Collin: Beware of Reckless Driving
WHEN Collin Waters was five years old, he was sitting in the backseat of his parents’ Ford Taurus while his father drove, singing loudly to REM’s “Losing My Religion.” He was playing with his trucks, which he very much enjoyed, even though he would rather take them apart and put them back together than play “freeway.” Dad had asked—very politely too—that Collin not take things apart in the back of the car. Since Dad was a big man with a deep voice who tried very hard not to yell, even when Collin dumped cereal over the floor and forgot to do his reading and let out his big sister’s rat on complete accident and used his mom’s favorite DVDs for rocket-launch pads and dressed the cat up in his engineer’s outfit so he’d have someone to play with, well, Collin tried to do what he said.
Collin adored his dad.
Right now, that off-key rumble of “Losing My Religion” was comforting. If Dad was singing, he was in a good mood, and since today was snack day and Collin was very sure the cookies in his backpack would be a success, Collin could respect a good mood. Dad would sing, and then Collin would go to school and his mom’s awesome cookies would make this a very good day.
Then Dad’s singing was interrupted by Dad’s voice, fractured and uncertain. “Oh… oh God….”
The car swerved, and then swerved again, and Collin was thrown against the door, and he began to cry.
“Daddy? Daddy? Daddy!”
But his dad was slumped over the steering wheel, his beefy shoulders canted sideways and his eyes closed, and the car was bumping, thumping over the dividers and over a sidewalk and wham! into a pole, and Collin’s head hurt from smacking on the seat in front of him, and his shoulder hurt from the seatbelt, and his daddy wasn’t answering, and his backpack was on the ground, and his cookies were all mashed and….
By the time the paramedics got there, he was swinging his feet against the bottom of his seat, screaming, “Daddy! Daddy, wake up! Daddy! Daddy, wake up!” with irritating regularity.
But as he figured out later, when he was older, Grayson Waters had just suffered a massive fatal coronary and would never, ever wake up.
Collin’s mother did all right then. It was hard—Collin and his four older sisters never doubted, even once, that the love of Natalie Waters’s life was her big, bluff mechanic husband with the receding blond buzz cut and blunt fingers and the off-key voice that could sing children’s songs with a surprisingly comic lilt. But Natalie had started her own business, and everybody pitched in, waited tables, manned the grills, or helped clean up, and they always had enough to eat and they always had a place—the same place, the tiny-for-a-family-of-seven house in Levee Oaks—and they always knew they were loved.
But something in Collin seemed to have rattled out of his ears as the unmanned car had thumped across the road, jumped the curb, and smacked into the telephone pole. Some vital piece of human machinery that kept dangerous impulses in check and called strongly for self-preservation was decidedly missing. It was like Collin, even at five, had seen his father die and decided that, hell, if it was going to happen at random, it might as well be encouraged and even welcomed.
Or that was his mother’s explanation for the next thirteen years.
It was what she said the day he was six and a half, and she arrived at home just in time to watch him jump from the roof of the house to the roof of the garage to the neighbor’s hedge, because, he said, he saw a superhero do it in a movie. That earned him a trip to the hospital, a cast and a pair of crutches, and moratorium on superhero movies for the next three years. (His older sisters never forgave him for this.)
It did not, however, fix the problem.
Neither did wrecking his bike when using the garage door as a stunt-ramp (and getting thirteen stitches and an overnight stay for suspected internal damages) when he was ten.
Nor did wrecking his bike against the neighbor’s garage when he was twelve because, in his words, “We were out of ice cream, and Joanna wouldn’t get me any.”
Nor did the several near-expulsions for fighting in junior high and high school.
Nor did having his car, earned with his allowance for waiting tables in his mom’s diner, spray-painted with fucking fighting faggot in his junior year, after he came out by wearing a rainbow goalie’s jersey on the soccer field. His coach was especially pissed—he was the best goalie the team had ever had, and no amount of homophobia in the town’s history could make the guy kick Collin off the team.
No. Collin was not one to let experience get in the way of a good idea or terrifying fearlessness. His mother often, sometimes tearfully and sometimes at the top of her lungs, told him that she was going to bury him before he was twenty-five, and he would say, nonchalantly and with no apparent regret, “You know I love you. Give me a good sendoff.”
