Introduction

 

 

“Tennis? You can’t be serious.”

Trevor scowled at him. “Put up or shut up, jock boy.”

Bryan laughed. “Uh, okay, but it’s not gonna prove anything. Tennis ain’t even a real sport. It’s like golf—even girls play it.”

“Last time I checked, girls play basketball too. And ya better not let Dad hear ya dissin’ golf.”

Trevor referred to Jeff and Brett as his parents even though he wasn’t really their kid. He was their son Adam’s boyfriend and had been accepted as a member of the family. Bryan, too, was already beginning to feel similarly about them. He had immediately hit it off with both Adam and Trevor, but he still felt a bit awkward. He was the only member of the “family” who didn’t play tennis. Brett’s passions were golf and football, and Adam was into baseball, but as a family, their only shared athletic interest was tennis.

Trevor had taken him to the sporting goods store, and they were picking out his new racket. Bryan didn’t want to sound like a complete dummy, but he honestly had no idea what he was doing.

When Bryan arrived in Florida, he instantly felt as if the loving and accepting environment he’d stepped into was paradise. He was embraced and encouraged by every member of the family, and within days he felt right at home. But he still battled with his inner demons. He still had days when he hated himself and wished he’d never been born.

“Distortions,” Jeff had explained. “You have negative core beliefs, and you’ve got to root them out. Identify them and challenge them.”

“But how?”

“Well, for example, when you think, ‘My life sucks,’ you have to tell yourself it’s not true. Sit down and make a list of all the things in your life that don’t suck. You’ll see that many times it’s just a matter of looking at the glass as being half full.”

“I wish it were that easy,” he confessed.

“No, depression’s not easy, and people who trivialize it are speaking out of ignorance. But you’re strong, Bryan. And you’ve got a lot of support. We all love you and know you’re an amazing guy. We just gotta get you to see yourself the way we see you.”

For the most part, Bryan was pretty upbeat. He didn’t wallow around in self-pity, and he did a fairly good job of concealing the occasional low mood he did experience. Antidepressants also helped. He played on the university basketball team and had a full academic schedule. That didn’t leave him a whole lot of time to feel sorry for himself.

He really didn’t want to have the negative thoughts. He didn’t want to feel blue, and he was making every effort to treat his depressive condition as an illness. That was how Jeff had explained it, and the doctor said the same thing. He wasn’t crazy; he just had a medical condition, and it wasn’t uncommon. Being in the environment he was in, he knew he was getting the help he needed to get better.

“Have you played before?” Trevor asked.

“Uh, sure. Of course I’ve played.”

“Cool. Go ahead and pick out a racket, then.”

Bryan looked down at the selection, totally lost. “All right. Well, this one here looks good.”

“You sure you want that one? Let me see your grip?”

Bryan stared at him with a look of confusion.

“Take hold of the handle like this,” Trevor said. “Now slide your index finger of your other hand in between the tips of your fingers and your palm. There, like that. No, that’s too small of a grip. You need a racquet with a thicker handle.”

“I do?” Tennis was beginning to seem more complicated than Bryan had imagined.

“Now, there are several other factors to consider when choosing a racquet.”

“How about you just pick one out for me?”

“You sure? I thought you said it was a sissy sport. You sure you trust my judgment?”

Bryan slugged him playfully, laughing. “Okay. I take it back. Are you gonna teach me or what?”

Trevor drove Bryan to the country club. It was the golf course where his dads had memberships. “Just a word of warning,” Trevor cautioned, “there’s a lot of snobs who come here. Technically, they don’t discriminate, but once in a while there’ll be someone who gives attitude ’cause our dads are gay.”

“Then why do you come here?” Bryan asked. Why support a place that condoned discrimination of any kind?

“Well, like I said, officially they’re inclusive. It’s like anywhere else. Even at school you’re gonna run into a homophobe every now and then. They have a zero-tolerance policy, but you can’t always fix stupid.”

“I hear that.”

“One thing about this place, though, is that money trumps all other factors. Regardless of race or orientation or whatever, if you’re perceived as rich, everything’s cool.”

Bryan made a face. “I’m not sure I like that any better than the homophobia.”

Trevor turned to look at him. “Man, there’s something you should know about me. I’m not some rich kid. I grew up in a trailer park, and I hate that kind of snobbery. Adam’s not like that either, and neither are Dad and Father.”

“Why do you call them that? Just to tell them apart?”

