“MR. PARKER, are you ready with the lights?”
“Yes, Mr. Stevens, I’m ready when you are.” I’ve been ready for the last half hour. He turned on the spotlight and pointed it front and center, waiting for the start of the dress rehearsal.
“Danny, Sandy, shall we begin?” The drama teacher insisted on calling everyone by their character names during rehearsals; he thought it helped people get into character. Personally, from where Len had been sitting on the lighting platform for multiple rehearsals, he thought it only confused the actors, but who was he to say anything?
A chorus of “Yes, Mr. Stevens” echoed from behind the curtains, and the rehearsal began. Len’s job was to man one of the two spotlights. So he and his best friend Ruby were high on the platform, watching and following the lighting cues as the rehearsal progressed.
They’d been friends since the fifth grade, but Len thought that Ruby might have a crush on him, though he did his very best not to encourage her. She was his best friend, and he didn’t want to mess that up with anything romantic. Besides, if he were honest with himself, she really wasn’t his type—really, really wasn’t his type, but he didn’t allow himself to think about that much.
She leaned close, touching his arm. “I don’t know why you volunteered to do this. I mean, it’s cool that you did, but it doesn’t seem like the type of thing you usually do.” That was very true; it wasn’t his usual thing, but the drama teacher, who also happened to be his English teacher, had promised extra credit to any of his students who helped with the school play.
He turned his head to Ruby for just a second. “I need anything I can get in English.” Then he quickly turned his attention back to the stage, not wanting to miss any of his cues. “Besides,” he whispered really softly as he positioned the spot on Sandy, “It’s turning out to be fun.”
It really was, but he most certainly couldn’t tell Ruby exactly why. He widened the beam of light to encompass both Sandy and Danny and had to stop himself from sighing. Jesus, you’re turning into a girl. He shook the thought out of his head before he could run with it and forced his attention back to what was happening on the stage.
Cliff Laughton was playing Danny Zuko, and all through rehearsals, Len had been thinking of him a lot. Particularly late at night when he was alone in his bed. Cliff Laughton had fueled so many fantasies over the past few weeks—mostly about what he looked like under the black leather jacket, the white T-shirt, and beneath those jeans that definitely looked a size too small.
Len pulled himself back out of his fantasy just in time to make the changes for the “Summer Lovin’” number. He quickly changed out the filters and widened the beam to include the entire stage, and the number began.
Len was enthralled. The dance movements were really seductive, particularly for the small town of Scottville, Michigan, but Len didn’t know that. All he knew was that Cliff was moving his hips and shaking that tight little behind.
“She’s wonderful, isn’t she?”
Shit! Ruby had noticed how enthralled he’d become. He nodded his head and breathed a sigh of relief. She thought he was entranced with Sheila Gowell, the girl playing Sandy, and that was fine with Len. “Yes, she is.”
Personally, he thought Sheila was a scene-stealing, over-acting cow, but he wasn’t about to tell Ruby that. He couldn’t afford for anyone to get the wrong idea. He knew he had to keep these feelings to himself. This may be 1979, but it wasn’t New York or San Francisco—it was Scottville, Michigan, and the very idea of anyone knowing he might be interested in boys was enough to send chills down his spine.
“It’s going very well, don’t you think?” Ruby had scooted closer, leaning against the railing as the action continued on the stage.
He kept his voice extremely low so it wouldn’t travel. “Yes, it is.” He smiled at her from over the spotlight and concentrated on the play and his cues.
At intermission, he climbed down from the lighting platform and walked to where the drama teacher was standing near the stage. “Do you want any changes?”
“No, everything looked great.” Len felt the man’s hand on his shoulder. “Keep up the good work.” Len was about to turn around and head back to the platform, when he saw Cliff at the edge of the stage.
“Mr. Stevens,” Cliff called as he jumped off the stage and lost his balance, barreling into Len and knocking him flat on his back with Cliff landing on top of him. Len could barely breathe, and not just because Cliff had knocked the wind out of him. He could feel Cliff’s warmth through his clothes, and when he opened his eyes, he was looking right into Cliff’s. And to his surprise, Cliff was looking back and didn’t turn away. His eyes were soft and warm; his breath smelled like Tic Tac. Len felt himself react and began to squirm. It would be the ultimate in embarrassment—hell, he’d never live it down if Cliff felt him get a stiffie.