But he was not so nonchalant the day his mother and sisters came home early from the movies and found him balls-deep in Tommy Kennedy’s ass, as Tommy was bent over the dryer in the garage. He was, in fact, fairly mortified—and Tommy was downright hysterical, and not with laughter.
Tommy was the best fuckbuddy in Levee Oaks High School, though, and after Crick Francis had come out and graduated two years before, Collin had a nice little stable going to pick from too. Collin heard the garage door open and saw the halo glare of the white lights and kept pumping his hips while saying, “Just shut up, Tommy, and fucking come!” Being the gentleman that he was, he nailed Tommy’s prostate and gave him a reach-around. Tommy squealed and came all over his hand, and Collin grunted and poured himself into Tommy.
The car’s engine turned off, and Collin hugged Tommy to his chest for a moment. “Run inside, clean up, run out the front door,” he murmured. “She’s gonna be pissed at me, but she’s not gonna go gunning for you.”
Tommy ran off, all the better to live to tell the story about a zillion times in the coming months, and Collin turned to face his mother.
The girls had squeaked in disgust and run inside, missing Tommy by moments and leaving Natalie shaking her head in pained resignation.
“Aww Jesus….” Natalie sighed and kicked at the tire of the car.
Collin, for once feeling just a tad self-conscious, grabbed a towel out of the clean laundry and wrapped it around his waist.
“Aww, Jesus, Collin,” Natalie said again. “Tell me you at least used a condom?”
Collin blinked. “A condom?”
“Dammit, you took health class! You know, a condom? Syphilis, Chlamydia, HIV?”
He had taken health class, it was true. He’d slept through it, cheated on the tests, and scoffed at the just-say-no culture of fear taught in American public schools. He had not, however, been caught naked by his mother, having a piece of the local fuckbuddy tail. Maybe it was being in front of his mother, and maybe it was because eighteen was half a month away and maturity was crawling into his brain like an ant in his ear, but for some reason, a missing piece of Collin’s human machinery reasserted itself in the workings of his mind.
In that moment, he felt fear.
Jeff: Caution: Broken Heart Ahead
“IS THAT good, baby?” Kevin purred in Jeff’s ear, his thick, dusty dark brown fingers twisting savagely at Jeff’s nipples.
Jeff Beachum screamed and collapsed forward onto the pillow. Oh. My. God.
Jeff had never considered himself a size queen, but Kevin was hung like a bear on Viagra, as long as the guys in the stroke mags bragged about, thicker than a sixteen-ounce water bottle and—glory-God-mother-Mary-Jesus-crap-and-fuck—uncut, and he was ramming that monster up Jeff’s ass and gimme-hallelujah did it feel so gooooooooood….
Kevin’s chuckle was strained behind him, and Jeff screamed into the pillow again as Kev hit his prostate. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!
Jeff’s cock (modestly sized, he was the first to admit) was leaking a steady stream of pre-come into the condom, and Jeff wished for the umpteenth time that he’d thought to get tested a year ago instead of six months ago. If his twelve-month window came up clear when Kevin’s did, he’d consider going condom-free.
Kevin pulled back and slammed forward again, and Jeff whined, wriggling his ass and reaching to yank on his cock, because he wasn’t shy in the least. Kevin had gotten tested about a week before he met Jeff, so Jeff figured they had a year before they could do it bareback, and at the moment, he didn’t give a shit.
“You like that, club boy?” Kevin rasped, and Jeff whine-begged some more and wriggled his hot, tight little ass.
“Keep fucking, GI Black-Man,” Jeff panted, Kevin’s pet name maybe the last thing he could remember.
Two months before, Jeff had been outside Gatsby’s Nick, taking a smoke break and freeing himself from the sweaty crush on the dance floor. He’d been sticky, breathless, and almost giddy. Finals were over, which meant he had one year of UC Davis med school under his belt. As he was exhaling into the hot June night, a group of jack-booted jarheads thumped by, OD green T-shirts stretched wide over massive chests, heads absurdly square with their regulation buzz cuts, fatigues as crisply pressed as starched linen shirts.
Jeff had enough smoke and air left for a low whistle, and damn him and his mouth, off-limits or not, that was what he did.
