On Sunday night the next weekend, I was working on a math assignment when Danny stuck his head into my bedroom.
"Hey, buttface. Phone's for you. It's Matt." He stood in my doorway, waiting for a response from me.
I flipped him the bird and said, "Okay, already. I got it. Go do whatever it was you were doing. Then get some Kleenex and clean up the mess."
He laughed and said, "Fuck you," then went down the hall towards his room.
Immobilized, I stared at my phone for about a minute. Danny called out from his room, "Pick up, Andy, so I can hang up."
Finally I walked to my nightstand, picked up the receiver, and said, "Hey."
Matt's voice, resonant and jovial, sang to me through the wires. "Hey yourself. Where you been all weekend?"
I swallowed hard. "I...I was tired Saturday and just hung around the house, did chores and shit. Then Angie and I went out to a movie and stuff."
He said, "We were gonna pick up the girls and spend Saturday at the lake, I thought."
"I know, Matt," I said, "but I never said it was a for-sure thing. I didn't know you even really wanted to do it. I just thought you..." I couldn't finish.
He sounded annoyed. "You thought what? Hell, I wanted to get out there; I told you I did. Why would you think I didn't want to?"
"Look," I said, "I never even got around to telling Angie about it. Anyway, I was fuckin' tired after Friday night. And I didn't sleep worth shit."
The line was silent for a minute. Then he said, "Well, why didn't you at least call me and tell me? I thought it was a plan. I was waiting for you to call."
I snarled into the phone, "Then why didn't you fuckin' call, if it was that big a deal?"
"Look, goddammit," he said, "If you think just because I..."
The line went quiet again. After a gap that felt like forever, I heard him say, "All right. No big deal. I wasn't trying to rip on you."
"Okay, then," I said back to him. "You shoulda just called Ruben and Ryan, or Ethan and Justin, or some of the other guys if you wanted to go."
"Whatever," he mumbled. After still another long silence, he spoke again. "Andy?"
"Are you...I mean, is everything..." He stopped in mid-sentence.
"I need some help," he said finally. "My math homework is fuckin' with my head, and I just called to see if you had some time to look at it with me. You...Shit, I don't know, it's always easier to understand when you walk me through it."
"Well...okay," I said. "I can be over in about fifteen minutes."
He said, "You don't have to get out, I could just come over there."
"No. Don't," I said, too quickly. "I mean, it's fine. I wanted to get out anyway. But Matt...you got to handle up on your business by yourself pretty soon, don't you think? I'm not gonna be around next year."
There was a tinge of indignation in his voice as he said, "Look, Andy, I wasn't asking for a free pass through college, I was asking for an explanation on a problem or two. Not next year; right now. And you may not believe it, but I'm probably not too stupid to do college without you."
I winced. I hadn't meant to imply that. "Anyway," he said, "it was just a thought. If it's too much trouble, don't worry about it. I'll set up an appointment with Mrs. Evans tomorrow."
"No, man, I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that," I said. "And it's fine. I need a change of scenery anyway. I can be over in about fifteen minutes."
"Thanks," he said. "We'll just stick to business, okay? Probably it'll only take a half hour if I'm not being a total moron."
I smiled a little. "You're not a moron, Matt."
"That's right. I'm not," he said. "I pick up on things just fine." He paused; the subtext hammered me. But I ignored it; he wasn't gonna make this about me. I said, "I'll see you in fifteen, then."
Stick to business. Right. Well, I thought angrily, I guess I'm not too disgusting for him to call me over to help him with his math.
Six weeks went by. We hung out once in a while, for small bits of time. But I'd continued finding reasons to avoid him. When his eyes met mine, I didn't know what I saw anymore. Was it low-grade disgust? Or had I just become a curiosity, an oddity, a freak? Sometimes when we were hanging out, he didn't seem any different from the way he'd always been. At other times, I felt like a bug in a specimen jar.
By the end of football season, Friday nights on the football field amounted to the largest block of time I ever spent with him on a consistent basis. I didn't want him to feel any obligation to continue being best friends just because he felt he owed me something. So I found reasons to hang out more with my other teammates, reasons to need to be with Angie, reasons to need to study.
Reasons to stay away from him.
We ended football season with a decent record and just missed being district champs. Our teamwork on the field, his and mine, was direct, powerful, and effective. It was the one area where I wasn't afraid to let him in. But week after week, when the game was over, after we'd all gotten showered and dressed, as often as not I had somewhere else to be, something else to do. Something that didn't include him.
At first, he tried to get me to talk about what was going on. His efforts never failed to make me angry. He was the one with the fucking problem, why was he trying to act like I was the one ruining things? What the fuck did he want from me?
Actually, I thought I knew. What he wanted was for me to stop loving him the way I did. What he wanted was for me to be somebody I could never be. He resented me for taking his best friend away from him and putting some weird queer guy in his place.