“I think of ’em as my dads, and when Adam was growing up, he called Jeff ‘Father’ and Brett ‘Dad.’ That’s how he always referred to them, and I guess I just got used to hearing it. But if you wanna call them by their first names, I’m sure they wouldn’t care.”

“Ya know, my dad’s pretty cool, and if not for my mom, I bet he wouldn’t even care I’m gay.”

“Maybe he’ll come around, then.”

“I doubt it. My mom would kill him if he went against anything she said. She thinks I’m on my way straight to hell. She even got the church to send me a letter when I was staying at Evan’s house. It said they were removing me from their membership because of my immoral lifestyle.”

Trevor reached over and squeezed Bryan’s hand. “Dude, I’m sorry. But ya know, if you wanna go to church with us, you’re welcome. Father goes every Sunday, and sometimes Adam and me go with him.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Not all churches hate gay people, ya know.”

“I think Adam’s pretty lucky.”

Trevor smiled at him. “Nah. I’m the lucky one.”

“I think you’re both lucky to have each other.”

“True dat, but hey, you just got here. I bet you’ll meet someone.”

Bryan shook his head. After what had happened between his ex-boyfriend Liam and him, he didn’t want to get his hopes up. Besides, he had to focus on his education and his mental health. The last thing he needed was another heartbreak. He didn’t think he was strong enough to go through that again.

Trevor led him into the club, where they signed in. He gave Bryan the grand tour, showing him the points of interest, including the bar, the main dining room, the gym, pool, sauna, driving range, golf pro shop, and finally the locker room.

“You can share my locker today,” Trevor offered, “unless you want your own.”

“I’ll share.”

Trevor opened the locker and tossed his duffel inside, then removed his lightweight jacket. Bryan did the same, and once their personal items were locked up, Trevor led the way out to the courts. Trevor actually proved to be an excellent teacher, and he very patiently explained everything to Bryan.

“Dude, you’re pretty good, for it being your first time.”

“You think so? But you kicked my ass.”

“Duh. Of course I kicked your ass, but just ’cause I’m awesome doesn’t mean you’re not good.”

“Gee, thanks.” Bryan turned to glance over at Trevor as they headed back to the locker room. They both were dripping with sweat. Just as Bryan turned his head, a tall guy about his age walked through the door, carrying a bottle of water. Bryan collided with him, causing the guy’s water bottle to slosh onto his polo shirt.

“Dude! Watch where the fuck you’re goin’.”

Bryan stepped back and looked at the guy, sizing him up. He flushed as a wave of anger surged through him. He could tell the guy was one of those snobs Trevor had warned him about, just by the way he was dressed and the way his hair was so perfectly coiffed.

“Chill out, dude. It was an accident.”

“Maybe if you paid attention where you were walking, dude!”

Bryan had an urge to slug him. What an arrogant fuck.

“Greg,” Trevor said, quickly stepping between them. “We’re sorry ’bout that. It was my fault, really.” Bryan looked over at Trevor. Apparently he knew the guy. “Greg, this is Bryan. He’s with me, and it’s his first time here.”

Greg glared at him. “Hmm, well… look, sorry I freaked out. It’s just been, ya know, one of those days.”

“I hear ya,” Trevor said. “Are you all right?”

The tall, slender tennis player sighed. He was carrying a racquet bag and a duffel and was dressed in tennis sneakers and shorts. And his legs—well, they looked fine. Bryan took in the sight of him. Obviously he had money, and there was no doubt he was a cocky, stuck-up bastard, but with looks like that, no wonder he was a bit on the arrogant side.

He held his hand out to Bryan. “Can we start over?”

Bryan took a deep breath, then extended his hand. “Sure,” he said begrudgingly.

“Bryan’s staying at Adam’s house, and he’s going to University of Tampa. He’s a basketball player.”

“Seriously? That’s awesome. And you brought him here to teach him how to play a real sport?”

Bryan’s opinion of the guy lowered yet another degree. He glared at the pompous ass as Trevor laughed. “Hey, Bry’s kind of sensitive about that sort of thing. And I gotta tell ya, he did awesome for his first time on the court.”

“Oh yeah?” Greg looked Bryan in the eye, then trailed his gaze down Bryan’s body. Bryan felt like he was being sized up, and gulped nervously.

“We gotta go,” he said. “It was nice meeting you.”

“You too, man.”