He was not prepared for the biggest guy—a six-foot-five, Panzer-built black guy—to turn around and start advancing on him. Oh shit.
Jeff did what he did best: smiled ingratiatingly and cracked wise. “No offense, GI Black-Man,” he said, trying his best to look innocuous-gay and not aggressive-gay. “I was just admiring the view. Doesn’t mean I’m going to go galloping in and picking the daisies, right?”
The GI’s shirt was stretched wide over his chest, tight enough that his nipples made little tents in the mild night air. Those dark-skinned hands grabbed hold of Jeff’s best dance shirt, one of the new microfiber kind that would stretch out, and Jeff found his back up against the rough faux-brick of the club, wondering if he still remembered how to fight after all those skirmishes with his older brother. His cigarette fell from his fingers, and Kevin’s combat boot crushed it into the cement.
“Look scared.” Kevin’s voice sank to a smoky murmur, and Jeff didn’t have to fake anything—his eyes were wide, his heart was beating, and he wasn’t sure this was really happening, even a little bit at all.
“I’m not looking for trouble,” he said uncertainly, and Kevin’s eyes, huge and brown and expressively rimmed with thick black lashes, raked him from his shoulders to his knees, with a special appreciation for Jeff’s crotch in his tighter-than-breath, hip-dropping skinny jeans.
In a voice meant to be heard by his friends, who were standing nearby and watching the two of them with great amusement, Kevin barked, “Well, you found trouble, club boy!”
Jeff cringed, because Kevin’s voice was deep, and he was holding Jeff practically off the ground, and if this situation wasn’t what he was starting to think it was, he was still in a whole lot of trouble. “I meant no offense,” Jeff said, holding his hands up placatingly. One hand accidentally brushed the Marine’s stomach, and it wasn’t Jeff’s imagination: Kevin shuddered, and one side of a full, chocolate-pink mouth turned up appreciatively.
“None taken,” Kev murmured, sotto voice, and Jeff’s breath caught again. To Kev’s friends, expecting to see fear, fear was exactly what it looked like. But Kev was close enough for Jeff to feel the brush of his hip against Jeff’s cock as it tightened in his jeans, and their eyes caught and lingered in what could only be described as an instant eye-fuck.
In his “outside” voice, Kevin said, “You ’bout ready to go back inside, club boy?”
“Anything you want, GI Black-Man!” Jeff was playing the game too—his voice was scared, but his eyes were all come-hither-and-fuck-me-dammit, and Kev’s mouth twitched appreciatively.
“That’s what I thought!” he snapped in disgust and threw Jeff back against the wall again.
Jeff cracked his head and said, “Ou-uch!” in maybe his gayest voice, rubbing his head and glaring at this new dream pick-up in reproof.
Kev let his voice drop—still loud enough for his friends, but soft enough for Jeff to know he felt bad about that. “You’ll live. Just don’t let me see you here again.”
Jeff’s heart dropped, but then Kevin’s voice dropped even lower, and he added, “In about two hours. Wait for me.”
“Yes, sir!” Jeff couldn’t stop the unrepentant grin then, but Kevin rolled his eyes, shook his head, and turned around to go off with his Marine buddies, accepting their slaps on the back and attaboys for “keeping the little faggot in his place” as though he hadn’t just promised to take that “little faggot” home and fuck him silly.
Which he had proceeded to do for the next two months.
And now, one month before he shipped out on his next tour, Jeff was savoring (and screaming for) every stroke. Even though Kevin had promised forever and for always, and maybe especially because he had, Jeff wasn’t taking a single touch for granted. Especially if it was Kevin’s beautiful body, deep inside Jeff’s own.
“C’mon, club boy!” Kevin panted now. “C’mon… scream for me, dammit!”
“Yes, sir!” Jeff gasped, and then he gave his cock a particularly hard yank just as Kevin drove himself forward, grabbed Jeff around the middle, and shouted “Boo-yah!” in his ear.
There was blinding white behind the blackness in Jeff’s head, and his body shook with frozen fire, and he came hotly into his condom, the come scalding the end of his cock as it pooled.
They panted, Kevin nuzzling Jeff’s ear and chuckling in that bass rumble he had. “You like that, club boy?” he murmured, and Jeff shuddered in aftershock.