Well, fuck him. If he couldn't deal with it, fuck him. I couldn't take back that night on the beach, but I never ever did anything to make him think I'd make a move on him. The only thing preventing us from being back to normal was Matt, I thought. And I wasn't going to let him guilt me into feeling that this was all my fault, that I was the one bringing problems into our friendship. So whenever he started asking me if something was wrong, trying to make things my fault, I'd always answer those questions by insisting that there was nothing wrong; I was "just busy." I "had to spend time with Angie." I "needed to study." I was "tired." I "wanted to do some stuff with all the guys" ("after all, they're my friends too.").
All perfectly legitimate reasons. Nope, nothing wrong here.
Gradually, he stopped asking, stopped waiting for me to show up in the parking lot after school, stopped phoning me for the late-night "I-need-a-break-from-homework" run to the Sonic. At school, we were cordial in the halls. Once in a while I'd help him with his studies. Occasionally he'd come over and we'd shoot some hoops. But I spent most of my leisure time with either Angie or the other guys from the team. I didnít want to have to feel his condescension every time I looked at him.
Mid-December came. Matt and I hadn't spoken in three weeks, hadn't hung out together in about a month.
That week, the week before Christmas break, I came down with the flu Sunday night. My fever shot up, my head stopped up, and I ached all over. I was out of school on Monday and Tuesday, and I was scheduled for a doctor's appointment on Wednesday. The days were bad enough; the nights were intolerable. My fever soared at night. Aspirin helped, but I was chilled to the bone from the fever.
Tuesday night, I was lying in bed in the dark. I was wearing just a pair of boxers--I never felt comfortable sleeping in more. My fever was high. I'd just taken a couple of aspirin, but they hadn't gone to work. And even with the blankets pulled up around me, I was so cold I couldn't sleep. As I lay there shivering, I heard my door creak open and saw light from the hall pour into my room. I rolled over to face the door so I could see who had come in.
Matt was standing in the doorway with a stack of books in his arms. I nodded at him; he nodded back as he set the books on my desk. He closed my door and walked back over to my bed.
"What's up with you?" he asked quietly.
"I can't fuckin' get warm," I said. "I have a fuckin' three-hundred degree fever and I'm so goddam cold that I can't even get to sleep."
He stared at me for a minute longer, not speaking. Then he sat down on my bed and pulled his shoes off. I watched, uncomprehending, as he stood up and began unbuttoning his shirt.
"What the fuck are you doing?" I asked.
He laid his shirt over my chair, then unbuckled his belt, slipped his jeans down over his hips, and stepped out of them, laying them on top of his shirt. He stood at the foot of my bed, naked except for his boxers. "Shut up and move over," he said quietly.
"What the fuck are you doing?" I repeated, obeying him nonetheless.
"You're cold," he said, as he slipped into my bed. "You're sick. This'll work. Turn over." I turned onto my left side again. And he pulled himself in close to me, his chest against my back, his arms around my upper body, his legs entwined with mine.
"You'll get sick, moron," I said over my shoulder. "Nobody asked you to..."
He rubbed my shoulders gently, interrupting me as he replied, "Nobody had to. Ever. Now try to sleep."
His warmth flowed into me. As he held me, I stopped shivering, and began to relax and let sleep take me. Lying next to him, with his body against mine, wrapped in his arms, I felt warm for the first time since Sunday.
Maybe since September.
And, warmed, I slept.
When I woke up Wednesday morning, he was gone. I tried to consider what it all meant, but I didn't have the energy. Around eight-thirty my mom knocked and came into my room. "I have to go to work, Andy," she said, "but you have an appointment with Doctor Harrison at nine-thirty; how do you feel? Can you drive yourself?"
"I'm better," I said, "but not great. Good enough to drive, though." My fever had broken some time in the night. I hesitated for a minute, then asked her, "Hey, what did Matt say to you when he stopped by last night?"
She frowned. "Matt wasn't here. You must have had a high fever."
Perplexed, I stared at her. It had seemed so real. "Well, whatever. Go on to work, I'll be fine," I said.
"Okay," she said. "Call me if you need me."
Just as I opened my mouth to say "okay," I saw the stack of books on my desk. When she left the room, I got up and walked over to them. There was a piece of notebook paper on top of the stack. He'd scribbled a note on it:
I checked with all your teachers. Look on the back. I wrote down your makeup assignments. I think I got all the handouts and books. Get well.
The bottom of the paper was torn off.
But he'd had the sheet on top of my stack of books when he wrote the note, and indentations from each letter had been pressed into the cover of the top book. There had been two more sentences, sentences he'd torn off. I could make out the words from the impressions left on the book cover:
Please stop doing what you're doing. It hurts.
My chest heaved.
But I wasn't going to be weak. I'm not the problem here, I said to myself. I don't care how nice it was.
As if to emphasize the point, his words from that September evening came back to me: "I'm not like you," I heard him say; and as if to reinforce that, I saw the Dream-Matt in my head, curling his lip, and adding with a sneer, "you queer fuck."