“Sorry ’bout your, uh, peach-colored polo shirt. Hope it didn’t get stained.”

Greg shook his head. “It was just water, and it isn’t peach. It’s honey.”

Bryan raised his eyebrows. “Okay. Well, see ya round.”

“Maybe next time on the court,” Greg suggested. “A little friendly competition, maybe.”

“Maybe… or maybe not.”

Greg turned to Trevor. “Well, man, good to see ya again. You take care.”

They made their way into the showers, cleaned up, got dressed, and then headed out to the car. As they were walking across the parking lot, Bryan turned to Trevor. “Who was that guy? What an asshole.”

“Greg? Oh, actually he’s a pretty nice guy, and he’s a hell of an athlete. He’s probably gonna go pro.”

“Seems a bit snobby to me.”

“You think? Seemed to me he kinda liked you. Didn’t you notice the way he was checking you out?”

“Trust me, I don’t wanna be checked out by guys like him.”

Trevor laughed as he approached the car. He clicked a button to release the door locks. “Is that why you were reading every inch of his body like a menu?”

“Shut up, I was not.” Trevor opened the door and slid into the car. Bryan got in the passenger side. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Didn’t you hear the way he was talking to me? He has an attitude or something, like I’m beneath him.”

“Or maybe he just thinks you’re hot.”

Bryan felt his cheeks getting warm. “You said he’s going pro?”

“I’m not sure. You should ask him the next time we’re here.”

“Is he… ya know….”

“Does he hit for our team? Yeah, totally. He’s head of the LGBT advocacy group at UT.”

“Well, he’s not my type. I don’t like tennis jocks.”

“Ah, I see. That’s probably a good thing, ’cause it seems like he didn’t much care for basketball jocks either.”

“Good! I wouldn’t want a guy like that being interested in me anyway.”

But for some reason, Bryan couldn’t stop thinking about him for the rest of the ride home.

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

“And how is your mood?”

Bryan looked up, albeit briefly, into the gray-blue eyes that seemed to be reading him like a book. If there was one thing he’d learned over the past year, it was how to get unwelcome attention. Very simple, actually. Just steal your parents’ 9 mm with the intention of offing yourself. That little stunt had netted him months of ongoing therapy, a lifetime supply of happy pills, and a litany of labels he’d probably never be able to shake.

Nutcase. Whacko. Mentally unstable. Depressed.

Oddly, the one person he’d hoped would understand—his mom—didn’t even seem to care. To her, it had been further confirmation that Bryan’s life had completely derailed. She’d chalked up his thwarted suicide attempt to yet another symptom of his immorality. He’d turned his back on the Christian family values she and his father had tried to instill in him, and had exchanged them for a sinful homosexual lifestyle.

Now here he was in a different state, trying to begin a whole new life, but as a condition of moving, he had to continue with this pointless counseling. Sitting in the office of a brand-new therapist, this his second visit, he had to somehow convince “Hank” that he no longer had an overwhelming urge to hurl himself in front of a moving bus or leap from the closest tall building.

Dr. Weston had insisted he and Bryan be on a first-name basis, and so Bryan addressed him as Hank. Yet it didn’t feel quite right, the man being old enough to be his father. And to be honest, Bryan really didn’t want to be the doctor’s friend. He didn’t want to bare his soul to this person he hardly knew. He just wanted to be left alone so he could put the past behind him and get on with his life.

“Bryan?” Hank leaned forward in his chair, resting his elbows on his knees, and stared directly into Bryan’s eyes.

Bryan looked away, then shrugged. “Good.”

“Good?”

“My mood. It’s fine.”

“Bryan, how are you feeling right now?”

He resisted the urge to roll his eyes and forced himself to stare at the doctor’s face. One thing he’d figured out was that these counselors liked eye contact. If you didn’t stare at them, they thought you were hiding something, that you were dishonest or untrustworthy. Truth was, it just made him nervous. When he looked directly at someone, it was difficult to construct any kind of coherent thought. He seemed to forget how to speak like a normal person, and the words got tangled around his tongue. He could express himself much better if he didn’t feel like the other person was staring at him, hanging on his every syllable.

So he’d learned a little trick. He looked directly at their forehead, or sometimes their eyebrows. Focusing on that one thing seemed to help, and they always thought he was looking into their eyes like they were doing to him.

“I’m okay,” Bryan answered.

