This Story is works of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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Chapter 8: The Lake
The lodge turned out to be a picturesque little cottage that stood on its own by the banks of the lake. It was no more than a split log cabin, a two storey hunting lodge built on a gently undulating escarpment that formed the slope surrounding the lake's edge. From a distance, the cottage looked quite forlorn against the vast backdrop of forest and mountains. There was a picket fence around it on three sides, and was open on the side that faced the road - the road being no more than a dirt track that wound its way around the lake's perimeter. At the back of the cottage, the side that looked out over the lake, there was a small private garden with its own swimming pool. Beyond that, there was a wooden deck which extended the garden out over the rocks below, which fell away steeply as they tumbled down into the waters of the lake. The deck was like a raised platform from which it was possible to look out across the lake and the view was pretty spectacular.
The lake itself was about half a mile across at its narrowest point, and its waters were still and clear. I was stunned by the beauty and serenity of it when I saw it for the first time. Being an inner-city boy, I had never seen anything like it. When we first arrived, in the early evening, the water was calm and undisturbed, and the surface of the lake was so smooth, it was like a sheet of glass. The lake was spring fed, so the water was clear. It was so clear that even down to a depth of twelve feet, you could easily see the sandy bottom. Way over on the horizon, beyond the forest canopy, the mountains rose up in a dull, almost transparent gray haze. The vista was magnificent.
The cottage itself was basic, but very cozy. The door opened directly into a living area at the center of which there was a large, heavy rug, a sofa and two upholstered armchairs all facing a large stone fireplace. Just next to the fireplace was a small bookcase stacked with old paperbacks and a few board games. The far wall had a doorway leading to the kitchen, which was dominated by an enormous wooden picnic table, varnished to a high gloss. Next to the kitchen was a narrow staircase leading up to the two bedrooms. You could tell it was old because of the aged stone fireplace, and because of the way the floorboards creaked, and there were wooden batten doors with old style latches.
I liked the lodge. It had a lot of character. On our first night there, we all turned in early, in anticipation of making the most of our first full day at the lake. We were all exhausted and somewhat matted after the long drive, having been thrown around a little by the car negotiating the hilly terrain on the way here. Tony and I shared the smaller bedroom which had twin beds. The room had a little window, with rustic curtains, and there was a wooden dresser and a single closet. The bed was clean and comfortable, and the room was homely and quaint. I was very happy with it all, content just to be here with Tony and his family, and looking forward to the weekend ahead.
The following morning, I was awoken by the sunlight filtering into the room. I had the impression that I must have slept late because Tony was already gone. The rumpled bedclothes had been pulled back and his bed was empty. I thought I would snuggle back under the covers for a while. But then I realized that something didn't quite feel right. My sheets were cold and wet. I had to take a few moments to ensure that I wasn't imagining it. I wasn't fully awake, so I had to check - yes, the bed really was wet. At first I was confused, and it took a few seconds for the reality to register in my mind, and when it did, I was beset by a terrible and quite unfamiliar kind of panic. Inwardly, I cursed my own ineptitude, and was suddenly stricken with guilt and shame. I was also disappointed. Disappointed in myself. Bedwetting had never been a problem for me. I wasn't a baby. I was nearly thirteen years old. Yet, here I was in this strange place, a guest of these kind people, and I had wet the bed. I couldn't understand it. The reality of it was almost too stark to acknowledge. My immediate thoughts were focused on how to deal with this little crisis without anybody finding out.
I didn't really know what to do. Changing the sheets was out of the question. It would be too obvious. I knew that Tony and his mom had left early in the morning to go and pick berries, so only Mr Slater was in the house. So for now, the best thing to do was to say nothing. I hoped I could have a shower, clean myself up, and be down in time for breakfast without anybody being any the wiser. I would have to work out what to do later.
As it was, Mr Slater was more astute than I'd bargained for. I came back from my shower - the bathroom was at the end of the upstairs hallway - and he was in the bedroom peeling back my bedclothes, already in the process of stripping the bed. I came back into the room already dressed, drying my ruffled hair with a big bath towel, and I stood there in shocked and embarrassed silence. Firstly, I didn't quite know what to say. Secondly, I couldn't work out how Mr Slater had come to discover the wet sheets. But he had, and now I was standing there before him feeling ashamed, immature, inept and stupid.
