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Chapter 9: Brothers and Friends
It was Tony who suggested we spend our last evening at the lodge down by the pool on the back terrace. That was another invitation I was unprepared for because I had brought no bathing gear. The truth is, I didn't own any bathing gear. But, when Tony offered to lend me his, of course I agreed. He had a spare pair of board shorts which he tossed over to me in the bedroom and told me to get them on. Tony was always so generous with his things, as were all his family. They were nice board shorts too, nearly new, with an anchor motif and an almost luminous shade of aquamarine. Strangely, they fitted me perfectly. They also looked quite good on me and were very comfortable.
Deciding to be discreet, Tony left me to get changed on my own. He went to join his father in the pool, and told me to join them when I was ready. I appreciated his discretion, which I attributed to events at the cove yesterday. He was mindful of my shyness, and I liked the way that he was careful not to pressure me. When I was ready, I walked out in my borrowed swimwear, feeling slightly self conscious, but strangely gratified to be wearing something of Tony's.
Down by the swimming pool, I stood for a while on the terrace and watched Tony already at play with his dad. It was clear to me where Tony had inherited his fine physique and athleticism, for his father was every bit as handsome, with the same prominent shoulders, broad chest and trim stomach. He also had great muscle definition. He wasn't overly muscly or anything, but you could see that he obviously kept in shape. Ethan also had a smattering of fine hair on his chest which tapered into a thin line, running all the way down the center of his stomach, which disappeared under the drawstring of his board shorts.
Tony had already thrown himself into the melee and was busily chopping at the water, throwing up a barrage of foamy white spray, in an attempt to prevent his dad from chasing him. Of course, Ethan was not deterred, and easily succeeded in catching Tony, leaping on him and pulling his handsome son into a bear-hug, trying to contain him. Tony found that incredibly entertaining, and was flailing around in peals of high-pitched laughter. I liked their closeness and intimacy, and the way Ethan lifted Tony up, raising him clear out of the water with both hands around his slender waist, and Tony squirming around in his father's strong grip, pretending to try and break free. Then Ethan would throw Tony into the water with a big splash, and Tony would turn on him, hooking his arms around his father's neck, trying to pull him under. They were so good together, laughing and shrieking and totally engrossed in their entertainment.
I hesitated because I was still sporting the wounds from my cycling accident the day before. The grazes on my skin had formed dark, crusty scabs on my shoulder, elbow and wrist, and I wasn't sure if I should really be swimming. But Ethan didn't seem too concerned when he encouraged me to get into the pool. During a lull in their frolicking, Ethan begged off and swam over to the edge of the pool, close to where I was standing, watching them, and he bobbed up out of the water, flicking the water out of his hair with a powerful flip of his head.
"C'mon B, jump in. The water's great!"
His entreaty was compelling. So I did. I jumped in feet first with a big splash, and as soon as I surfaced, Ethan grabbed my waist and lifted me clear out of the water in his strong arms, just as he had with Tony. I flailed around helplessly in the air, shrieking in exhilaration, and found myself dunked back under the water with a mighty splash. And so, I joined in their games, Tony and I teaming up against Ethan, attacking him from both sides, and he in turn chased after us under the water. We had great fun. Tony and Ethan kept me entertained all afternoon. And for a while I was able to share the exquisite privilege of having a father to play with.
When we were all too exhausted to continue, and it was getting close to dinner, Ethan got out to go and dry off. He said he was going to go and help Tony's mom to prepare dinner. By now, the daylight was fading, and yet it was still a relatively warm evening. Tony and I stayed by the pool, tired from our games, but loath to get out of the pool just yet. So, I sat on the edge of the pool with my feet in the water, staring out over the deck with that stunning view across the lake. In the distance, the sun was setting over the mountains, streaking the sky with a fiery orange wash, the dying embers of another perfect day at the lake, alas our last one here.
