When I opened his hospital door, I was surprised to see so many people in the room. Star was the first person I noticed. She walked over and gave me a hug. I then turned to Ticker and nodded at him. Mrs. Albright rose and hugged me tightly.
“I’m glad you came,” she whispered in my ear.
Allen was sitting up in bed staring at me. He smiled slightly when I nodded at him. I walked over to the bed and pulled him into a gentle hug. “How are you feeling?” I asked after pulling away. He looked extremely pale, more than he usually did.
“I’ve felt better,” he replied. “But then again, I’ve felt worse.” He made the final statement with a smile. If he was still mad at me, he didn’t make any attempt to show it.
Star asked me how my day at school went. I had skipped lunch to work in the library, so I hadn’t seen her or Ticker.
“Did you turn in your report on Wadsworth?” I joked.
“You mean Wordsworth?” I grabbed my chest and stumbled backwards, as if I was having a heart attack because she had actually gotten his name right. Everyone starting laughing, including Allen. I noticed several times that he wouldn’t stop staring at me. Even when someone asked him a question, he would look at me and answer.
After about twenty minutes, Mrs. Albright announced that she needed a cup of coffee.
“And you want Joey to stay with Allen,” exclaimed Star, “just in case?” Everyone laughed when Allen’s mother began to blush.
“You’re not fooling anyone for one minute,” Star continued to joke.
“Who me?” She placed her hand to her chest and tried to act innocent. It only made everyone laugh even harder.
“Come on.” Star grabbed Ticker by his arm and started to lead him from the room.
“But I don’t want any coffee,” Ticker objected.
“Yes you do.” Star stood on her tiptoes and whispered something into his ear.
“Oh.” He looked at me and then at Allen. Again, Ticker sometimes isn’t the brightest bulb in the pack.
There was an awkward silence as I sat down and looked around the room. The mood had been light and friendly when the others were around, but I had trouble thinking of something to say now that they were gone.
“How are you feeling?” I asked.
“You’ve already asked me that,” laughed Allen. “How was school?”
“We’ve already covered that,” I laughed. We looked at each other and smiled. I got up and walked over to the bed.
“I’m really sorry.” I started to apologize to him for my earlier behavior.
“Joey,” he said. “Don’t. I’m the one who should apologize to you. I had no right to treat you like I did.”
I reached down, took his hand and held it. “I guess we both overreacted. Huh?”
“Dr. Carter helped me realize some things at the session today.” I sat down and laughed.
“Dr. Carter? You mean that old quack is helping you?”
I stopped laughing when he seemed upset. I realized that just because I couldn’t talk my problems out with a shrink, didn’t mean that Allen couldn’t. If his therapy sessions helped, then I didn’t want to interfere.
“I’m sorry.” I apologized. “I’m glad you’re getting help.”
“It’s long overdue,” he replied. “I realize now that I’ve kept a lot of shit bottled up.”
“I guess we all do.”
“Come here.” He extended his hand to me. I walked over and he took it and squeezed it tightly. “We’ve got to talk soon. There’s some things going on between us that we need to work out.”
“Like what?” I could tell by the look on his face that he was deep in thought.
“Feelings,” he replied solemnly. “How we both feel.”
For the first time since we met, I felt that we were finally beginning to understand that we both cared about the other. I could tell by the look in his eyes that he had much more to say, but he didn’t know how to approach the subject. I know I felt the same, but I too didn’t know how to talk about what was happening between us.
“Thanks.” He looked at me and tears welled up in his eyes.
“Being here last night.”
“You knew? Why didn’t you say something?”
“I was pretty groggy from the medication; and besides, I was still upset with you.”
“Why aren’t you now? What changed your mind?”
“You kissed me when you left.” He stared at me with those deep blue eyes until my face began to redden. He leaned back and started laughing.
“You’ve waited all day to embarrass me, haven‘t you?” I grinned.
“No, not really.” He was smiling broadly. The tension that had existed between us had finally felt like it had melted away. We both understood that we liked each other, but we had been careful with our feelings. “I just couldn’t resist,” he replied.
“Resist this then.” I kissed him gently on his lips. He hesitated at first, and then he pressed his lips more firmly to mine.
Just then the door opened, and Star gasped. She closed the door quickly, and I could hear here telling everyone that Allen was using a urinal and they should wait a few minutes before going inside.