Luckily, Mr Slater was very discreet and understanding. He saw me standing there, but made no comment whatsoever. Instead, he quietly and calmly gathered up the sheets from the bed and bundled them up in his arms.
"Here," he said, in a quiet, calm and very reassuring tone, turning to offer me the bundle of damp sheets, "put these in the laundry room."
I put my towel aside and did as he said, amazed by his tolerance and empathy. He never uttered a single negative comment about what happened. Here I was, a guest in this house, having just stained their sheets, feeling guilty, dirty and inadequate, but he never once made me feel ashamed or embarrassed. Instead, all he did was ask me to fetch a fresh set of sheets from the cupboard in the bathroom, and set about making up the bed.
"Here B, give me a hand with this will ya?"
He unfurled the clean sheet, flicking it over the length of the bed, draping it over the bare mattress, and I went around to the other end of the bed to smooth the sheet out and tuck it in. I was delighted that Tony's dad now started calling me 'B'. He had shortened my name to just an initial, in the same way as he did for Tony, and I remember how privileged I felt that he considered me deserving of the same honor.
As we finished off spreading the top sheet, and smoothing down the freshly made bed, I looked over at him, not really ready to look him in the eye, but nevertheless feeling obliged to express my appreciation for his kindness in being so discreet and considerate.
"Call me Ethan," he said, as he smoothed the sheets down with his palm.
I smiled meekly, not used to being treated with such kindness and inclusion.
He neatly tucked in the end of the bedclothes and straightened up to hear what I wanted to say.
"I'm sorry," I said, as earnestly as I could manage, "I don't know how it happened."
He smiled benevolently and shook his head, dismissing my apology.
"Don't worry about it," he said, reassuringly, "It happens."
I could hardly comprehend how he could be so calm and laid back about it.
"Thank you," I replied, right now very much appreciating his tolerance and understanding.
"It's no sweat," he said, "Secondary enuresis is more common than you think."
I flashed him a puzzled look, surprised not only that there was a name for it, but that he should be able to recite the exact terminology totally unprompted.
"Yeah," he said, "Usually it's a response to a sudden change of environment, or an unfamiliar social situation."
I stood there looking nonplussed, totally flummoxed by his grasp of the subject.
"That's what we have here, isn't it?" he went on.
"I guess so," I nodded, almost relieved to be able to explain it away.
Ethan smiled encouragingly, probably hoping I was reassured by his rationalizing of the situation.
"Still," I said, regretfully, "I'm sorry for causing all this trouble."
"It's no trouble," he replied, "I used to change Tony's diapers when he was a baby."
"Did you?" I asked, surprised.
Ethan looked taken aback by that response, like I shouldn't even question it.
"Sure I did," he said, "Didn't your dad change yours?"
I looked down, and my hesitation was probably a giveaway. I didn't want to say it, but I now knew I could trust Ethan, and he had proved to me that I could confide in him, so I allowed myself to vocalize it.
"I never knew my dad," I replied, sadly, in a very quiet voice, "I only know that he deserted us before Petey was even born."
Ethan hesitated a moment, probably because he didn't expect me to say something like that, and I suspected it was rather more than he'd bargained for. But he quickly regained his presence of mind and finished off making up the bed.
"I'm sorry to hear that," he said, with genuine solicitude in his voice.
"That's okay," I replied, not convinced that his regret was strictly necessary.
"Do you ever wonder about him?" he asked, interested, "Your real dad, I mean."
I shrugged, disinterested, and scrunched my nose.
"Not really," I said, totally non-committal, "Should I?"
"I just thought maybe you might have tried to find him."
"Why bother?" I replied, "He never loved us enough to stick around."
And no sooner had I said that, it struck me just how sad that statement sounded, maybe made me appear bitter and resentful. But I really wasn't. I had no feelings about my real father at all. In fact, I had barely given him a second thought.
Just then, the sound of footsteps and voices in the kitchen below indicated that Tony and his mom had returned from their early morning expedition. Ethan and I went down to the kitchen to find them with a big bag of wild blueberries that they had picked. They both had that energetic buzz about them from what must have been a quite bracing pre-breakfast walk, and came back to the house yammering excitedly and no doubt invigorated by the excursion. Tony's lips and tongue were dyed a quite supernatural purple, evidently having consumed a good number of the blueberries already. They were just in time for breakfast because in the meantime Ethan set about making coffee and French toast for everybody, and thankfully the bedwetting incident went unmentioned.