For the moment all was calm and quiet, a welcome lull after our energetic play. Tony was stretched out on one of the pool toys, his butt firmly embedded in the hole of this giant inflatable donut in his distinctive checkered board shorts. He floated around aimlessly on the undisturbed surface of the pool, his lithe, languorous body laid out in a state of repose, with his eyes closed and his arms draped over the sides so that his fingers were barely touching the water. His long, golden hair, usually tumbling over his eyes, was now wet and slicked back off his face, revealing his high forehead and his neat, pretty features. For the umpteenth time that day I marveled at what a good-looking boy he was.
Then, quite without warning, Tony broke the silence.
"Hey Ben? Have you enjoyed it out here at the lake?"
He was looking over at me with a mischievous grin, clearly anxious to draw me into conversation, and I wondered what had prompted his question. It was a question which made me think hard - should I treat this as just a casual enquiry or was he leading up to something more serious? I splashed my feet about in the water nervously.
"Yeah, it's been great," I said.
Disconcertingly, he was floating away from me as I said it, and slowly rotating in jerky little movements, so that he was actually facing the other way. He seemed content to just allow the inflatable to float wherever the stagnant pool water took it.
"You're a real good friend," I confessed, haltingly, averting my gaze, and not at all sure how he was going to assimilate my effusion of sincerity.
At that moment Tony had floated away onto almost the opposite side of the pool, but he still stayed implacably on his inflatable donut, and slowly it continued to rotate so that he was gradually coming around to face me again. Slowly, as his face came into view, he was smiling.
"Thanks," he said, chuffed.
Then there was a moment of silence, and Tony continued to rotate in the water.
"What about you?" I asked, insistent on getting him to reciprocate.
He was rotating away from me again, and waited for his answer as he came around to face me one more time.
"It's been great having you here," he said, "It was almost like we were brothers."
I sat there on the edge of the pool, stunned but delighted by that assertion. I was chuffed that we had both admitted a mutual fondness, which for boys our age was not normally something we spoke of aloud, at least not with other boys.
"I wish we WERE brothers," I said, "I would love to have a family like yours."
Tony lowered his arms into the water and quickly paddled his inflatable towards me. He gained with a self-satisfied smirk on his face, and when he arrived at the edge of the pool where I was sitting, he reached up and put his arms around me. I tipped forward to hug him too, and he slid off the donut so that we both slipped clumsily into the water, holding onto each other. It was a deliberate, meaningful hug, a lot more than just a passing squeeze, an acknowledgement designed to cement the sharing of these little sentiments and as a gesture of affection and support for this newfound solidarity between us. It was nice because Tony was being his usual tactile, affectionate self, and I felt we had also just grown much closer spiritually.
When we finally got out of the pool dry off, we used the upstairs bathroom to shower and rid ourselves of the smell of chlorine. The shower room was big enough for two, so we showered together. Feeling now less self-conscious, and bolstered by Tony's vote of confidence at the cove yesterday, strangely I allowed myself to strip naked and shower with him. After our skinny dipping yesterday, where we had frolicked quite freely in the lake, in the close confines of the shower room it didn't seem to matter. Afterwards, Tony took ages getting dressed. That was the exclusive domain of handsome, good-looking boys like him. Boys who knew they were pretty, and were proud of their physique, were never in a hurry to get back into their clothes, and he pottered around in the bathroom for ages still shirtless, and with his long blond hair still dripping wet.
On the very last morning, Tony's mom made us pancakes for breakfast. Alas, what was everyday fare for the Slaters was a rare treat for me. She served them up with lashings of syrup. Tony and I sat opposite each other at the big wooden picnic table in the kitchen and wolfed them all down in no time, smiling complicitly at each other as we did so. When we did things together like that, it gave me a taste of what life might be like if I really had been Tony's brother. For sure, there was nothing I would have liked more to have been born into his family.
Since it was our last day, I wanted to make sure that I thanked these kind people. I knew that this was going to be my last chance to do so, and so before Tony and I got up from the table, I passed my appreciation to Mrs Slater for her cooking and hospitality.
"I want to thank you," I said, feeling that words were not really adequate, "I've had a great time."
"We've enjoyed having you," said Mrs Slater.
"You've all been so kind to me," I said.