“Cliff… Len… are you two all right?” The activity around them broke the last of the spell that had held them.
Cliff lifted himself off Len and got to his feet. “I’m fine, but I landed on Len here.” He turned his attention to Len, who was still sprawled on the floor. “You okay?” He extended his hand, and Len took it, slowly getting to his feet.
“I’m okay, just a little winded.” And immensely relieved that you aren’t reacting and apparently didn’t feel anything. “I’ll be fine.” The emphasis shifted from him to the second act of the play, and Len listened to the instructions before walking to the back of the gym and climbing the lighting platform.
Ruby stood and met him as took his place by the light. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Okay, boys and girls, let’s run through the second act!” The ceiling lights dimmed, and Len turned on the spotlight, trying concentrate on the stage. His mind, however, was definitely elsewhere. Cliff Laughton. He’d actually felt Cliff Laughton’s body on top of his. Granted, Cliff had fallen, but that didn’t really seem to matter one bit to his active imagination and hormone-crazed body. It reacted with gusto, but luckily it was dark, and no one could see him except Ruby, whose attention was glued to the stage. He let his mind wander for a minute but then stopped himself as the guilt kicked in. I shouldn’t be having thoughts like this. I can’t. I just can’t.
Ruby turned her attention from the stage. “What did you say?” Len shook his head, and she turned back to the rehearsal.
As the show progressed, Len remembered all his cues, taking a break as the scene was being changed to the drive-in. The lights were low with just his light shining on Danny and Sandy as he tried to make out with her in the car. Len’s mind took him on a flight of fantasy as he imagined himself in the car with Cliff, those hands all over him. As he watched the scene, he knew that he wouldn’t push him away, not if he thought he could get away with it.
He almost missed his next cue and had to quickly change the filters and adjust the light, but he made it just in time. That near miss kept his mind sharp for the rest of the rehearsal, and everything went smoothly.
At the end of the rehearsal, Len turned off the light, and let it cool before helping Ruby off the platform. Everyone was gathered around the stage, talking animatedly, the excitement in their voices plain to hear.
“Len.” He turned and saw Cliff striding his way. Len stopped and waited for him to approach. “Just wanted to make sure I didn’t hurt you.”
Len shook his head. “No, I’m fine.”
Cliff smiled a bright, open smile and said, “After the last performance on Saturday we’re having a wrap party at my house. You should be there.”
“Thanks.” Cliff just stood there, and Len wondered if he had more he wanted to say. The silence started to grow uncomfortable. “I’ll plan on it,” Len added.
“Good.” Cliff hesitated again. “Good.” Cliff shoved his hands into his pockets. “I was—”
Whatever Cliff was about to say was cut off as Sheila swished in and grabbed Cliff’s arm. “There you are. I’m ready to go, and you were going to give me a ride home.” She basically ignored Len and pulled Cliff to where some of her friends were waiting. Len saw Cliff turn his head briefly back toward him, and then he was gone.
“You know Cliff Laughton?” Ruby asked as she came up behind him. “Too bad that bitch Sheila’s got her claws in him.” Len turned around, surprised at the language. “Well, she is,” Ruby continued, “and he’s too nice to tell her to get lost. Maybe you could introduce us.” Len knew that Ruby had had a crush on Cliff Laughton since the seventh grade.
“He just asked me if I was okay and invited me to the wrap party on Saturday.” He turned to her, letting his attention fall from where Cliff had disappeared. “Would you like to go with me?”
She smiled her biggest, brightest smile and took Len’s arm. “I’d love to.” She actually batted her eyes at him until they both laughed, and together they headed outside and waited for his mother to pick them up.
LEN’S mother dropped him and Ruby at the party on Saturday, but not after grilling them like a CIA agent would. “If there’s alcohol, you both stay away and call me. I’ll come right back and pick you up.” Len’s mother could be formidable, and neither of them had any thoughts about crossing her. “I’ll pick you both up at eleven.”
“Okay, Mom.” Len helped Ruby out of the car, “We’ll be fine.” He deliberately kept himself from rolling his eyes; she’d pick up on that. The woman picked up on everything.
