“There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue. There's just stuff people do.”
― John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
As Trent and I made our way down the hall to his office, Mr. London opened his door and stepped outside. “Matt,” he spoke softly, “I would like to see you in my office.” I looked worriedly at Trent. He patted me on my shoulder and winked.
When I entered his office, Stephanie was sitting in a chair against the wall. She smiled, and I took a seat beside her. Mr. London pulled a chair in front of us, sat down and smiled.
“I’ve got to say, Matt,” he began, “I have never seen anyone talk to a group of boys like you did today. If you didn’t motivate them to take a different direction in their lives, then I’m not sure what more it could take.”
Stephanie reached out and touched my arm. “You were amazing,” she smiled softly. “It took me ten minutes to stop crying.” She wiped her eyes with a tissue. “I’m still crying,” she laughed.
“I mean it, Matt,” continued Mr. London. “There is something special about you. You have a gift to be able reach people. You’ve only been here a couple of days, and you’ve touched the hearts of two boys. In fact, you have probably saved the life of one of those boys.”
I hung my head and mumbled, “I’m nobody special.”
“That’s why you are who you are,” stated Mr. London. “You’re humble. I know you don’t see that you have an amazing gift. Life has tossed you some bad pitches. I learned that by listening to your story. You’ve been beaten down so far that there isn’t anywhere to go but up.” Tears started to fill my eyes. Stephanie handed me a tissue to wipe my eyes dry.
“I have a doctorate degree,” continued Mr. London. “But I’m only book smart. I’ve spent all my time in classrooms. You’ve spent your time on the streets. It is a much better teacher than anything I experienced.”
I looked up and responded, “The streets are mean. I had to fight every day.”
“That’s my point,” responded Mr. London. “You’ve done and experienced stuff I could never begin to comprehend. I can talk to a boy or girl on a superficial level, but you can get down in the gutter with them. You’ve been there, and you know what they are feeling. You know how they react. That’s why you were able to help Evan yesterday. I watched him this morning as you talked. He was really listening to you. You did more in twenty minutes than I could have done in a year of counseling.”
I looked at him skeptically. “I don’t understand what you are saying.” I had been around long enough to know that when someone builds you up, there is always some hidden agenda. In the past, it was usually an attempt to borrow money or drugs. Mr. London was smart and out of my league. I knew he was heading somewhere with his flattery, but I wasn’t sure where. I just hoped he wasn’t preparing me to leave New Morning Center.
He looked over at Stephanie. He then turned to me. “Miss Harding and I have had a long discussion. She came here this morning to get my permission to speak to you about an article she intends to write.” I looked over at Stephanie, and she smiled.
Mr. London continued, “After listening to you this morning, she wants to do a complete story about you.”
“Me?” I asked. “What’s there to write about me?”
She gripped my arm and said, “After what I heard this morning, I could write a book about you. I know you’ve had a bad past. You’ve struggled since you were sixteen.” She gripped my arm tighter. “But you have a story to tell. No,” she insisted, “You have a story that must be told.”
I looked at them and asked, “What do you want me to do?”
“Tell your story, Matt,” replied Mr. London. “You’ve got to reach more young people. Tell them what happened to you. And more importantly, how to avoid making the mistakes you made.” He smiled and assured me, “Young people will listen to you.”
“I don’t know,” Mr. London,” I replied nervously. “I don’t know how to write very well.”
Stephanie touched my hand. “You don’t have to write, Matt,” she responded. “I can do that for you. All you have to do is tell me what you want to say.” She smiled and added, “I have enough from listening to you this morning to get started. All I need is to sit down with you and fill in the rest.”
“What you want to do with the rest of your life,” she replied. “What are you dreams for tomorrow?”
“I don’t know,” I said. I looked hopefully at Mr. London. “I want to stay here. I like it here.”
“Matt,” he replied with a smile. “You have a job here as long as you want. I can assure you that.” Tears welled up in my eyes.
I looked back at Stephanie. “What do you want me to do?”
“I have to get with my editors,” she said. “This is going to be a much bigger story than we anticipated. We may have to break it into several segments.” She took my hand and assured me, “You won’t be disappointed for doing this, Matt. You’re a good person, and you’re going to be doing a lot of good for a lot of young men and women who need someone like you to help them.” I tried not to cry, but tears started to flow down my cheeks again. She smiled and handed me more tissue.
Mr. London announced, “I think we are done here for now. Miss Harding, you give me a call when your editors give you the go ahead for the article. You can have access to Matt whenever he agrees to meet with you. Again, I must caution you to not use any of the boys’ names in the article. And of course, I must approve the final copy before it is submitted for publication.”