With the morning's little mishap largely forgotten, I was able to carry on as normal and enjoy the rest of the day. Ethan was sufficiently judicious that I could relax, relatively untroubled by guilt. The day that followed, and in fact the entire weekend with Tony's family, was something of a revelation to me. I was amazed at how many things they did together as a family. Even simple things like having breakfast together, which was something I don't think I had ever experienced. They were very inclusive, always wanting to involve each other in their activities, and planning things they could do together. This trip was an example of how they valued and loved each other, and enjoyed hanging out together as a family. I couldn't ever remember going on one single trip with my mom. Not that I would want to. I don't think I would have enjoyed being in her company. And that was the fundamental difference in Tony's relationship with his parents - he liked them, loved them and enjoyed being with them, whereas I went out of my way to avoid my mom. With the exception of Petey, I can't say I ever really loved any of my family. What was even sadder was that I had, even as a very young child, never felt that my mom had ever really loved me.
After a long, leisurely breakfast, during which they all talked about what they wanted to do today, there was a short period of downtime. Mrs Slater said she was going to bake a blueberry pie for dessert later. Apparently she was quite an accomplished baker, and had even won awards for her baking. For Ethan, the first item on the agenda was sitting out by the pool and simply doing nothing. He changed into board shorts and a Hawaiian shirt and sat in a sun lounger with his feet up, wearing a pair of wraparound sunglasses with mirrored lenses, reading his newspaper. He even took out a cellophane-wrapped cigar that was ultra-thin and ultra-long, and smoked it with great relish.
Tony said he had a little treat in store for me and then asked Ethan for permission to take the bikes out and cycle over to the cove and back. Apparently the cove was a special place on the far side of the lake where they often liked to spend time. It was a good spot for fishing and swimming and the journey there was quite a picturesque route. Tony offered to take me there. Naturally, I agreed. I was flattered that Tony wanted to share this special place with me. In fact, whatever Tony wanted to do was fine by me. By coming on this trip, I was implicitly receptive to anything they suggested. They had a couple of nearly new bicycles which were kept locked up in the woodshed in the yard. Before we set off, Tony kindly adjusted the saddle on my bicycle - I had slightly shorter legs than him.
As I was about to mount my bicycle, Tony looked over from adjusting the saddle on his own bike.
"Are you sure you want to wear that shirt?" he asked.
I looked down at my shirt. It was a long-sleeved polo shirt, a little faded, but alas one of the very few shirts I had.
"What's wrong with it?" I asked, completely unprepared for his enquiry.
"You might get a little too hot, that's all."
I looked at him with a puzzled expression, not sure what to do about it.
Tony being Tony took a deep breath, preparing to have to come over and sort me out. He laid down his bike and came over to me. Then he stood there with his hands on his hips.
"Geez, you're all coiled up like a spring," he said.
I simply stared back, not sure what had prompted that remark.
"What do you mean?"
"Here, do this," he said, offering me some friendly advice, and proceeded to undo the top couple of buttons on my shirt.
"You're all trussed up like a turkey ready for the oven," he quipped, comically, "Untuck your shirt and roll your sleeves up."
So I did. He even helped me to roll up my cuffs and pulled the sleeves almost up to my elbows so that my forearms were exposed.
"There, that's better," he said, "Now you can relax."
Tony was right, of course. There was a great sense of freedom in loosening my shirt and I could now feel the sun on my arms.
"You're always covered up," he complained, "Learn to loosen up a little."
"Sorry," I said, completely unaware that there was this unspoken etiquette as to how I was expected to wear my shirt.
"Don't you have any t-shirts?" he asked.
I shook my head, feeling slightly ashamed. I had very few clothes of any kind.
"Tomorrow I'll lend you one of my t-shirts," Tony said, without waiting for an answer.
Tony was always so kind, so magnanimous. Not only was he giving me friendly tips to make me look more credible, but he was also offering to let me wear his clothes. I relished the prospect of wearing something of his. Not only did Tony have nice, new, trendy clothes, but I quite liked the idea of wearing something that his body had been in, and maybe even had a trace of his smell still on it.