“I always like that, GI Black-Man,” Jeff told him truthfully. Even that first night, when Jeff had topped because, as Kevin said a little shyly, not everyone was ready for the full package that first night out, Jeff had loved sex with Kevin. His hands were strong and capable and absurdly gentle, and Kev’s little club boy felt cherished and protected and treasured and all of those silly things that made being in bed, touching someone’s skin, the best place in the world to be.
They shifted then, preparing to separate, and Jeff felt it—a trickle of wet, down from his asshole to his ass cheek and his lower thigh. He was still stunned, wondering what the hell that could be, when he heard Kevin’s equally stunned voice behind him.
Fuck? “Fuck what?”
“The fucking condom broke.”
Kevin’s body slid limply out of his, the remains of the rubber still wrapped tightly around the base with the shreds of the sheath stuck to the skin around it. The rest of the limpening, black-skinned length of him was still shiny from come.
Jeff turned slightly, sitting up on his knees, and he and Kevin Turner met one another’s shocked and admittedly bemused eyes. Jeff, the eternal optimist, gave a crooked grin that hid the adrenaline rush in his chest. “Well, the damned things were getting in the way anyway.”
Kevin’s massive hand came up and pushed Jeff’s head into that ginormous sweating chest. “Don’t be scared, club boy. We’ll be all right.”
Jeff closed his eyes then, relaxed into his lover, and just once ceded control of the world to the gods.
SIX months later, Jeff still couldn’t bring himself to regret that moment, not once. Not even when his test results came back positive, not when he felt compelled to quit med school, and especially not when Kevin was shipped home to Georgia in a pine box instead of home to Jeff’s arms, in the flesh.
He and Kevin had been in love. Kevin had sent letters, and he re-read them until they were in tatters, and in spite of the danger of being read, in spite of the risk of losing everything he’d worked for in the military, he had signed them, “I love you, club boy” every time.
Jeff had enough experience with sex for sex to know the difference between Kevin’s touch and other “club boys” out for a quick fuck. He’d had them, given them, enjoyed them—but wouldn’t be willing to die for them.
He’d spent two months of his life wishing he could have died for Kevin, because it sure as shit couldn’t hurt any worse than being alive without him did.
The thought consumed him one cold, loveless day in February as he waited in the CARES clinic in midtown for his consult with Herbert Schindler, MD. Herbert had been Jeff’s advisor in med school and had probably saved Jeff’s life. The day Jeff had gotten his HIV test results back—the white cell count so suddenly spiked that there was no doubt in his mind that his last month with Kevin, the month after the rubber broke, had been when he’d been exposed—he’d gone to Herbert, holding his angular jaw as stoic as he could make it, and told him he’d probably have to quit med school.
Herbert had seen the devastated young man and not the tough, bitter, aged one, and had canceled his next class and taken Jeff into his office for a sit-down.
When Jeff was done with their little chat, Herbert had steered him away from quitting entirely and along the path to be a physician’s assistant.
“Less pointy shit,” the big, bluff, balding doctor had harrumphed. “Less chance of cross-contamination, easier to get a job. Less time in medical school too.”
Even the blunt-spoken Herbert Schindler trod delicately around pointing out that, new gains in drug therapy or no, time might not be a luxury Jeff could indulge in, so that would be a factor. He didn’t have to. Jeff was a med student. He knew the facts.
The facts were that he didn’t have the insurance or the cash to keep himself alive—the drug cocktail and the viral load testing and all of that shit was expensive. For a moment he actually wondered if he would die before he had a chance to regret falling in love with Kevin Turner.
And Herbert literally saved his life.
“Here, fill this out.” He threw a chunk of paperwork across the desk at Jeff, and Jeff barely managed to reassemble the mess of it and put it neatly back in the battered manila folder.
“It’s an application to the VA hospital to be an intern. Once you’re working here, you get health insurance, regardless of prior conditions.”
“But I’m only a first year med stu—”
“Which is long enough to be an intern if you’re going to be a PA—and if you have a little help from your friends.”
“So I’m connected?” Jeff asked, impressed with himself—and with Herbert, of course.
“My boy, consider me your benefactor,” Herbert said expansively, and he had a little twinkle in his eye, so Jeff took a risk that maybe he could crack a joke.