And even as I said that, I almost felt myself welling up, not simply because our idyllic weekend had come to an end, but because I felt a genuine affection for these people. I was humbled by their kindness, grateful for their generosity, and overwhelmed by their hospitality.
"I mean that," I said, as sincerely as I could muster.
I think Tony's mom detected the emotional quiver in my voice, and she smiled, genuinely touched.
"You don't get much love at home, do you Ben?" she said.
It was an unexpected and unsolicited remark, but it proved that even she had detected the loveless and dysfunctional circumstances that I lived under.
"Not really," I confessed, "I don't get on very well with my mom."
She smiled sympathetically.
"That's a shame," she replied, "You're a good kid. You deserve better."
"Thank you," I said, chuffed that she too had such a high opinion of me.
Tony's mom smiled graciously, I think delighted at my appreciation, and maybe pleased to have made such a positive impression on me. Unlike my mom, she actually got a great deal of satisfaction from looking after her family.
Tony reached over and gave me a reassuring pat on the shoulder, by way of thanks for my sincerity, and to show his solidarity.
"Well, if it's any consolation," he said, "I'll be sorry to get back home too. You've made this trip so much fun Ben, you really have."
We were still sitting at the breakfast table when Tony's mom realized that Ethan had failed to show up for breakfast. She went to the kitchen door and shouted up the stairs for him. He came down a few moments later, ambling nonchalantly into the kitchen in his bathrobe, but wearing his spectacles. Clearly, he had been up for a while, and had been mysteriously pottering around upstairs.
"You've been working again, haven't you?" she enquired, with a tone of suspicion.
I guess the spectacles must have given him away.
"Just checking emails," Ethan explained, as though it was no big deal.
"You promised you'd leave all that till we got back home," Tony's mom reminded him.
"I know," Ethan conceded, pulling up a chair to join us at the table, "But I just had to see if that Hong Kong contract had come through."
At this point both Tony and his mom stopped. Tony put down his fork and looked up. His mom closed the refrigerator, stopped tidying up, and came over to the table. It seemed this was something they both wanted to hear.
"And?" Tony's mom enquired, anxious to terminate the suspense.
Ethan pulled his chair closer to the table and leaned over to help himself to pancakes, deliberately ratcheting up the anticipation, and clearly enjoying a moment of smug superiority by keeping everyone waiting.
"Ethan?" Tony's mom went on, clearly expecting an explanation.
Ethan leaned on the table on his elbows and smiled, speaking very slowly.
"Brush up on your Cantonese," he announced, "We're going to Hong Kong!"
Both Tony and his mom erupted in a little cheer of glee. Tony jumped up out of his seat in celebration. His mom rushed over to kiss her husband in congratulation. Ethan sat smugly at the table, clearly enjoying the moment.
"That's wonderful Ethan!" Tony's mom exclaimed.
"Yeah dad," echoed Tony, "Good for you."
Meanwhile, I sat at the table watching all this, not quite certain what was going on. Tony, seeing the bemusement on my face sat back down at the table to explain.
"Dad's been chasing this contract for months, haven't you dad?" he said.
Ethan nodded, by now tucking into the pancakes.
"His firm has been chosen to build new skyscrapers in Hong Kong," Tony went on, clearly proud of his father, "Isn't that right dad?"
"Yeah. There could be five, maybe ten years of work in it for us," he added.
My heart sank. In fact, it plummeted, as the realization embedded itself in my mind that my newfound friendship with Tony was possibly destined to be only a brief liaison.
"You're moving to Hong Kong?"
"Subject to my firm agreeing the terms of the contract," he said, "And I don't see why there should be any objections at this stage."
"What about school?" I asked, turning to Tony, determined to seek some kind of loophole in their plans.
"There's an American school there," Tony explained.
"Yeah," Ethan affirmed, "And a good one too."
"What about your friends?" I went on.
"They can come visit," said Tony, as though it was of no consequence, "You too."
I didn't think that was very likely. Coming away for the weekend was one thing, but mustering the time and the resources to visit Tony in Hong Kong was another matter entirely. To me, knowing the limitations in my rather insular and impoverished little life right now, it didn't appear a very realistic outlook.