At first, the trail around the edge of the lake was well trodden and easily defined, but in places the surrounding forest extended right up to the edge of the steep banks, where the undergrowth ended in a sheer drop down into the still waters of the lake. Cycling through the forest was heavy going, and we had to dismount in places where the thick undergrowth was almost impenetrable. But on the other side, the forest petered out and the route became more grassy and soft as we headed towards open ground. Part of the route was uphill, but Tony consummately negotiated it all with some ease, while I panted and puffed trying to keep up with him. Of course he was more of a sporty outdoor type than me, and I was not surprised that he appeared generally much fitter and stronger and certainly more accustomed to this kind of physical exertion.
We seemed to cycle for ages. The changing scenery along the route provided a transient backdrop of ever changing views that were breathtakingly beautiful. Eventually, we reached a clearing where the trees ended and gave way to a shoreline that was covered in a soft, white sand. The edge of the lake seemed to curve around us, so that we were on an enclosed beach, surrounded by forest on three sides. This was the cove that Tony had told me about. It was totally private, except for a narrow opening where a fishing boat might pass by on the other side.
Tony wheeled his bicycle right out onto the powdery sand and threw it down.
"Last one into the water is a loser," he proposed, tossing out a challenge.
Tony immediately set about stripping off. Within seconds his t-shirt, sneakers and socks were all divested and thrown carelessly onto the sand as his intention suddenly made itself very tangible in my mind. We had brought no bathing gear, and he knew it. He wanted to swim naked! When Tony was down to his cargo shorts, he stopped, seeing that I was still standing there implacably.
"C'mon Ben!" he enthused.
He saw that I was hesitant, having only got as far as prizing off my sneakers. The truth is, I was shy, and the idea of skinny dipping was totally alien and anathema to me.
"What's the matter Ben?" Tony asked, in a soft, low tone.
I looked about me, taking in the environs of the cove.
"What if someone comes?" I asked, hesitantly.
"Heh, did you see a single person on the way over here?"
He was right of course. There was probably no one around for miles.
"Anyhow," he added, "If anyone does come here, it'll be for the same reason."
He dismissed my protestations, at any rate not appearing to take my doubts seriously, and continued to get undressed. He slipped off his cargo shorts until he was standing there only in his boxer briefs. Tony's self-assuredness only daunted me even further. His confidence and lack of shyness, and the way he was not afraid to get undressed in front of me only confirmed how comfortable he was with his body. He had no qualms about taking his clothes off, maybe even enjoyed flaunting his nakedness, and was almost narcissistically proud of showing off his physique. But then, if I was as handsome and perfectly sculpted as he was, probably I would too.
Tony stopped, sensing my reticence, and instantly gauged the situation, as he was frequently apt to do.
"Here, let me help you," he said.
He stepped forward, lifted the front of my shirt and began to loosen my belt, maybe thinking that it would be easier if I allowed someone else to strip me. I shrank back slightly. I hadn't expected him to do that, and I still wasn't sure I wanted to undress in front of him.
"Don't," I said, a little too vehemently, and backed away from him.
Tony looked puzzled for a moment, maybe caught slightly off-guard that I should shy away from him. He looked me straight in the eye with a disconcerted look.
"What is it Ben? You shy?"
"I... don't like people looking at me," I said apologetically, turning my face away, "I'm not much to look at."
"What!" he exclaimed, with a note of ridicule, "That's silly!"
"I'm so plain," I maintained.
His hazel eyes stared at me all the more intensely, with a crooked little smile.
"You're not!" he countered, and stepped towards me, "Let me see."
I stared at him stupidly, not quite believing that he was openly inviting me to get undressed in front of him. He stood there, his arms folded, leaning back slightly on one foot, waiting expectantly.
"What?" I said, cautiously, not sure if he was serious.
"Go on, let me look at you," Tony insisted.
It took a leap of faith for me to do as he said. I felt vulnerable, but strangely reassured by Tony's presence. I wanted him to like me, maybe even enjoyed the idea of Tony looking at me. I knew he wouldn't criticize and that he was always kind and considerate in his remarks. So, I slipped my polo shirt off over my head and tossed it into the sand, then stood before him and waited for his verdict. He, in turn, cocked his head this way and that, admiring me approvingly.