“I understand, Mr. London,” responded Stephanie as she stood and shook his hand. She then looked at me and asked me to accompany her to her car. I looked at Mr. London, and he nodded.
Before getting in her car, she said, “I want to thank you, Matt. I have a gay brother who means the world to me. My family accepted him when he came out to us when he was fourteen. I just can’t imagine how any parents can be so cruel to abandon their son like your parents did you.”
I shook my head as tears appeared in my eyes. “I’ve spent the last five years trying to figure it out. I was a good kid, and yet they turned against me like I had done something really wrong.”
She leaned forward and kissed my cheek. “You did nothing wrong,” she said. “They missed out on watching one of the most loving and caring people I’ve ever met grow up to be a man.” She got in her car and drove off as I sat on the curb and wept.
After several minutes, I regained my composure and headed inside. The place was quiet as everyone seemed to still be in class. I headed to the cafeteria to see if Mrs. Thatcher needed any help preparing lunch.
“You can cut tomatoes,” she said as she pointed to about a dozen tomatoes sitting on a counter. I grabbed a knife and began slicing. I had just finished about half of them when Trent entered with a smile on his face.
I was really beginning to fall for him. He had shown more love and concern for me the past few days than anyone had ever in my life. When he hugged me, it was more than just a hug. I felt like I melted into his body, and I just wanted to stay there and absorb his warmth into my soul. I had never experienced that with anyone before.
However, I could never tell him how I felt. He had confessed to me that he was gay, but he had yet to show me that he wanted anything more. I knew almost nothing about him. For all I knew, he could have a boyfriend living with him. He said he had a place, but that is all he said. Maybe he still lives with his mother or a sister.
Besides, I had pushed ever falling in love so far out of my mind, that I was afraid to let it surface even a little. I had survived physical and emotional pain. I knew that I could never survive the pain of a broken heart. I had no idea what real love was. I thought I felt love for Charles and Ricky, but I realize now that it was no more than adolescent emotions. My relationship with Dexter was mainly platonic. Other than occasional sex, we lived separate lives. He was a good friend, and neither of us ever considered it was anything more than friendship.
He walked over and put his arm around my back. “Want to take a walk with me?” I looked over at Mrs. Thatcher. She waved me off without even looking up.
“Sure,” I replied. “Where are we going?”
“I’ll tell you on the way,” he replied. We came to a classroom, and he peered in. He scanned the room, and then asked the teacher, “Can Evan come with me?” She nodded her head, and Evan rose and approached us with a puzzled look on his face.
“What’s up, Trent?” he asked suspiciously.
Trent put his arm around his waist as we headed toward his office. “I’ll tell you in a minute.” Once we entered his office, he told us to have a seat as he closed the door.
He shook his head as he stared at us. “Okay,” he said. “This is going to be hard.” He fidgeted in his seat as he pulled a folder from his desk and opened it. He smiled nervously as he handed me a sheet of paper.”
“What’s this?” I asked as I looked over it.
“It’s a consent form,” he replied.
I looked at him suspiciously. “For what?”
He sighed and replied, “I want you to take an HIV test.”
“What!” I said loudly. I looked over at Evan and he had the same surprised look on his face. “Why?”
“Okay,” Trent responded nervously as he stared into our faces. “You have both lived on the street, and you’ve probably done some things that were dangerous to your health.” I had nothing to say. Trent was right. I also suspected that Evan might have engaged in unprotected sex with strangers.
He looked over at Evan as he held up a paper. “Since we are presently your legal guardians, we are permitting you take the test.” Evan didn’t reply as he looked over at me.
“Matt,” he said as he pushed the paper at me. “You don’t have to submit to a test since you are over 18. However, I would appreciate it if you did take the test.” I looked deeply into his eyes, and I understood.
We were becoming much closer. If he was feeling for me what I was feeling for him, then there may come a time when we might want to take our relationship to a new level. He wanted to be sure that I was safe to have sex. I smiled and asked, “What about you?”
He replied, “I was tested a few months ago.”
Evan looked at me. “What do you think, Matt?”
I asked Trent, “What do we have to do?”
“Our resident nurse is here this morning,” he explained. “I’ll take you to the clinic for the testing. It isn’t anything to worry about. She’ll take some blood and do an antibody test, and you’ll know the results in about thirty minutes.”
Evan asked worriedly, “What if I have it?”