Allen and I started laughing. “Do you have to take a piss?”
“Not right now,” he giggled. “Besides, you just want to perv on me.”
“Don’t flatter yourself,” I replied. “It’s not all that. Remember, I’ve seen it.”
“You mean this?” He laughed and lifted up his gown, exposing himself to me. Suddenly, the door opened and Star looked in. Her face reddened as she hurriedly shut the door.
I grabbed my sides and fell against the wall laughing. I’m sure Star was wondering just what we were doing inside the room. I couldn’t hear her explanation for the others not to enter, but it had to be hilarious.
We laughed again when there was a soft knock on the door and it slowly opened. Star had her hand over her eyes. “Are you guys decent?” We laughed even harder.
“Not if you don’t want us to be,” giggled Allen. Star opened her eyes and looked at us with a grin on her face. She came walking in with Ticker and Mrs. Albright trailing.
“I swear,” she huffed. “We leave you two alone for just a few minutes and...” Her face began to redden.
Ticker asked, “And what?” Star turned and hit him gently on his arm.
“Never mind, Silly,” she replied. All three of us began laughing. Ticker and Mrs. Albright looked extremely confused.
Star reached out and grabbed my hand. “I need another cup of coffee.” She pulled me down the hall and to a nearby waiting lounge. We walked over to a couch and sat down.
“Spill it,” she insisted. “What is going on?”
“What on earth are you talking about?” I kidded her.
“You know what,” she replied. “I walk in and the two of you are kissing; and then the next time he’s showing you his dick.”
“Oh, that.” I wasn’t sure if I found the incident more amusing or embarrassing. I could never explain the playfulness that led up to it.
“Well?” She crossed her arms and sat defiantly. “I’m waiting.”
“It’s nothing really,” I insisted. “We were just playing around.”
“Kissing someone is not playing around.”
I leaned in and gave her a quick kiss. “See,” I grinned. “It can be.”
Star became very quiet as a serious look appeared on her face. “Listen, Joey. I love Allen like a brother. He’s been hurt a lot in his life, and he doesn’t need any more. You saw what happened yesterday. There’s not much more he can take.”
“Don’t you think I know that?” I replied. “If anyone understands what hurt is, then I think I’d know. In one way or another, we are all brittle as a bird.”
“Never mind.” She continued to hold my hand and stare into my face. Finally, she smiled slightly and patted my hand. We stood and walked back to Allen’s hospital room without saying anything more.
Allen remained in the hospital for three more days. He was released Friday morning while I was in school. I visited him everyday, and he kept me informed on how his therapy sessions were going. Each day he seemed to be a little more cheerful and talkative.
Ticker took me and Star to his apartment as soon as school was over. Allen was sitting on the couch, and his mother was doing dishes. I sat on the couch beside him while Star went into the kitchen to help his mother.
“How does it feel to be home?”
“I don’t know if I’d call this home, but it’s nice to be out of the hospital.” He looked over at his mother, and I realized that he must have missed being at home with his family. Being in his small apartment must have seemed like a prison sentence to him.
His mother walked over and handed Allen and me a slice of chocolate cream pie. “Eat up, Boys,” she said. I was surprised when Allen began eating without being forced. In fact, looking at him, it appeared he had gained a couple of pounds while in the hospital. His color had returned, and he didn’t look quite as pale.
“What?” I looked away quickly when I realized I’d been staring at him.
“You’re eating,” I replied. He grinned and then shoveled a large piece of pie into his mouth.
“Of course I’m eating,” he stated. “You think I want to die or something.” He started to laugh until he realized I’d been hurt by his statement.
“Sorry,” he apologized.
“Here, Honey.” His mother handed him a couple of pills. Again, he took them without an argument. I sat and stared at him.
“What?” He started laughing. His laugh was infectious. We leaned against each other and laughed. I don’t think either of us knew why. It just felt good to be together.
I looked over at the kitchen and saw Star and Allen’s mother watching us with smiles on their faces.
“What?” Allen asked, causing us to once again break out in laughter.
Mrs. Albright remained around for about a half hour. She and Star tidied up the small room while Allen and I sat and watched television.
“I have to go, Sweetheart.” Mrs. Albright walked over and kissed Allen on his forehead. It surprised me when she leaned down and kissed me on my forehead too. I stood and gave her a hug.