The party was obviously in the yard. A fire had been lit, and there were tables with food and drinks nearby. Most of the cast was already there, and they walked up and said hello. He knew everybody. Mason County Central High School wasn’t big enough for you to not know everyone.
“Hey, Len. Hi, Ruby.” Cliff greeted them both and showed them where everything was with Sheila sticking to him like glue.
The school musical had been a huge success, with every performance nearly sold out, and during those weeks of rehearsal, the cast members had become quite close. “Are you two going to prom?” Len turned around and saw Brenda, one of the Pink Ladies, asking as she approached.
“No, I have to work.” Len knew that Ruby was disappointed, but he hadn’t wanted her to miss it. “But Ruby’s going with Brad.” Brenda giggled and pulled Ruby away, leading her over to where the girls were talking. It never ceased to amaze Len that they all went to school together every day, sat in the same classrooms, and ate lunch together, but put them in a social setting, and the girls and boys separated like milk and cream.
Len wandered over to where the guys were talking, hearing Cliff’s voice over the rest. “She’s driving me crazy, thinks I’m her boyfriend or something. Is she delusional? I’m not Danny, and she’s not Sandy. The play’s over.”
“So break it off with her. Tell her you’re not interested, because she sure thinks you are.” Cliff was about to say something when one of the other guys chimed in. “I heard she puts out.”
Cliff snorted and laughed. “Are you kidding? She’s some sort of nun.” Then Cliff made a face that Len couldn’t see, and everyone laughed. The girls made their way over, and the party shifted as couples paired off. Ruby was talking to Brad, and Len was pleased the two of them were getting along. Ruby was a friend, and he knew she would never be more than that. The mere thought of anything more than that scared him.
Len stayed near the food table, talking with the guys. He was having a great time. The night was cool but not cold, and everyone was friendly and sociable. Throughout the evening, he watched as the occasional couple snuck off onto one of the paths for a little private partying.
“Len.” He turned and saw Cliff coming over sans Sheila. “Do you have a minute?”
Cliff motioned behind one of the barns, and Len followed, wondering what Cliff could want. “I wanted to ask you something.” Cliff shifted from foot to foot, his nervousness apparent. “The other day—” He stopped and then started over. “During dress rehearsal, when I knocked you over….”
Len was ready for the earth to swallow him whole. Cliff had felt him. How in the world was he going to explain it away? “Listen, Cliff, it was an accident….” He began to stammer and look around, trying to determine the best way to disappear.
“I know. I didn’t mean to knock you over. I felt bad that I might have hurt you. Mr. Stevens reamed me a good one the next day.”
Len slowly released the breath he’d been holding. “No, I just got the wind knocked out of me, but that didn’t last long.” He heard his normal tone return to his voice.
Cliff leaned close, his face near Len’s. “I’m glad. I thought I might have damaged something important, if you know what I mean.”
Len’s first and only instinct was to play dumb. “Huh?”
“I felt you.” Cliff’s eyes rose to meet his, and Len was surprised at what he didn’t see. There was no disgust, no condemnation, and no world coming to an end. Len swallowed and waited to see what Cliff would do. He braced himself for the worst. Instead, he saw Cliff looking at him, their eyes locked onto each others’. Len thought he saw Cliff getting closer and wondered if he was going to kiss him. Len’s lips parted, and he saw Cliff tilt his head just slightly. He closed his eyes and felt a light touch on his lips. Damn, he was kissing Cliff Laughton, or Cliff was kissing him. It didn’t really matter; this was like a dream come true.
“Cliff!” Sheila’s voice cut through the night like a knife. They pulled away and straightened up just as she rounded the corner of the barn. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere.” At that point she noticed Len. “Hey, Len.”
God damn it! Why’d she have to show up now? Len wanted to scream. He composed himself quickly, wiping the disappointment from his face. “Hi, Sheila.”
She latched onto Cliff’s arm and began walking him away, obviously unaware of what had almost happened, and what she’d almost seen.
Cliff tried to take control of the conversation. “Sheila, we need to talk.”
“I’ll say we do. There are some things we definitely need to get settled for after graduation.” The girl was driven; you had to give her credit for that. She knew what she wanted and went for it, no holds barred.
Len watched as they walked away, and he again saw Cliff turn to look at him. And this time, there was nothing in the way. What he saw surprised him, because it looked like disappointment.