Trent tried to reassure him. “If you do, then they can begin treatment immediately. It is better to find out now rather than in a few years when you develop serious health problems.”
Evan looked like he was on the verge of tears. I wasn’t feeling much better. Since sixteen, I had engaged with numerous men for sex. Not once did I ever consider the consequences. People on the street joked about AIDS, but it was something we thought would happen to the other person. I had seen men and women whose bodies were ravaged by the disease, but I never thought I would get it.
I gripped Evan’s hand. “We gotta do this,” I insisted. “We gotta know. Okay?” His eyes were filled with tears as he nodded.
The next half hour was the longest time I had ever spent in my life. After the nurse took a blood sample, Trent suggested that we go someplace to wait on the results. He took us to a nearby bakery that makes the best glazed donuts. He ordered six, and we sat outside at a table as we ate donuts and drank sodas.
“Would you guys relax,” he smiled as he watched us nibble nervously on the donuts. “It’s going to be okay.”
“What if I got it?” Evan asked tearfully. “Will I die?”
“No, you won’t die,” I assured him. Then I asked, “Did you ever have anal sex with anyone?”
“Once,” he replied. “But I didn’t like it.”
Trent asked, “Did he use a condom?”
“Yeah,” replied Evan. I let out a deep sigh I was holding. “Is that good?”
“Yeah,” I said. “You sure that’s the only time?”
“I’m sure,” he said. I was relieved to hear him confess that. Even though there is a low risk of getting sick by oral sex, anal sex without a condom is extremely risky. However, I was very worried. Dexter and I had been having anal sex for months without protection. The old man I stayed with when I ran away used to have anal sex with me, but I was too young to think about the dangers. He gave me a safe place to stay, and that was all I really wanted. There had been a couple of other guys because they were willing to pay me for it. One had used protection, but the others hadn’t. I had been so worried about Evan, now I was becoming panicked that I might be infected.
Evan noticed the fear in my eyes and grabbed my hand. “You’ll be okay, Matt. Nothing is going to happen to you.” I tried to smile, but I couldn’t.
Trent looked at his watch. “Let’s get back to the center.” We got into the car, and the ten-minute ride back seemed like it took two years. By the time we pulled into the parking lot, I was trembling.
“You guys go to my office,” ordered Trent as he pointed down the hall. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.” I knew where he was going. He was heading to the clinic to get our results.
Evan and I sat down and gripped each other’s hand tightly. We didn’t say anything because I think we were afraid we would start crying if we did. We both jumped when Trent opened the door and walked in. “Matt,” he said as he looked worriedly at me. “Mrs. Jackson can’t give me the results since they are confidential. You’ll have to go get them yourself.” I rose and watched as Trent sat beside Evan. I left before I knew his results. If mine were confidential, then I assumed his were too.
My hands trembled as I entered the clinic. The nurse had her back to me as she studied an xray. “Matt,” she smiled when I closed the door. “Sit down.” By now, I had convinced myself that the results had come back positive.
I began to cry when she said, “You’re very lucky, Matt.” She handed me a piece of paper. My eyes were so full of tears I couldn’t read it. “The test came back negative.”
I stood and hugged her. “Thank you.”
“You have nothing to thank me for,” she replied, “Just be careful from now on. Okay?” I nodded and left her office.
I didn’t even have time to worry if Evan’s test came back negative. I knew when I stepped into the hall, and he raced to embrace me. “I ain’t got it!” he said joyfully as we held each other. Trent looked on and smiled.
“I don’t either,” I said as we embraced tightly.
“Evan,” said Trent as we pulled apart. “You should go back to class.” He stood before him. “Don’t go around telling the other boys about this. This is a private matter, and the only people who should know are those you want to have sex with.”
“I ain’t having no more sex,” insisted Evan with a frown.
I tousled his hair and said, “Yes, you will. Just be careful the next time. Okay?”
“You got my word, Matt,” he promised as he walked away and headed to class.
The next week was perhaps the best I had ever experienced in my brief life. Someone who has never been homeless or lived on the streets would never understand how comforting a warm bed and a clean bathroom can be. Mr. London was kind enough to let me stay in one of the unused rooms. It was removed from the area where most boys stayed. When I asked about it, Trent explained it was used for boys who were disruptive. They had, on occasion, received a boy who was hard to control. When they became verbally disruptive at night by cursing and pounding on doors, they were isolated from the others in the room I am assigned. He warned me that I might have to sleep on a cot in the kitchen if a boy or girl did act up and the room was needed. I would go to sleep each night listening to hear if anyone was shouting or banging on a door.