She grabbed my hand and said, “Walk me to my car.”
Once outside, she stood by her car and looked at me. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen him happy. I think you have a lot to do with that.”
I blushed, not knowing what to say. She put her hand to the side of my face. “Don’t hurt him.”
I smiled and said, “Star and I had this conversation the other day. Like I told her, I have no intention of hurting him.”
“You’re very young, Joey,” she stated. “Allen comes with a lot of baggage. I’m not too sure you’re prepared for that.”
“He’s told me about his past,” I assured her. She seemed surprised to know that I knew about Allen’s life. She knew I was aware of his HIV status, but I don’t think she knew he had told me about other events in his life.
“Besides,” I said. “I’m not a perfect angel myself. I come with a lot of baggage, too.”
“A sweet boy like you?”
“You can’t always judge a book by its cover,” I laughed.
“You can if you’ve read a lot of books,” she remarked. She leaned in and kissed me on my cheek. “I like you, Joey. I’m glad you’ve become Allen’s friend. If only Gene were more like you.”
I watched as she got in her car and pulled away. I was stunned by her statement about Gene. Looking at him, he would appear the perfect son. I, on the other hand, was a huge disappointment to my family. It amazed me that she would want him to be like me after only knowing me for just a short time.
Allen gave me a questioning look when I returned. I walked over and sat down beside him. Star was sitting in the kitchen and working on a school assignment.
He turned and asked, “Is everything alright?”
“Yes,” I replied. We sat and stared into each other’s eyes. “Never better.”
“Yeah,” he replied. “Me, too.” He rested his head on my shoulder as we watched television. The show was boring, but the remote control was on his bed and I didn’t want to break the comfort I was feeling by getting up and getting it.
After an hour, Star began to put her books into her book bag. “I have to get home,” she announced.
“You want me to ride the bus with you?” I didn’t feel comfortable with her being out at night by herself.
“Ticker is picking me up.” Her face reddened when I raised an eyebrow.
“Ticker is coming out this late just to take you home?”
“Well, yes,” she replied. “There are still gentlemen left in the world.”
“And you wouldn’t happen to be just a little interested in this gentleman?” I kidded.
Just then we heard a horn honking outside the window. Star walked over and kissed Allen and me on the cheek.
I stood up. “Give me a minute and I’ll go with you.”
“No!” She replied quickly. Her face began to redden. “I’ll have him come back and get you.”
“That’s stupid,” I said. “I’ll just go now and save him from having to come back across town.”
“He won’t mind,” she insisted.
“Earth to Joey.” Allen pulled at my pants leg. I looked down. “I think they want to be alone.”
“Why would they...” Suddenly, a light flashed on in my mind. “Oh.” Star began to blush as she hurried to the door.
“See you at school tomorrow.” She closed the door behind her.
I looked at Allen in disbelief. “You don’t think she and Ticker have something going on?”
He started laughing. “Where have you been the past week? They’ve been practically linked at the hip when they visited me in the hospital.”
I guess I had been too busy catching up with my class work to notice. Thinking back, it did seem like they were spending a lot of time together. I just thought she was using him for a ride to and from the hospital.
I sat back down beside Allen, and he again rested his head on my shoulder as he watched television. I put my arm around his back and pulled him closer to me. He looked up at me and smiled. I stared into his blue eyes and then leaned in to kiss him.
His lips met mine and we kissed briefly before he sat up and pulled my arm from around him. “What’s wrong?” I asked. Seconds earlier he was affectionate; now he appeared cold and aloof. He stood up and started pacing around the room. He walked over to his bed and sat down.
“What’s wrong?” I asked again. He put his head in his hands and sighed. He then looked at me sadly.
“You, me... us.” He replied. I walked over and sat down on the bed beside him.
“What do you mean?”
“We can’t do this, Joey.” He looked at me tearfully. “It can’t happen.”
“What can’t happen?”
“You, me...us,” he said. We sat quietly for a minute.
I knew he was feeling the same apprehension I had been feeling since I met him. Fate had seemed to bring us together, but there wasn’t an instruction book included as to how we were to define our relationship. I knew I cared for Allen, perhaps more than anyone I’d ever met before. But did I want our friendship to go deeper? There is a fine line between loving someone and being in love with someone.