“So, sort of like a godfather to a fairy?” He amplified his “gay,” flopping his wrist and trilling, and Herbert laughed good-naturedly.
“No hitting on me,” he said with a totally straight face. “My wife gets jealous.”
Jeff had laughed then with complete relief. He’d enjoyed Herbert’s class—had, in fact, been one of the few students to suspect that Dr. Schindler had a wicked sense of humor underneath his rather placid exterior, and it was wonderful to “play” a little with a friend. “Well, sugar, it’s a good thing you told me that. You give me this much help, and my inner flirt is going to peek out.”
Herbert raised an eyebrow, and Jeff flushed, and then Herbert grinned—out-and-out grinned—and said, “I think your inner flirt needs to stay in your pants where it belongs, young man. Those things tend to get into trouble when you let them off their leash. I should know. I have six kids.”
Jeff had laughed for a minute, and then, just that suddenly, swallowed and looked his professor in the eye. “I don’t know, Dr. Schindler. It looks like you sort of adopted me too.”
Herbert Schindler’s mouth turned ever so slightly. “I hope someone would do the same for one of my sons,” he said softly, and Jeff had nodded with a lump in his throat. He hoped so, too, with all his heart. Anyone who did this much good in the world deserved to know his nearest and dearest were well taken care of.
He’d thought so even more two months after that, when Kevin’s buddy, the only one who knew Kevin’s big, gay secret, had called Jeff from a satellite phone to tell Jeff that Kevin was dead.
Jeff had shown up on Herbert’s doorstep—literally, his home doorstep—at two in the morning and, after apologizing profusely, had sobbed his heart out for over an hour. He hadn’t known whom else to turn to. All of his club friends had turned out to be just that—“club friends”—and as for his own family?
He’d shuddered when Herbert had suggested, delicately, that Jeff might want to have some family support. After that Herbert had simply sat on his couch as his wife brought him coffee and a pillow and cradled Jeff’s head against his chest like the father he was while Jeff, funny Jeff, who was never without a smile and a quick story or a smart-assed remark, wished that AIDS happened quick, like a hand-grenade to the heart, because that would be a mercy killing. A mercy killing was, as Jeff tried miserably to joke, the only thing he could think of to live for.
Over the next couple months he learned to find other things. Small things, it was true, but they worked.
A week after Kevin’s funeral, which Jeff didn’t attend, since A. it was in Georgia, and Jeff couldn’t afford to go and B. Kevin hadn’t been out to his family, and Jeff wouldn’t out him when he wasn’t alive to make the decision himself, Herbert’s wife had shown up with soup and a kitten.
Jeff hadn’t eaten in about a week—something his current drug cocktail was making easy—but if he’d thought that exempted him from Mrs. Schindler’s matzo ball soup, he was wrong.
Unlike the visit, which Herbert had warned him about, the kitten was a surprise.
The kitten was a Scottish Fold—the kind with the weird folded ears and bug-eyed faces—and it threatened to be the size of a Labrador retriever when it grew up. Mrs. Schindler had pulled the steel-gray fuzzball out of a cat carrier and sat it in Jeff’s arms while she heated the soup.
Jeff had looked at the creature, which was both pitifully cute and adorably ugly, and the cat had blinked slowly back. “Mrs. Doc Herbert, I hope you don’t mind if I ask you what in the hell this is?”
“It’s a cat,” she said, ruthlessly taking over his student efficiency apartment and setting his one pot up on the hotplate to heat up the soup. She was a squat, mid-sized woman who favored polyester pantsuits worn over wide hips and had short, dyed black hair. She also had really kind, expressive brown eyes. When Jeff had fallen asleep on her couch the night he’d found out about Kevin, he’d woken up covered in a blanket with a box of tissues and two ibuprofen on the coffee table, and a cat purring on his hip with enough force to vibrate the windows.
He liked cats. In fact, he liked this one, but, “They’re not allowed in this dump,” he had to tell her, a little wistfully. The kitten had taken up a determined purring on his chest, and he found that, although his heart still felt empty, the purring was warming the empty place.
Mrs. Doc Herbert had shrugged. “So find another place. Your internship is paid—you’re no longer a starving student, and you are almost officially a grown-up. Get a house—”
“I hate yard work.”