"Hmm... you look good to me," he said, after a few seconds consideration.
I was stunned.
He nodded, pouting assuredly.
"Yeah. I like you very much Ben."
And even as the words left his mouth, I felt myself getting emotional. I was tearing up a little because I had never felt such magnanimity and approval from anybody. I wasn't used to people saying such things to me.
"I always thought I was... ugly," I confessed.
Tony laughed with a good natured snigger.
"No. You're not ugly Ben," he said again, "You're cute. I think so anyway."
He sounded so certain that it was difficult to gauge his sincerity.
"I'm not!" I stated defiantly, convinced that he must be kidding me, "Don't say things like that."
I turned away from Tony, suspecting that he was probably having a joke at my expense. But instead of doing what I expected him to do, which was to chide me for being childish, or lose patience with me for being so touchy, he stepped towards me and hugged me, like it really didn't matter. He rubbed my back warmly and murmured softly into my ear.
"That was meant to be a compliment," he said, by way of justification.
I don't know why, but I found his words very touching. Then I realized he must be telling the truth. He wasn't just kidding me along. He was being genuine. You instinctively knew when people weren't genuine, when their words were not sincere. But I didn't get that with Tony. Tony was kind and benevolent and he didn't bullshit you. So I knew then that he meant what he was saying, even though I found it hard to believe him. No one had ever said such things to me before. No one had ever shown me such care, such tenderness. I had to hide my face because Tony was making me emotional with his kindness.
"So why has no one ever said that to me before?" I asked him, challenging him.
"Because no one has ever seen the beauty in you, that's all," said Tony.
It was the most extraordinary sentiment. The truth and simplicity and sheer magnanimity of his words almost made me cry, and I cursed myself for being so emotional. But at the same time, I was chuffed because those were the nicest words anyone had ever said to me.
When I felt more composed, I let him go, and he loosened his embrace and took a step back. He saw the tears of emotion in my eyes and even handed me his shirt for me to dry my eyes - HIS shirt, not mine - and even that gesture struck me as overly magnanimous and thoughtful. I felt so useless, so frail, so utterly inferior in Tony's presence. I was so needy, whilst he was so strong. He was so logical, so upbeat and confident, whereas I was simply flaky and emotional and completely devoid of any self-esteem.
"That's better," he said, with a reassuring grin.
At that point, Tony left me to get undressed. He quickly whipped off his boxer briefs and ran down towards the water. I saw the tell-tale white area on his pelvis where his swim togs had covered him from the sun. Undoubtedly he had done a fair amount of swimming already. He waded into the lake until the water was waist high, then he tipped over and dived in, disappearing under the surface. I eventually threaded off my jeans and underwear and quickly ran for the cover of the water, now feeling much better about myself and strangely resigned to the idea of swimming naked.
When Tony saw me join him in the lake, he swam over to me with a big grin, perhaps relieved that he was not going to have to swim alone, and raced me over to some rocks that protruded out from the left hand bank of the cove. He then set the tone for what followed by demonstrating his expertise at diving. He clambered up onto the rocks, negotiating the slimy, precarious protrusions with great deftness, and took a few steps back on one of the big, flat rocks that was perfect for diving. He took a running jump into the water, curling himself into a ball and crashing into the lake with a loud and enormous splash. He quickly resurfaced with a big grin, and with a practiced flick of his head, shook all the water out of his hair.