“Rate your depression for me, Bryan. On a scale of one to ten, ten being severely depressed, how do you feel today, at this minute?”

Why did these counselors think it was normal to use a person’s name in every sentence? Real people didn’t talk like that. And they sure as hell didn’t ask each other to rate their feelings.

“Four, I guess.”

“So a little down, but not bad?”

“Yeah. Um, I’m not thinking of doing anything foolish… again.”

“Good.” The doctor’s sober expression seemed to belie the pleasant lilt in his voice. “And how about school? You getting settled in all right?”

“I’ve only had a week of classes, but it seems fine.”

“Making new friends?”

“Uh… sure.”

“You don’t sound too convincing.”

He took a deep breath and then refocused on the doctor’s hairline. Maybe he wasn’t that old. Thirty-five, perhaps. Hank was a friend of Adam’s father. A gay-affirming therapist. One of the best, or so they’d told Bryan.

“I haven’t met a lot of people yet. Like I said, this is only my second week.”

“Have you considered possibly joining the LGBT student union? They have an advocacy group on campus.”

“Maybe.”

That was the group Trevor had mentioned, the one headed by that tennis star, Greg. Bryan didn’t think it’d really be something that would interest him, especially not since Greg was the president.

“I think it might help if you became active in something. What about basketball? I know you played in high school.”

Bryan had already decided he wouldn’t even try out for the team. His hopes of an athletic scholarship had vanished when he messed things up back in high school, and his heart just wasn’t in it. Fortunately, most of his tuition was covered by the scholarship Jeff had gotten him. He wanted to get a job and at least make an effort to pay something for his room and board. Jeff and Brett were letting him live in their home, which saved him a fortune.

“I’m looking for a job, actually. Not sure how much time I’ll have for sports between studying and work.”

“Well, Bryan, that’s very noble. Staying focused on your education is important, but maintaining a social life is also important, especially to your mental health. I don’t want you to recede into yourself. I think that could add to your depression.”

They didn’t get it. No one did. Being depressed wasn’t something directly linked to how many friends he had. He’d had all kinds of people in his life back in Michigan, and yet he’d been suicidal. It wasn’t about how many people were around him. It was about feeling alone. Did that even make sense?

“Trevor and Adam are my friends, and we do a lot of stuff together.” Bryan felt like he had to defend himself all of a sudden, prove he wasn’t a complete social retard.

The doctor nodded. “They’re Jeff and Brett’s sons?”

“Adam is. Trevor’s his boyfriend, but he lives there too.”

“Bryan, I want you to do something for me. Something that might be outside your comfort zone.” Why was this man talking to him like they were best friends? “Over the course of this coming week, before our next scheduled session, I want you to make an effort to connect with someone outside your home. Strike up a conversation. Go to a movie. Talk to a classmate, maybe go out for a Coke or a bite to eat.”

Bryan’s pulse quickened a bit at the mere thought. “Um… you act like I’m antisocial or something. You know, in high school I was popular. I had a lot of friends.” So why then was this so difficult?

Hank nodded, leaning forward a little more. “Absolutely, Bryan. I don’t doubt that for a second, which is why I don’t think I’m asking too much of you. It’s not like you’re an introvert. Think of it like riding a bike or driving a car. After you’ve suffered a fall or had an accident, it can be scary to get back on that bike or behind that wheel and go again. And I think that’s what’s happened with you. You’ve started to recede into yourself.”

Bryan shook his head, willing himself to fend off the tears that were beginning to well in his eyes. He took a deep breath and straightened his posture. “You just don’t get it,” he mumbled.

“Then tell me, Bryan. Please.”

How could he tell this man something he didn’t even understand himself? How could he begin to put it into words? He’d gone from being one of the most popular kids in school to being an outcast. His own parents had rejected him, thrown him out on the streets. It was more than just falling off a bike. He’d had a complete wipeout.

“I’m not the same person I used to be. Things are different now.”

“I don’t agree with you, Bryan.” Hank reached out and placed his hand on top of Bryan’s. “Sure, you’ve changed. We all do, and it’s a part of life. But at your core, you’re not all that different. You’ve just matured somewhat. We’ve just got to find a way to convince you that the person you’ve always been is perfectly fine… just the way you are.”

 

 

“How’d it go?” Jeff smiled as he glanced over to Bryan, who’d just plopped himself into the passenger seat of the Prius.

Bryan shrugged. “Okay, I guess. He gave me this prescription.” He held it up for Jeff to see.