I could see from his approach that the prospect of moving to the other side of the world didn't faze Tony one bit, and the type of things which would have completely destabilized me held no challenge for him. In some ways, that was even more disheartening, because it simply confirmed that for Tony our friendship was not paramount. This newfound companionship that we had established, for all its wonder and uniqueness, probably did not have the same significance to him as it did to me. That was a real shock. Clearly, he felt he could live quite adequately without me in his life. Just when everything had been going so well in my life, when I had finally found something good which made everything seem worthwhile, it was all suddenly going to be denied me. Far from being the beginning of a wonderful rapprochement which promised many new and exciting adventures, and which heralded the prospect of a positive and rewarding change in my life, it was after all just going to be a one-off, a rare and unique experience, never to be repeated. This was probably all there would be of my poignant and intense liaison with Tony. One brief shining moment, that's all it was destined to be. Was that all the happiness I deserved? At that moment I almost felt my heart break.
When I got home, still wearing the t-shirt that Tony had loaned me to replace my torn and bloodied polo shirt, it was with all the trepidation of having to return to the fetid, oppressive atmosphere of that poky apartment, with all the negativity it exuded. Instead of coming home buoyant and full of happy memories, I returned heartbroken and disillusioned. I came in, anxious to avoid having to speak to anybody. As it turned out, Alan had fallen asleep in front of the TV, as usual, with his head tilted right back in the armchair and his mouth agape. Petey wasn't there. He was usually over at Mikey's. My mom was in the kitchen knocking back another beer, luckily with her back to the door. She was so well-oiled that she probably didn't even hear me come in. It was probably just as well. I wasn't in the mood for her petulance and sarcasm. I passed by the kitchen silently and headed straight for my room. I slipped in completely unnoticed, so I wouldn't have to explain my injuries, the most prominent of which was the hardened little scab on my cheekbone which was already starting to heal. In any other circumstances I might have considered my wounds worthy souvenirs of the magnificent time I had had. I might have proudly sported the visible trophies of my boyish exploits, a testament to probably the most wonderful weekend of my life. But instead, they were worthless. Now, they were merely an inconvenience, awkward remnants of a weekend that was probably as memorable for its little crises as its poignancy.
It felt like my life was over. The truth is, over the period of time since I first got to know Tony, he had drawn me so irrevocably into his sphere of influence that I was absolutely infatuated by him. The weekend with his family had exposed me to a way of life that had always been unavailable to me. It had been so wonderful to be welcomed into his family with such amity and acceptance. I had got so close to Tony that I was thoroughly saturated by his presence and charisma. I adored him. I revered him. I idolized him. The truth is, I was secretly and problematically in love with him, as far as it was possible for a twelve-year-old schoolboy to be in love with another. But, it could never go anywhere. There was now no chance of that. Not even the prospect of a happy coexistence. Soon, Tony and his family were going to move away, and he wouldn't be in my life at all. And so, with all the good things in my life either compromised or denied me, I scurried quickly to my room, by now so steeped in my misery that I was barely able to hold back the tears. All I could do was close my bedroom door and throw myself onto the bed. Suddenly a black, blinding grief descended upon me, so that I curled up in despair and burst into tears. I wept so deeply and so profoundly, that I couldn't stop. I sobbed for ages, stifling my cries against the comforter so as not to arouse attention, and cried like I'd never cried before.
When I had cried myself out, I sat despondently on my bed for a long time thinking about my life. It seemed I had had very little joy in my life. Every day had been such a struggle for me. I had spent so long feeling miserable and unhappy, and no sooner had I found something that made me happy, it was gone. I wondered if there really was any point in it all, whether there really was anything for me to live for. And at that moment, as if in some ethereal answer to my plight, Petey walked in. He was evidently not expecting me to be sitting there so quietly on my own. He had been talking under his breath, muttering to himself absently as he went about his business, as all little kids tend to do, but as soon as he spotted me, he stopped. He saw me sitting there on the bed and hesitated for a few moments. Then, without saying anything, he closed the door quietly and sidled up to me, and sat down on the bed next to me, and just put his little arms around me, tilting his moptop head against my shoulder, because that is the kind of boy Petey was. He didn't ask anything, or pass comment, he just saw the situation as it was, and sat down to comfort me. And at that moment, feeling his little hand stroking me soothingly on my back, and feeling the love that he had for me, I knew that I still had something worthwhile in my life. I still had Petey.