I copied Tony. I clambered up onto the rock, at first uncertainly and with rather less grace and dexterity than him, then jumped into the lake feet first. The exhilaration of darting into the water only to rise back up to the surface was a tremendous rush. As I rose back up, Tony pounced on me, playfully pulling me back under, and that was our cue to start misbehaving and have fun. I loved Tony's crazy, playful antics. He was highly excitable, constantly laughing and giggling, his high pitched screams and shouts echoing off the choppy surface of the lake. I played in the water with Tony for a good long time, and he was quite inventive with his games. He liked to play very physical, tactile games in the water, with lots of bodily contact and rough and tumble. He liked goading me into chasing him, disappearing below the surface, darting around, twisting and turning and changing direction with all the agility of a little otter. I chased Tony around in the water, and he screamed excitedly as I threatened to come after him. I tried my best to swim after him, but he was too fast. He was quite an accomplished swimmer. From me chasing him, the game turned into him chasing me. Several times I found myself ambushed by him swimming up behind me, jumping on me by surprise, from time to time hugging me affectionately with excited squeals, and I loved his proximity and tactility. Before long, I found myself totally absorbed in this play. I was amazed by Tony's capacity to draw me into his little games, to totally concentrate my mind on our own amusement. Tony's sense of fun was infectious, and was so engaging that he took me right out of myself and made me forget the sorry circumstances of my life. All that mattered, in all the time I was with him, was him and me in the water, playing together like little kids. He had this amazing propensity to make me forget everything else and focus on just having fun. It was another example of just how special this boy was. He had succeeded in encouraging me to shed my inhibitions and join in, just let go of my self-consciousness and allow my natural boyish exuberance to shine through, and for the first time in a very long while I actually felt like a child.
After our fun in the water, I ran back out onto the beach and collapsed right there on the sand, almost breathless with exhaustion. I laid face down in the sand, by now not in the least perturbed by my nakedness, and I could feel the sun warming my bare back. I took a moment to appreciate my surroundings. I looked around and saw the idyll around me. I took in the perfect scenery, with the beauty of the lake, the majesty of the forest and the splendor of the mountains rising up beyond the greenery of the trees, up to where they met the blue, blue sky, and I was transported right out of myself. At that moment, at the height of this wonder and delight, I thought of home. I thought of the musty, fetid, oppressive regime of that rundown little apartment, that soulless cubbyhole in the sky where my spirit was caged and my thoughts were curbed and my imagination was stunted, and the prospect of having to go home actually spoiled the moment. The only thing that had made this trip less than perfect was that it couldn't go on forever. But the only thing that made the thought of going home more palatable was the prospect of getting back to Petey. I missed Petey very much. Wherever I went, whatever I was doing, he was the one thing that was always constant, the only one who was always there for me - the one thing that was good in my life. Yes, I sure did miss Petey.
My thoughts were interrupted by Tony sidling up beside me. He silently laid down on the sand next to me, slightly breathless from his swim, and he looked as though he was getting set to sunbathe. He settled himself on his back, his naked body stretched out quite unabashedly, and he laid his head on a natural pillow formed by the undulations in the sand, and gently closed his eyes.
Looking over at Tony, I couldn't help noticing his slim, lithe body dappled with droplets of lake water, which seemed to hold fast on his bronzed skin. I realized that I actually quite enjoyed looking at him. He had a beautiful physique, svelte and lean, with perfect proportions and incredibly long limbs. He had just the faintest of muscle definition, with not a trace of fat, the unmistakable signature of boyishness. He was actually quite underdeveloped, as yet unspoiled by the ravages of adolescence, so that he still retained an essence of preteen purity about him. He had prominent shoulders which accentuated the way his torso tapered down towards his waist. Undoubtedly he was going to be an extremely handsome young man. His tummy was as tight as a drum, with a slight groove down the center, forming a little dip where his innie belly button was. His chest was clearly defined, with slightly convex muscles sheathed under flawless young skin. It was so bronzed and smooth, clear and unblemished, almost translucent, so that you could see the bluish veins beneath, and it had a matt texture to it, like alabaster. With his flaxen-like hair, now wet and plastered to his forehead, he was like some proverbial mythical youth, straight out of some ancient Greek fable. He was utterly perfect.
Tony broke my chain of thought by turning his head slightly towards me and looked over as he lay next to me, shielding his eyes from the glare of the sun.
"Happy?" he asked, smiling.
It was a strange question, and one which implied that maybe he recognized that, for me, happiness was not a familiar state of mind. But he was right. Here I was, coaxed out of my clothes, lying in the sun, out in the middle of nowhere, alone with this boy that I absolutely idolized, and I realized that this was the first time in my life that I had ever felt truly happy.
I turned to him and nodded, squinting through the bright sunlight. Then I settled my head back down, still lying face down with one cheek buried in the soft sand, and gently closed my eyes.
"Why can't life be like this all the time?" I murmured.