She shrugged. “Get a condo with a pool, then. Just make sure it takes pets.”
Jeff looked at the purring thing on his chest again. It seemed like an awfully small deal for which to turn his life upside down. Then he looked around his apartment. Kevin had practically lived here those three months before he’d shipped out. Jeff had kept one of his long-sleeved dress shirts in his closet, and Kevin had slipped a couple of OD green T-shirts in his drawer the day he’d left. They’d taken pictures in that last week, stealing the camera from each other to get candid photos, and finally, one of the two of them, taken from the length of Kev’s long arm as they’d lain in bed. Jeff had had the picture developed and framed before Kevin had shipped out and had given Kev a wallet-sized one. The picture—Kev grinning wickedly into the camera, Jeff peeking shyly (a surprise, for Jeff) out at the lens from Kevin’s cheek—sat next to his bed.
He didn’t want to leave this apartment. Kevin was here.
His eyes watered up then, and he wrapped his hands around the kitten in preparation to give it back, and then Mrs. Doc Herbert read his mind and wrapped her fingers around his.
“Baby, you have to find a reason to eat. A reason to wake up and take your meds, and throw up, and take them again. You have to find a reason to go to work, and then go to school, and then go home again. The reasons are out there—and you’re tougher than you act, so I know you’ll find them. But right now, this is your reason.”
The kitten, feeling the possibility of having to leave, dug in its claws and meowed imperiously. Jeff swallowed and looked apologetically at the little fuzzball. “No offense,” he told it, “but you’re not much of a reason.”
The kitten sniffed at him and shrugged, then dug in, as if to say, “Take it or leave it, asshole. You’re the one contemplating annihilation by apathy.” Or maybe that was just his conscience speaking. The gay man’s trill was a little bit similar.
Jeff frowned at the creature again. “Please tell me it’s a boy,” he said.
Mrs. Schindler rolled her eyes. “Oh please, Jeff. Like I’d even try to get a girl in your bed.”
Jeff choke-snorted, and the kitten grumbled—an honest-to-God grumble—and dug in a little deeper with his claws, and Mrs. Schindler served up the matzo ball soup. Before she left, Jeff got the recipe, because sometimes, when the drug “therapy” got too bad, it was the only thing he could keep down.
That was how he made it. Six months after diagnosis, there he was, waiting for a consult with Herbert as his favorite doc did his one day a week at the CARES clinic in midtown Sacramento, and wandering restively around the lobby. There was a big bay window looking out into a not hideous (but not bum-free either) neighborhood at midtown, but the day was gray and cheerless, and Jeff was experiencing a sudden case of the fidgets.
He’d been told to counsel some of his patients with hand or arm problems to take up knitting, and he’d taken it up himself, to see what muscle groups it affected. He found himself missing his knitting—he honestly thought he might become one of those obnoxious gay men who brought their knitting in public, just to keep him from the feeling that the clock was ticking at odd hours of the day with nothing to fill the time.
On his third pass around the room with a stop at the water cooler, he found he had company.
It was a kid—barely legal, but pretty. He had a strong jaw, a faintly crooked nose, probably from fights, and dark blond hair, combed smooth and long on either side of his face to that strong jaw. His eyes were mostly light brown, with gold flecks and surprisingly dark lashes.
He walked like an alpha dog, all shoulders, and Jeff thought that if he’d met this kid clubbing six or seven years ago, he probably would have gone out in back with him to take it against the wall, because Jesus, this kid was a stunner.
And he walked like he owned the world, and that had always turned Jeff’s key. The rainbow bracelet around his bony, still-growing wrist was especially attractive.
Jeff shook off that moment of attraction, feeling like a dirty old perv, and looked a little deeper, because as much as he walked like he owned the world, the kid’s eyes kept darting, in spite of his best intentions, and he must have swallowed about a thousand times since he’d stood up to keep pace with Jeff in their little trot around the room.
Jeff sighed. He liked to think of himself as a selfish bastard, really, but given the kindness he’d gotten—not only from Dr. Schindler, but from the entire staff of the VA hospital, who had accepted him like he hadn’t been a charity case of everybody’s favorite doc—he sort of felt like he owed it to the world to change his approach to life a little.