Len got a hold of himself again and walked from behind the barn to rejoin the party. Ruby and Brad were still sitting together talking. He checked his watch; their ride wouldn’t be there for another half hour, so he sat quietly around the fire, making small talk with other people he knew. One of the girls whispered in his ear, “Are you okay with Ruby and Brad?”
Len turned and smiled. “Ruby and I are good friends.” He heard a car pull into the driveway and realized it was his ride. He’d been hoping to see Cliff again before he left, but he was nowhere to be seen, although Sheila had returned to the party, definitely looking subdued. Len said his good-byes and got Ruby, and the two of them climbed in the car.
His mother asked all about the party, and Ruby told her everything that happened. As they pulled out of the drive, Len craned his head, trying to see Cliff, until the farm disappeared into the night.
LEN woke slowly from his doze, Tim’s arms holding him, their shared warmth taking away the slight chill from the air conditioning. He liked it here, right where he was, right now. No pressure, no expectations, no hiding, just a few hours of what felt like stolen happiness. He started to get out of bed, but Tim’s arms tightened around him slightly. “Why the rush, Lenny?”
He didn’t know what to say, other than it just felt like the right thing to do. “I don’t know.” It was their usual behavior.
Tim shifted on his bed, looking down at him. “I do.” Len was surprised but wasn’t sure how to react. “You don’t want me to get the wrong idea,” Tim said.
“And what idea is that?” Len looked at the older man’s face, taking in the slight crinkles around the eyes and the hairline that was just starting to recede. It was a handsome, warm, gentle face that matched the rest of him.
“You don’t want me to think this is anything more than it is. We get together every few weeks, watch a movie, have dinner, and then fall into bed together. You like that; I like that. But when it’s over, you feel like you need to leave.” Tim looked so disappointed that Len leaned forward to kiss that look away, but Tim didn’t let him. “I know I’m not the love of your life—you’re twenty-one, and I’m nearly forty. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.” He stopped, and Len waited for him to continue. Tim sighed. “I don’t know what I’m trying to say, other than the fact that you don’t need to rush off. I’m not going to fall in love with you in the next half hour.”
“I just didn’t want to be unfair to you. You’ve been a good friend,” Len tried to explain. Tim had been a great friend. Len had met him a year earlier while he was cruising the gay magazine section of the only newsstand in the entire county that carried things like that. He’d been horny beyond belief, and he’d watched as a handsome older man entered the store and walked to the same section where Len was leafing through magazines, trying to keep his embarrassment under control. Tim had told him later that he’d looked into Len’s scared face and almost laughed. But instead of laughing, Tim had talked to him, really talked to him. It was one of the first times in his life that Len had realized that there were other men like him. Men who liked other men but didn’t dress like women, act all froofy, or lisp. They acted normally.
After talking to him for a while, Tim had asked, “Would you like to get a cup of coffee?” Len must have looked like a deer in headlights because Tim continued with, “It’s only coffee, and we can talk.”
“Okay.” Len was nervous, but he’d followed the man out of the store and down the street to a small café where they got a table in the corner. Tim had introduced himself, and they’d talked. Well, Tim talked, and Len listened. When they’d finished their coffee, Tim had given Len his phone number and told him to call if he wanted to talk again. Len had just held the card as he watched Tim leave the café.
He’d called him a few days later, they’d gotten together for dinner, and things had progressed from there.
Len shifted on the bed, slinking his arms around Tim’s neck. “You’re one of the best people I’ve ever met.”
Tim grinned. “No, I’m not. I’m an old man who gets to sample some of your energy every once in a while.” Len knew from Tim’s smile that there was some grain of truth in what he’d said.
Len lightly swatted Tim’s side. “Yes you are.” He really was a good person. Tim had shown him a lot, not just in the bedroom, and had helped him accept who he was. “You’ve been a good friend.”
“So have you.” Len felt Tim kiss him on the forehead, and then the bed dipped as Tim got up. Len followed suit and began to get dressed. Something was different, and as Len pulled on his pants, he realized that Tim was sending him on his way. Len thought over how he felt about it as he finished dressing.
“I’m going to miss you.” Len sat on the edge of the bed and tied his shoes.
