Joey Carpenter. I haven’t loved anyone my whole life. The closest I
came to it was when I loved my Uncle Mike. But that was only because my mom and
dad didn’t show me any love, so I sought out someone who did seem to care about
me. Even then, he probably only wanted the sex I could provide him.

And that’s what I’ve done since I was twelve- provide sex for other people. How sick is
that. And somehow I always knew that it was going to come back someday and bite
my ass. Who would want damaged goods? Even Allen, who himself had a checkered
past, was disappointed. Love. What do I know about love? I’ve spent years shielding
myself so I wouldn’t get hurt. Then the first time I let down my guard, the same hurt
resurfaces again.

I wonder if it is possible for someone to go their entire life without love? Can a person
go on day after day without feeling anything for anybody? Love is a basic human need.
So does a person who can’t love minimize their own existence?

I don’t know why I told him I was falling in love with him anyway. I wasn’t, or at least   
I’m not sure I was. We didn’t even know each other. I knew more about him than he
knew about me. All he knew was what I was willing to share with him that one night.
Even then, I left out a key element, the one he found out on his own. Perhaps, I could
have saved myself a lot of heartache if I’d told him that night. Then I could have
walked out of his life and not looked back.

But I had to stay. I had to become a part of his life until I felt that he was a part of me.
And I don’t even know him. All I know is when I hold him, when we touch or talk, I
wanted to be more to him than just an acquaintance.

The deck is stacked against us. He is seven years older than me. That didn’t matter,
though. I was used to being around older men. I never really felt a connection to guys
my age. I found them shallow and vain.

And he is sick. Not the kind of sickness one goes to bed and rests for a few days and
then gets back up and goes on. No. Allen’s sickness could be terminal. Looking at his
skeletal body, it appeared that the illness had already taken its toll. But the doctor said
that the virus was not the problem. It was his refusal to take care of his health. It was
as if he was inviting death.

Then there was his past. He said he’d whored around with anyone who wanted him. He
had abused alcohol and drugs, and he had engaged in numerous sexual encounters.
Why didn’t that turn me off? It seemed to turn him against me when he saw me
sucking Roger’s cock. But why didn’t it matter to me? I didn’t see a whore when I
looked at him. Why did he see me as one?

One thing I realize, it is a pipe dream. I guess after all the years of not having anyone,
I grasped at the first lonely figure I thought I could attach myself to. Maybe I thought
that since we shared a similar background, then we could share a certain bond that
would unite us.

So I guess that’s it. I really did try. For the past couple of weeks I’ve been trying to
change. I mean I’ve tried hard. And where has it gotten me? Fucking no where. Things
have no more changed for me now than when I was at home. It’s just that the
landscape is different.

There goes another rock. It takes one bounce on the lake and sinks to the bottom. My
life. I take a bounce and sink. Nothing ever changes. One step forward and three steps
back.


Chapter 13                                   Return to TMJ