He reached for my hand and squeezed it. “I care about you Joey. A lot. I thought I’d never feel this way about anyone. But then you come into my life and… damn.” He once again buried his head in his hands.
He looked back at me. “It just won’t work.”
I took his hand and held it. “I’m not asking you for anything.”
Tears welled up in his eyes. “Maybe I want you to.” He got up and walked over to the refrigerator and took a Pepsi out of the refrigerator. He then walked back to the couch.
I sat and stared at him. He seemed so vulnerable. I could only imagine what was going on inside his head. Besides, I was struggling with my own feelings. I knew I had been falling in love with him since the day I met him. Each day seemed to draw us closer. I guess he was experiencing the same. I got up, walked over and sat back down beside him.
“So where do we go from here?” Both of us were on the verge of tears. He leaned in and hugged me, pulling me tightly into him.
“I don’t know,” he cried into my chest. “Why couldn’t we have met before...” He stopped and clutched me tighter.
I pulled him back and looked into his tear-stained face. “That doesn’t matter to me.”
“It does me,” he cried. “I can’t give you what you want.” He put his head in my chest and cried softly.
I don’t know where it came from but I heard myself say, “I love you.” He stopped crying, but continued to hold me tightly. After a minute, he sat up and wiped away his tears with his sleeve.
I started giggling when I saw his red, puffy face. I don’t think I’d ever seen anything so adorable. His penetrating blue eyes were looking at me. I leaned in and kissed him quickly. He smiled and returned my kiss.
He asked, “So now what?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “Let’s just take each day at a time and see where the road leads. Who knows? We may enjoy the ride.”
Tears welled up in his eyes. “What if I don’t have a lot of days to take?”
“Let’s not think about that right now. We’re here together and that is all that matters.”
He sat back and rested his head on my shoulder. “You sure about this? Do you have any idea what we’re getting into?”
“No,” I laughed. “But I think I can handle it. I’m a big boy now.”
He sat up and looked at me with a serious expression. “That’s something else that’s been bothering me.”
“You’re only seventeen, Joey,” he said. “I’m twenty-four.”
“What do you mean, so? You’re too young to know what you want.”
I took his hands and held them. “You’re probably right. I may be too young, but I’m not too young to know what I want. I’ve been on my own since I was twelve. I’ve had to make my own decisions. I’ve had to be a survivor, and I grew up fast. I may be seventeen, but I’m more mature than guys twice my age.”
“I don’t know.” He continued to stare at me. I could tell he was trying to persuade me from becoming involved with him. “I don’t want to rob you of your youth.”
I sat back and roared with laughter. “Rob me of my youth!” I laughed harder. “Allen, my youth was taken from me when I was eleven.”
I watched as he continued to think of other reasons. Finally, he said, “We couldn’t even have a normal sexual relationship.”
“Who said I wanted sex,” I kidded. “I’ve seen what you have.” He smacked me on my arm.
“Seriously, Joey,” he responded. “I’ve wanted you since I first saw you. That’s bothered me. I can’t give you what you’d want. I’d be a failure.”
“That doesn’t matter, really,” I assured him.
“Well, it should. You’re seventeen. I was hornier than a rabbit in heat when I was seventeen.”
“Sex isn’t that important to me,” I said honestly. Actually, I hardly ever thought about sex. It was something that I did to make money. Only occasionally had I been satisfied by the men I had sex with. Since Uncle Mike, sex was something I had found filthy and disgusting. I had never associated it with love.
“It is to me,” he responded seriously. “Even when I was doing all my running around, I just wanted to find that one guy I could settle down with. I wanted someone to love me.” He was quickly blinking away tears.
I touched his face and wiped away a tear that was falling down his cheek. “Maybe I’m that someone.”
“I love you, Joey. I don’t want to hurt you.”
I started smiling. “Everyone’s been telling me all week not to hurt you.”
Just then, a car horn sounded outside. “Ticker is here. I have to go.” We stood up and embraced.
“We’ll talk some more,” he said. “Let’s go slow and give this some thought.”
“All right.” When I leaned in and kissed, he moaned and fell against my body.
I pulled away and said, “That should give you something to think about.” I kissed him quickly and then headed to the door as Ticker sounded the horn.