Tony didn't answer, but he did something which I thought was very tender and loving. Whilst I still had my eyes closed, he scooted closer to me and rolled over onto his side. Then he laid an arm across my back, as though in empathy and solidarity. It was a beautiful gesture. He was always so tactile, as were all his family, so that touching, hugging and stroking was second nature to them, and the instinct to connect physically with others came quite naturally to him. We were both silent for a few moments, and the warmth of his arm felt good draped across my bare back.
"You've never had much happiness in your life, have you Ben?" he said, at last.
It was an extraordinarily candid and perceptive observation, which immediately betrayed the fact that Tony must have been aware of my inner sadness. I wondered what it was about me that had given it away. Although I had never openly talked of it, he seemed to detect that there was a certain neediness in me. But Tony was a very astute boy, and he seemed, in his own small way, to want to ameliorate my misery. As I had started to learn, that was very symptomatic of Tony.
* * * * * *
On the trip back from the lake, now dressed but with our hair still wet, we raced each other as we cycled back to the house. This time the trip was mostly downhill. Sometimes Tony just got the edge, forging ahead of me, other times I managed to get ahead of him. But he was never far behind. I was riding on ahead, having just taken up the lead. Breathless with the effort of outracing him, I was standing on the pedals, allowing the bike to gather momentum. I was freewheeling downhill at a pretty fast clip when I suddenly found myself jerked forward. The front wheel jammed into a pothole, and the bike lurched violently, rearing up behind me. The whole world turned upside down and I went tumbling headlong over the handlebars. I turned a full somersault, and came down butt first with an almighty thwack. The back of my head hit the road and for a split second everything went black. I skidded along on my side, ending up a few feet away in a heap. The bike crashed down and landed beside me, bouncing once, and came to a rest with the back wheel still spinning redundantly. I was disorientated for a few seconds, and took a moment to refocus from the crack of my head hitting the asphalt. Tony was on the scene even before I had fully assimilated what had happened. He had carefully dismounted, laid his bike down, and was there, crouching over me, instantly taking control.
"Don't panic," he said, firmly and calmly, "You're winded. Just stay calm, and let the air flow back into your lungs."
I could easily have panicked, because I realized that he was right. I couldn't breathe for a few seconds, as though my lungs had been paralyzed. But Tony realized before I did what had happened. I don't know how. I only know that his authoritative tones meant that I had to do as he was telling me. He watched me as I gasped for breath, and a moment later, I was breathing again.
"You had quite a fall there buddy," he said, sounding impressed.
It was only then that I felt the pain of the impact. It took a few moments for my injuries to register. I cried out, clutching my arm, and the pain so overwhelmed me that all I could do was cry. I sat in the road sobbing with pain and shock. The tears that it wrested from me were an inevitable expression of the momentary crisis induced by that kind of profound agony. My shoulder was hurting savagely, in a way that begged urgent relief from the searing pain that had suddenly assailed me. And for the second time this afternoon, I found myself with tears in my eyes. Only this time, they were tears of pain rather than emotion. I couldn't remember crying like that since I was Petey's age.
I felt so foolish. I had just hit a pothole and ended up unceremoniously sprawled on the ground in front of the one person in the world I most idolized. I had made a complete spectacle of myself, and now I was sitting in the road crying like a little kid. But rather than laugh or criticize or remonstrate, Tony seemed genuinely sympathetic. I was expecting at least a belittling gibe or some mocking laughter. But it never came.
"Ooh, that looks painful buddy," he said, acknowledging my injuries, and lending some credibility to my tears.
Tony even reached out and sympathetically stroked the back of my neck, which I found oddly soothing. He watched me carefully as I sat up in the road, holding out his arms to guide and steady me. Through my tears, I took stock of my injuries. There was a rip in the sleeve of my polo shirt where I had grazed my shoulder, with a corresponding flash of bleeding skin just showing through the torn flap of fabric. I had also grazed my elbow and wrist, from where I had slid along the ground on my side. It stung savagely, and was oozing with blood, and had traces of dirt and grit embedded in the torn flesh.
"C'mon Ben, let's get you up," Tony said, helping me to stand up.
He stood up, and helped me to my feet by pulling me up by both my arms. Then he stood in the shadiness of the trees and looked over me.
"You okay?" he asked me, looking into my teary eyes as though seeking signs of concussion.
I nodded assuredly, still too stunned to say anything, still tearful but no longer in a state of panic. Tony's presence was strangely comforting and he seemed to be in complete control.