“I’m going to miss you, too, but it’s probably best for both of us,” Tim said. Len finished dressing and stood near the foot of the bed, looking at Tim dressed in his robe. Tim pulled him into a deep hug, holding him tight, and Len got the feeling this was harder for Tim than he was letting on. After a long while, he felt Tim’s arms relax. “I’ll walk you to the door.” Tim led him out of the bedroom and through the small apartment. It was then that he noticed the boxes stacked on the corners.
“Are you moving?” That explained some things.
“Yeah. I got a good job in Chicago, and I can’t turn it down, not in this economy.”
“I understand.” Len opened the door. “Bye, Tim.”
“Bye, Lenny. Be happy.” Len turned and smiled as the apartment door closed with a soft click. He would be. More than anything else, Tim had helped him admit to himself, without really realizing it, that he was gay. He wasn’t ready to share that knowledge with other people yet, but at least he could admit it to himself, and he no longer hated himself because of it. Tim had told him once that there was nothing wrong with being gay or being who you were. He’d just warned him that he needed to be careful.
Without looking back, Len walked to his car, climbed into the driver’s seat, and headed home. He did a quick check of his Timex and breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn’t too late, and he probably wouldn’t get the third degree from his mother.
After graduating from high school, he’d gotten a job at a small factory making parts for railroad cars, but that had only lasted a year before he’d been laid off because of the tanking economy. His mother had urged him to go back to school, and he’d followed her advice, attending the local community college. It had been a good decision. Len had been a mediocre student in high school, but he seemed to thrive in the college environment. His grades were good, and he was working part-time after classes mucking out stalls at one of the area horse farms.
Pulling into their driveway, he parked the car next to the small house they rented and headed inside. His mother was sitting in the small living room watching television. “Did you have a good time?”
Len had to stop himself from smiling too big. “Yes, thanks.” He’d had some time to think on the way home, and while he would definitely miss Tim, he was happy that he’d found a good job. And Tim had been right: it was time for both of them to move on before either got too attached. Tim had been a wonderful mentor, and Len would never forget him.
“There’s some mail on the table for you. Looks like you got a wedding invitation.”
“From who?” She shrugged her shoulders and went back to the television. She worked hard, always had, and he wished he could help out more. But every time he talked about trying to get a full-time job, she’d scold him and tell him to finish school first.
Len went into the kitchen and saw the large, fancy envelope sitting on the table. He picked it up, looking it over before breaking the seal, opening the envelope, and removing the invitation. “Ruby’s getting married,” he called to his mother.
“That’s great; who’s the lucky boy?” Her attention didn’t waver from the television.
“Cliff Laughton.” Well, damn him if that wasn’t a surprise. He hadn’t seen Cliff much since he was seventeen, but his mind wandered back to the night of the school musical cast party and the almost-kiss—or what he thought might have been an almost-kiss. With the passage of time, he wasn’t so sure.
“When is it?”
He consulted the invitation. “Three weeks.”
“Are you going to go?”
He thought about it. He hadn’t seen Ruby in a while, but yeah, it would be real nice to see her again. “I think so.”
THE wedding was beautiful, held in the country church a mile or so from Cliff’s family’s farm and what was to be Ruby’s new home. There were a lot of people there who Len knew. When he’d accepted the invitation, he’d wondered if he’d still know anyone. But for the most part, it seemed as though time hadn’t moved, and everyone was very interested in catching up with old friends. After the service, he drove to the reception and found his place at one of the tables, along with a number of people he’d been friends with years before. It was almost like a mini-reunion.
He felt a gentle nudge in his side. “So, Len, are you seeing anyone?” Raelyn beamed at him from the next seat.
“Not right now.” He thought of Tim. “I was for a while.”
“You remember Brenda Grant?” Len nodded and tried to look interested. He’d had so many people try to fix him up lately, and it was starting to become tiresome. “She just broke up with Brad and was talking about looking you up.” Thank God she hadn’t called.
He made what he thought was a bland, noncommittal reply. “It’d be nice to hear from her again.”
Raelyn beamed. “I’ll have to tell her.” Len almost groaned but kept it to himself, and the conversation shifted to other topics and local gossip before being cut off by the tinkling of glasses to indicate that it was time for the speeches. The best man gave his speech and offered the toast, and then dinner was served, followed by the usual wedding games.