Besides, he was discovering, as he worked his internship in physical therapy, that he liked helping people. He enjoyed it. He was still a selfish bastard, but he selfishly got off on helping people, and that carried over, even into the CARES lobby when you were waiting to see how your HIV drug therapy was working.
He got the kid a paper cup of water and said, “Kid, you wanna come outside? I know it’s cold, but I’m falling asleep in here.”
The kid’s relief had color, taste, and smell. He looked up at the still-pretty, middle-aged woman sitting in the middle, reading a cooking magazine like it was homework, and said, “Mom, I’m gonna step outside, ’kay? It’ll be another fifteen minutes, right?”
The woman pursed her lips. “Collin, we can’t be late for this….”
The kid closed his eyes and nodded. “Five minutes, Mom. I swear. Just… just….” He swallowed again. “Just let me get some air, ’kay?”
The woman nodded. “That’s fine, baby. Just don’t run away.” She said it like it was a real possibility.
Collin grimaced and walked back to her, kissing her on the cheek and showing honest affection. Jeff couldn’t help it—he heard what the boy said. “I’ve put you through enough, Mom. I just want some air, I promise.”
They got outside, and Jeff figured he’d take a couple of chances. This kid had five minutes to get his head together, and he obviously wanted Jeff’s help.
“Are you as gay as you look?” the kid asked, and Jeff had to laugh. He thought he could be tactless.
“Is there any way to be not as gay as I look?” he asked, honestly curious, and the kid laughed a little himself. Jeff was wearing jeans—tight, tight jeans, because he didn’t have any other kind, and if he had to do an hour of sit-ups a morning, he was going to keep fitting into those damned skinny jeans no matter what the drug cocktail did to his body. He was wearing a V-necked, faux-cashmere sweater in turquoise blue and bright, shiny leather loafers with pretty tassels, because he liked them, dammit, and he was gay, and gayness had its privileges.
The kid laughed and pulled out a pack of cigarettes as they got to the outside wall. Jeff almost pointed out that the no smoking ban extended around the perimeter of the building and then figured that it was, perhaps, the last thing the kid needed to hear. Besides, Jeff promised himself one a day, and it looked like he’d get his early this day.
“These are bad for you,” he pointed out gently, taking the second to last one from the pack. Camel, unfiltered. He shook his head. Figured. This would have to be two days worth of smoke—he hoped the kid made this good.
Collin grunted, took the last one, and crumpled the empty pack in his hand. “I know. I told my mom I’d smoke one a day, you know? That way I could keep my will to live.”
Collin held out a lighter, and Jeff puffed appreciatively and then stepped back and leaned against the wall. Collin lit his own and Jeff sighed again, exhaling smoke. Ah… unfiltered nicotine. It was like eating real chocolate mousse when you’d been eating the kind that was actually non-fat yogurt for a couple of months.
“I know what you mean,” he said, enjoying the rush. “Sometimes, it’s the little shit that gets you out of bed in the morning.”
The kid nodded. “You know, last month, I had to tell everyone I’d ever slept with or kissed or given head to or gotten a blow-job from that I was positive and they needed to get tested. I ran away first.”
Jeff caught his breath with the simplicity of that. Who wouldn’t want to run away before he had to do that? “What made you come back?”
Collin took a deep drag of his cigarette, his cheeks hollowing and his high cheekbones standing out in relief. He looked suddenly old in that moment, old and hard and dangerous, and Jeff thought that if he’d never met Kevin, this kid would have rung his bell but good, dirty-old- man shame or no.
“My mom. All the shit I put her through? Man, if she could hug me and call me her boy after all of that….” He shook his head. “If she could do that, the least I could do is ball the fuck up, right?”
Jeff nodded. He liked this kid. Brave, responsible—but with that core of bad boy that had made Kevin’s wicked eyes in that jarhead uniform oh-so-irresistible. But Jeff’s raw and bleeding heartstrings weren’t what was at issue here.
“How was it?” Jeff asked softly. That was really what the kid had wanted to talk about, wasn’t it? Why else pick an obviously gay man to confide in?
“It sucked,” Collin whispered, shaky on the exhale this time. “We were all so tight, yanno? All the queer kids, fucking each other silly because we could. It… we just felt invincible. Like, we were only fucking each other, so where were we going to get AIDS, right?”