"Benny? Why are you sad?" he asked, innocently, with that distinctive childish inquisitiveness in his tone.
"Because I made a very special friend Petey," I replied, "But it looks like he's going to go away."
"Who is it?" he asked, curious.
"You know the boy who was Ralph in the play?"
"It's him," I said.
"Ooh!" said Petey, fascinated by that information.
"I like him Petey. I like him very much."
"Like kind of your best friend forever?" Petey enquired, treading gently.
"Yeah Petey, the best friend I ever had."
And we carried on sitting there together in silence for a while, just enjoying a few moments of brotherly togetherness. Then Petey slipped off the bed, and got up, and he tugged at my hand.
"C'mon Benny, let's do some coloring," he suggested.
I knew it was a deliberate ploy to cheer me up. He was standing there with his little hands around my wrist, imploring me with a hopeful grin, so I indulged him, even though I didn't really feel like it.
Petey got his dog-eared coloring books out and spread them out on the small expanse of threadbare carpet on the floor of our room. Then he threw himself down on the floor, face down on his tummy, propped up on his elbows, and started leafing through the pages to find one that had not been colored in. I laid down next to him and opened the lid of the pencil box which contained a sorry looking amalgamation of chewed, blunt and broken pencils. Petey settled on a picture of a clown, and instantly started scratching away with a stubby little pencil, his little hand flourishing away in clumsy little arcs. I picked up another color and joined in. And we went on coloring away together for a while in silence, pausing only to swap colors and fish for new pencils from the box.
"Mikey's brother says that some boys have boyfriends," said Petey, piping up again, "Is that true?"
I couldn't help letting out a little laugh.
"Yeah Petey, that's right."
"Mikey's brother says that some boys like other boys instead of girls," he went on, still studiously focused on his coloring.
"Mikey's brother must be a real smart guy," I said.
"He is!" Petey enthused, "Mikey's brother knows lots of stuff."
"Is that so?"
"Yeh, Mikey's brother has a girlfriend and he kisses her and everything."
"How do you know?"
"Because Mikey said he saw them doing that one night when they were babysitting him."
"Good for him," I said.
Then there was a short pause, during which I could detect Petey mulling things over.
"You don't like girls, do you Benny?" he said, brazenly, perhaps not quite fully aware of the true implications of that statement.
Again I laughed, amused by Petey's innocent and uncomplicated view of the world, but also impressed at his astuteness. I had no idea how he had arrived at that conclusion entirely of his own accord, for we had never openly discussed it.
"Not much," I admitted, downbeat.
"You prefer boys," he concluded, without looking up from his coloring, phrasing it as though it was a statement of fact.
Significantly, Petey had just enunciated something which, over a long period of time, had gradually insinuated itself into my consciousness that it had become so tangible, it was no longer possible to ignore.
"Yeah, I think so," I replied.
"So Ralph is like your boyfriend," he went on, still trying to make sense of things in his childlike little mind, and confusing Tony with his stage persona.
"I wanted him to be," I confessed.
Then, after a short pause, Petey looked up from his coloring, the pencil suspended in his little paw, with a thoughtful expression.
"Do you think I'll like boys too?" he asked.
"I dunno Petey," I replied, trying to take his question seriously, "Do you ever think about other boys?"
"What do you mean?"
"Like Mikey," I suggested, "You think you would want him as a boyfriend?"
Petey gave a cute little chuckle and paused for a moment, as though some funny thought had occurred to him.
"I think I prefer Mikey's brother," he chuckled, "Besides, Mikey's too dumb to be my boyfriend!"
To which we both burst out laughing. And for a few moments we allowed ourselves a gentle rolling laughter, a good-natured giggle that instantly lifted my spirits, and my downhearted melancholy of a few moments ago was all but forgotten.