I also watched as Hayden and Evan grew closer. Even though displays of affection were not permitted, I saw them a few times holding hands under the table when they thought no one was watching.
I was developing a work schedule that Trent set up for me. I got up at six and joined Mrs. Thatcher in the kitchen at six-thirty. It would usually take us an hour to prepare a warm breakfast for everyone. Besides Mr. London, several of the staff ate in the small cafeteria. I rarely saw Trent until around nine. I asked him once why he didn’t eat breakfast with the others, and he said he wasn’t a breakfast guy. He said all he needed to get going in the morning was a couple of cups of coffee.
I would usually finish around ten in the kitchen. After cleaning dishes and preparing whatever Mrs. Thatcher planned for lunch, Trent scheduled me to work outside with the maintenance staff. I was becoming quite good at mowing and trimming the shrubs that surrounded the building. If the weather was bad, or if there was no work to do, I would work inside sweeping and mopping rooms and the halls. I liked doing that because it enabled me to see Hayden and Evan more often. Sometimes, I would just stop at a door and stare inside and quietly watch them. I was so glad that they were happy and safe.
Trent was becoming an enigma. He would smile and chat with me when he saw me, but it appeared that he was trying to avoid being alone with me. Whenever we were in his office, he always made sure the door was open. When we talked in the hallways, he kept a safe distance from me. I was beginning to realize that he had no interest in me beyond a working relationship. And since he talked very little about his life, then I assumed that he was probably in a relationship that he wanted to keep secret.
Toward the end of the week, Mr. London called me to his office. He smiled when I entered and told me to have a seat. “I’ve heard from Miss Harding,” he informed me. “Her editors have given the green light to proceed with the article on you.”
I asked, “Do you think I should do it?”
“Of course,” he replied with a smile. “Don’t go getting cold feet on me now.”
I became worried when he suddenly became nervous. “There is something else you should be aware of.”
“What’s that?” I asked nervously.
“Evan may be leaving us soon.”
“What!” I shrieked as I stood up. “You’re not letting him go back to his father, are you?”
“Sit down, Matt,” insisted Mr. London. “It’s nothing like that.” I felt a little more comfortable when he started to smile. “We think we’ve found a perfect foster home for him. Right now, we’re waiting on the court’s approval. They are doing a background check on the parents.”
“A foster home?”
“Yes,” he replied. “They are a wonderful couple. They have three sons. One recently left home to go to college. The other two are about Evan’s age. They have a strong interest in sports. Both boys are on the football and baseball teams. Evan visited the home earlier in the week, and the boys got along very well. They are already deciding what position he’ll play on the baseball team in the Spring.” I had noticed that Evan wasn’t in class on Tuesday, but I had no idea he had been on a home visit.
“If all goes well, he will probably be moving out this weekend.” I couldn’t contain my tears. Mr. London smiled as he handed me a tissue to dry my eyes.
“I’ll miss him,” I responded, “but I’m happy for him.”
“That’s what this is all about,” beamed Mr. London. “We try to save young men and women and give them a brighter future.”
I asked worriedly, “Does Hayden know?”
“I’m sure he does,” he replied. “They’ve been talking nonstop since Evan returned.”
“What will happen to Hayden?” I asked as tears again welled up in my eyes.
“It’s complicated,” replied Mr. London. “His parents are fighting with the court for us to return Hayden. So far, the judge is listening to us because we think they just want him back for the lawsuit against Simpson’s estate. We’re not sure how much longer we can hold them off.”
“It will kill him if he has to return,” I responded sadly.
“I know,” replied Mr. London. “But if his parents can convince the judge they are acting in his best interests, there isn’t much we can do.”
“May I leave, Sir?” Tears were beginning to appear in my eyes. I didn’t want to break down in front of him. Even though I was happy to hear that Evan might be placed in a good foster home, my heart was aching thinking what would happen to Hayden if he had to be returned to his selfish, uncaring parents.
I ran into Trent in the hall. “Why so gloom?” he asked worriedly when he saw the sad look on my face.
“It’s nothing,” I sniffed as I attempted a smile.
Trent looked at his watch. “Our shift is almost over,” he said. “Why don’t we go out to dinner? It’s Friday, so we can let our hair down.”
I brushed my hair back and reminded Trent, “You don’t have any hair to let down.”
He put his arm around my shoulder as we headed out the building. “Don’t bet on it,” he laughed.
‘This could be an interesting evening,’ I thought to myself as I leaned into him.