Jeff didn’t correct the fact that it was HIV in this stage and not AIDS. When you were what, seventeen? Eighteen? Whatever—you weren’t going to appreciate the difference, and you sure as hell weren’t going to appreciate the lecture.
“How bad?” Jeff asked softly.
Collin shrugged and looked away. “Well, none of them are talking to me now—you know. Like I was the only one fucking around, right? And only two of, like, ten got tested, and they’re positive, and their parents just… just took them out of school before graduation, like they were plutonium or something. And no one mentioned a thing—not a single fucking thing. It’s like it doesn’t exist.” Collin shook his head, clearly bewildered. “I mean, fuck. Some of those guys weren’t out—they have girlfriends, and the girls are just walking around, not knowing that the guy giving it to them might be HIV because he felt like getting frisky in the bathroom or behind the gym after a dance or what-the-fuck-ever. And I just….”
Jeff turned his head, and Collin made eye contact. “I’m just so fucking lonely, you know? My dad died when I was a kid, and my mom… she busted her ass so we could have a good life, and I just pissed it all away, and I don’t want to even talk to her about it… about any of it… because I already put her through enough….”
Ah, damn. The kid had thought he was tough, hadn’t he? He had—and now he was fighting to be tough, not to cry, to keep his chin square, and Jeff thought if he was any more goddamned tough, he’d blow apart like a pane of damaged glass. Collin sucked hard on his butt one more time and then ground it out under his waffle-stomper in the weed-filled fine gravel on the side of the brick building.
He took a few more breaths and then said, apologetically, “That’s the end of the smoke, right? Time’s up?”
Jeff followed suit with his own cigarette, although it was only half gone. “C’mere, baby,” he said softly, and opened his arms, and suddenly he had an armload of terrified teenager.
“You listen to me,” he whispered fiercely. “You talk to your mom, because she wants to know. She won’t be able to help, but you’ll feel better, okay? Just fucking talk to her. She drove you to the goddamned clinic and is making you take this like a man—she’ll get it.” Collin’s arms tightened convulsively around his shoulders, and Jeff could sense a strangled full-body sob. “You’re one lucky kid, you know that? You got your mom. You got family. You be grateful to them, and you let them help you, you hear me?”
Collin nodded, and that pointy chin dug once into Jeff’s shoulder, and then they could both hear his pocket buzz. His mom, Jeff thought, probably texting him because his appointment was up.
Collin backed away, and Jeff missed his warmth against the chill of the day almost immediately. “Thanks,” he said, wiping his face with the back of his hand. “I mean, just some random stranger, dumping all over you….”
Jeff waved a hand. “No worries, baby. Go on in, your mom’s gonna freak, ’kay?”
Collin nodded once, awkwardly, and backed up before hurrying away. Jeff watched him go, feeling his chest tighten and an absurd quiver to his chin. Oh, God. He wanted more than anything to call his mama and tell her everything.
But even if he did, it wouldn’t solve a thing. He leaned his hands on his thighs and squatted heavily in the February fog, trying to get his bearings and shoulder the load he’d been given. He had a condo that he loved, with a gym and a pool, and a shit load of houseplants and a gi-fucking-normous cat named Constantine who insisted that if Jeff were not there to give him luvvies, the world would fall apart. He had a dinner a month with the Herbert Schindlers, and patients who had started leaving him thank-you cards, and a promising profession doing something it looked like he might love very-much-a-lot. He had a promising white cell count and a low-dose drug cocktail instead of a high-dose one, and if he had to do an extra zillion and a half sit-ups to keep his girlish figure, well, so-the-fuck-be-it.
He was doing fine, thank you.
But still, that didn’t keep him from wishing with all his heart on days like this, and not for things like a cup of hot chocolate either. So he let himself wish, telling himself he was a fool, because wishes—especially his wishes—were the kind that wouldn’t come true. The permission didn’t help: as much as he wished he could go back in time and get a condom that wouldn’t break, or warn Kevin about the ambush in the road, or even warn himself not to take a smoke break on a muggy June night, he couldn’t help but add one more wish in the wishing star hat before he straightened up and swished like a man into the clinic for his consult.
It wasn’t wrong to wish for one more glimpse of that absurdly beautiful, heartbroken kid who walked like he owned the world, was it?