Len watched as Cliff danced his new bride around the floor, both of them smiling and happy. Seeing them together, Len let his mind wander back, and he thought that he’d been a fool. Tim had told him once never to fall for a straight man. And while Len was never sure what would have happened if they hadn’t been interrupted that evening, more and more, he was coming to realize that it must have been his imagination. Then the first dance ended, and the floor filled with couples.
After a while, the bride’s dance was announced, and Len got in line and paid his money. He saw Ruby smile as he approached and started to dance with her. “I was so happy you decided to come.”
“Me too. I’ve been looking forward to seeing you since I got the invitation.” They moved together easily; they always had.
“Are you seeing anyone?”
“I was, but I’m not now.” It was an easy answer that rolled off his tongue. He knew he was playing up the casual thing he’d had with Tim, but he needed something to hide behind.
“What was he like?” Len heard her clearly and almost stumbled, but Ruby just smiled and kept dancing, tightening her grip on his hand.
“How…?” He forced his body to keep moving, even as he felt his stomach tighten and the chicken from dinner try to make a reappearance.
“How did I know? It wasn’t one thing.” She grinned. “But I’ve known for a while.” Her smile remained. “It’s okay. I’d never tell anyone.”
“Does Cliff know?”
Her smile brightened. “Good God, no. Are you kidding? He’s got a bigger mouth than Sheila.” Her smile faded a little. “I think it’s cool, and I’d never tell anyone, but I wanted to let you know that it doesn’t matter, that you’re still my friend, and that I’ve missed you.”
Before he could say anything more, he felt a tap on his shoulder indicating that his time was up. He let go of her hand and was about to step away, but instead he leaned forward and gently kissed her cheek, “You’re quite a lady.” Then he stepped away and let the next man in line dance with the bride.
On his way back to his chair, he made a point to say hello to Cliff. To Len’s surprise, he remembered him.
“Len, I’m glad you could come.”
“Thanks. I’m glad you invited me.” He glanced at the bride, who was now dancing with a very old man. “She’s really something. I sincerely hope you’ll be happy.”
Len wasn’t sure what else to say. He most certainly wasn’t about to mention the short kiss they’d shared—that he thought they’d shared—those years ago. So he shook the groom’s hand and headed back to his table. After a while, the lights dimmed again, and the dancing continued. The bride and groom made their way around to the tables, talking with everyone and accepting good wishes. After a brief stop at the table the happy couple moved on, and Len decided to call it a night. He said good night to everyone and then headed to his car and drove home.
His mother was sitting in the living room, watching the end of a Fantasy Island rerun. She turned and smiled as he came inside. “Was the wedding nice?”
“Yes, very nice. The food was good, and I danced with the bride. We didn’t really get a chance to catch up, but she said she’d call in the next few weeks so we could get together.” He sat on the sofa, loosening his tie, half watching the end of the program and half watching her.
The show came to an end, and she got up and turned off the television, “I’m going to miss that show when they take it off the air in a few months.” It was his mother’s favorite show; she never missed it. “Is there something on your mind?”
“Well, kind of….” Ruby’s candid revelation about him had thrown him for a loop. He’d always been close to his mom, and it didn’t feel right to keep secrets from her, particularly when someone else knew. He was just worried how she’d react.
She sat next to him and patted his knee. “It’s okay, honey, just tell me what’s wrong.”
He wasn’t sure of the right way to say it, so in the end, he just blurted it out. “Mom, I’m gay.” He turned to look at her reaction, and she sat there unmoving for a split second.
“Is that all? I thought you were going to tell me something I didn’t already know.”
Len was taken aback. “You knew. Geez, does everybody know?”
“I don’t think so, and what do you mean everybody?”
“Ruby told me when I was dancing with her.” This was not the reaction he was expecting from her, but he was thankful for it nonetheless. If he were honest with himself, he wasn’t sure what he’d expected.
“I can’t speak for Ruby, but I can tell you that a mother knows her children.” She yawned and got up. “I’m going to bed.” She bent down and kissed him on the forehead before leaving the room. “I’ll see you in the morning, and we’ll talk.”
Len sat on the sofa, thinking. He’d had his deepest, darkest secret opened to two people, and they hadn’t rejected him. He knew it wouldn’t always be so easy, but it gave him hope. Getting up, he turned off the light and went to bed.