“Oh, let’s swing by the pharmacy and pick it up on the way home.”

“Uh, you don’t have to. I mean, if it’s out of the way….”

“It’s no problem.” Jeff smiled. “I need to pick up a couple things while we’re there anyway.”

When they got to the drugstore, Jeff accompanied Bryan to the pharmacy counter, where they handed the clerk the prescription along with Bryan’s insurance card. The middle-aged woman adjusted her glasses as she read over the scrip. Bryan wondered how she could even make sense of it. The handwriting looked like chicken scratch. The corners of her mouth curled as she looked up to make eye contact with Bryan. “Very well, I’ll run this through, and it’ll be about fifteen, twenty minutes.”

What did people like that think of him? She probably wondered exactly how crazy he was to need antidepressant medication. That smile of hers was one of sympathy… or pity. He bit his lower lip and responded with a nod, then turned to Jeff.

“Come on. Let’s browse.” Jeff clasped a hand around Bryan’s shoulder and offered an affectionate squeeze. Apparently he’d picked up on the nonverbal exchange.

As they were casually perusing the aisles, Bryan hung close to Jeff, but they didn’t immediately speak.

“There’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Jeff finally said. “I was on meds like that myself at one time.”

“You were?”

Jeff turned to him, looking right into his face, and this time Bryan didn’t feel the need to break the eye contact. “I was about your age when I lost my mom. Well, actually, a couple years younger.”

“She died?”

Jeff nodded. “And a bunch of other tragic things occurred. I thought my world was coming to an end. Fortunately, that was around the time I met Brett.”

“Yeah, I remember from the play.” My best friend, Evan, had starred in a play about Jeff and Brett called Dumb Jock. Evan’s boyfriend, Noah, wrote the play after learning that Jeff and Brett had been students at our high school and Brett had come out to the entire school at a sports banquet the end of his junior year.

“Well, after Mom passed, I lived with my gram, but my relationship with my dad wasn’t good. Even though I had Brett, I still struggled with a lot of grief issues, so my gram got me into counseling. And it helped. It really did, and so did the meds.”

“But I haven’t had a tragedy like that. Sometimes I… uh… I feel depressed and I don’t even know why.”

“And I think that’s what the medicine is for. It’ll help.”

“Maybe I’m just crazy.”

Jeff placed his hands on Bryan’s shoulders and looked at him seriously. “You are not crazy. Depression is a treatable medical condition. Brett takes medicine for his heartburn and blood pressure, and this is no different.”

“It just feels weird. This is the third prescription I’ve had since….”

“Sometimes it takes a bit of trial and error before they find the right medication.”

Just then they heard Bryan’s name over the loudspeaker. “That was quick,” Jeff said, and they headed together back to the pharmacy.

“I’m sorry, but the insurance card has been denied,” the clerk said, handing the card back to Bryan.

“Really? Are you sure?”

She nodded, frowning. “I’m sorry.”

“Wait,” Jeff said. “Bryan, this is your parents’ policy, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.”

“Bryan’s only eighteen,” he said, addressing the clerk. “I know for a fact kids can remain on their parents’ policies until they’re twenty-six. It’s part of the healthcare law.”

She offered a sympathetic smile, then removed her glasses. “Yes, sir. That’s correct, providing the parent chooses to do so.”

“Why wouldn’t they? It’s a group family policy, and it won’t cost them a cent to keep their son covered.”

“You’d have to contact them, I suppose,” she said. “All I know is that his name is not on the policy, and the prescription coverage was denied.”

Bryan sighed. How embarrassing. “It’s okay.”

“No, it’s not okay. How much is it?”

“Let me check, sir.” She stepped over to her computer and then returned to the counter a few seconds later. “The prescription is three sixty seven.”

“Three dollars and sixty-seven cents?” Bryan reached for his wallet. “I’ve got that….”

“Three hundred sixty-seven dollars,” she clarified.

Bryan froze.

Jeff pulled out his wallet and handed her a credit card.

“Mr. Irwin! Er, Jeff. No, I can’t….”

“You need your medicine. I’ll call your parents when we get home. We’ll get it worked out.”

“I don’t know what to say.” He couldn’t believe the man’s generosity, especially after he’d already done so much. “I’ll pay you back. I promise.”

“We’ll talk about it later.” He placed his hand on Bryan’s shoulder. “Don’t worry about it.”