"You grazed your face too," he said, pointing at the corner of my eye.
Sure enough, I touched my cheekbone, and it was bleeding too. I hadn't noticed it because my head was still reeling all over from the impact.
"Let's get that seen to," he said, and proceeded to pick my bike up out of the road.
The bike had fared no better. The handlebars had twisted slightly, so that the front wheel was out of alignment. Some of the spokes were bent and the mudguard was buckled and dented. We wheeled the bikes back the rest of the way. Thankfully my legs were intact, although we were walking quite slowly and with rather less enthusiasm than when we had started out.
On returning to the house, we left the bikes outside, propping them up against the picket fence, and Tony went in, calling out to his dad.
"Dad! Ben had an accident!"
Ethan, who had been in the kitchen, came in with a frown, looking concerned.
"Ben came off his bike," Tony explained, "He's hurt."
The way Tony announced "he's hurt" made it sound more serious than it was, but I understood that he was simply garnering adult input on the situation and soliciting sympathy for me.
Ethan came up to me and looked me over. I stood before him slightly cowed, my head down, holding my elbow, and still sniffling a little, the tears now drying on my face. Again, I expected some rebuke, some kind of criticism from him for being so stupid, for damaging the bike, for not being careful, for hurting myself. But again, none was forthcoming. He simply leaned over, gently lifted my head, and inspected the graze on my cheekbone.
"You have been in the wars, haven't you young feller?" he said.
His kindly tone indicated that he was not in the least concerned about the damaged bike, nor was he about to make me feel stupid.
"Come over here," he beckoned, "and we'll get you cleaned up."
I sat down on the arm of the sofa, where I was high enough for Ethan to attend to my injuries.
"Get this off," he said, tugging at the hem of my torn polo shirt.
I peeled it off for him, tossing the torn and bloodied shirt aside, so that I was sitting before Ethan shirtless. I felt slightly self-conscious because I knew that my body was not a patch on Tony's. Despite Tony's earlier vote of confidence, I was pasty and puny and would never be the sporty, outdoor, athletic sungod that Tony was. Ethan smiled at me, possibly acknowledging my shyness and reassuring me that it was okay. He appeared not to notice and was too busy looking over my wounds, no doubt working out what needed to be done. Meanwhile, completely unbidden, Tony had brought the first aid kit from the bathroom. I loved the way he and his dad were so in tune with each other.
I wiped my eyes, by now regaining some of my composure, and watched as Ethan set about cleaning my wounds with some rather strong-smelling antiseptic. He dabbed it all over my tortured skin with cotton balls, attending to the various sore spots. My shoulder and elbow were the most serious wounds, where the skin had grazed the ground so hard that most of the outer layers of skin had been scraped away and the pink, sensitive layers underneath were now visible, in some places so deep that they were oozing blood.
"Is he going to be okay dad?" Tony asked, standing close by, looking genuinely concerned.
"Sure," said Ethan, reassuring us both, "These are very superficial wounds. You'll have some ugly scabs for a while, but the skin will heal over."
As he said that, I felt the warmth of his breath on my shirtless body as he leaned closer, studiously cleaning away the dirt and debris that was embedded in my wounds. Then he closed in to focus on the wound on my cheekbone, just below the corner of my eye. He curled his arm around my head to hold me in place and this time I felt his gentle breath on my face. He was very patient and adept with the first aid things, and seemed to know exactly what he was doing. Perhaps it was something he had done many times for Tony. When he was finished, he used his finger to smear some salve, a cold clear gel, onto the freshly cleansed wounds. He was very gentle as he was doing it, and I watched his big hands, with his dexterous fingers as he so expertly applied the gel to my tortured flesh. I noticed, up close, that you could see the very fine little hairs on the back of his hand. The skin was so tanned and smooth. I thought how wonderful it would be to have a father who was so caring, so gentle, so inclusive, so supportive, so positive, so loving. Alas, I had never had that. I had never felt the guiding benevolence of paternal affection; never enjoyed unconditional love of that kind. Tony was a lucky boy. And for those few moments, I watched Ethan as he was attending to me. I basked in the warmth of his borrowed affection, reveled fleetingly in the stolen limelight of his loving ministrations, brief though they were, and I wondered if this is what it was really like to have a father.