I started feeling lots better on Thursday. There was a lot to catch up on, though. School had recessed for Winter Break, and I had lots of back-assignments and study to take care of. The high school soccer team was going to be participating in a tournament over the break, and there were a couple of practices called for Monday and Tuesday, the 22nd and 23rd. I wasn't in the best of shape and wasn't really looking forward to the workout.
And on top of it all, I hadn't gotten all my Christmas shopping done.
I was restless, thinking about all the stuff on my plate. I needed a physical outlet. I wasn't completely well, but I hadn't exercised in days. On Saturday I called up Justin and Ethan, who were behind on their Christmas shopping too. We decided to meet at the Rec Center for some basketball; after that, we'd hit the mall and finish our shopping. The company would make it more tolerable; I was never a big fan of shopping. I enjoyed giving gifts, but I never liked the boredom of trekking from store to store.
I got in a good workout on the basketball court. We showered and hit the mall. When we got there, we split up and agreed to meet an hour later. I bought presents for my family and picked out a beautiful silver anklet for Angie. By the time I'd gotten Angie's gift it was time to meet up with my friends. We met outside the sporting-goods store at the agreed-upon time. After a brief conversation Ethan said, "Let's go to the food court and grab some pizza and Coke. Then maybe we could go back to the Rec and play some racquetball or something, if your sick ass is up to it."
'Well, Iím up for grabbing some food,' I said, "and racquetball sounds good. But I'm not finished yet. I got one more thing to get."
We got our food and sat down to eat it. Justin started asking me about the soccer team and how I thought we'd do. That led to a discussion of athletic scholarships and college, which led to a discussion about Matt getting some serious looks from some colleges for a football scholarship. Ethan was talking enthusiastically about Matt's throwing arm and his ability to scramble, when he stopped and said, "You know, I haven't seen you two hanging as much lately. What's up with that?"
"Nothing," I said, stirring my Coke with my straw.
"Just seems like...I mean, why aren't you doing all this mall-hopping with him?"
"I don't know," I said. "He has shit to do, maybe."
Justin eyed me with suspicion. "Did y'all get into it over something?"
"You'd have to ask him," I muttered, then added quickly, "No. Donít. Let it go, okay? It's nothing."
"Okay. Sorry, man; none of my business," he said. "Anyway, it's not like me and my bitch over here don't like your company," he grinned, pointing at Ethan. "It's just that if you don't patch it up with Matt, he may leave me and try to move in on you, and I'd be big-time fuckin' sad, then, 'cause nobody sucks dick as good as Ethan." He slapped Ethan on the back and broke into a laughing fit. Ethan shot him both fingers, but even though the joke was on him, he couldn't keep from laughing.
I wasn't quite as entertained.
"Well, if you boys want to stay here and work on your comedy routine," I said, "you gotta do it without me." I got up to leave; I still had one gift to go.
"Always somebody in the crowd with no sense of humor," Justin said, grinning, as he and Ethan followed me. "So I'll give you a chance to show me something you do have. Let's see if you can beat my ass at racquetball. Like that's gonna happen in your weakened condition."
We didn't return to the subject of Matt for the rest of the day.
Christmas Day came. I spent the day with my family. We opened our presents in the morning; then we went to church and spent the rest of the day with my mom's parents in Fort Worth. We got back home about eight o'clock that evening.
I had one more person I needed to see. I went up to my room, grabbed a small wrapped present, and made my way out the front door.
The mechanics of separating two lives that had once been close weren't easy. The past kept tripping me up. Memories and expectations complicated my resolve to avoid Mattís accusing eyes. I thought about that as I got into my car and drove over to his house.
We'd gotten each other Christmas presents and birthday presents every year since we were ten. I understood that he didn't feel so good about me any more, and I was definitely uncomfortable around him. But it's not as though we'd talked about anything, acknowledged that things were different. And you didn't just stop giving Christmas presents. That would be calling attention to the elephant in the living room.
We'd had one halting, painful conversation on the matter of Christmas presents a few weeks earlier in the hall at school. He'd brought it up. I figured he was looking for a way out, some way to pull back from me without making a spectacle of it. After an excruciating half-attempt to come to some mutually palatable decision, he'd said, "I know we both got to be saving up for next year. Let's just get each other CDs, okay? Just get me a CD." He thought for a minute, and laughed and said, "Get me some of your fancy-ass classical shit--something you think I could learn to like. Then when I hear it next year at college it'll remind me..." his smile faltered momentarily, but he recovered quickly. "It'll make me seem all sophisticated. I'll be able to tell people what it is, and damn, will they be impressed!"
"Yeah, reading the front cover of a CD that you own is pretty impressive," I said, grinning.
He looked at me, stopped walking, and his smile faded again. "I'll get you a CD I want you to have too," he said quietly. Then, as quickly as it had faded, his smile was back, lighting up his face. We started walking again. "I'll get you something totally unexpected," he said as we got close to our classroom, "and you'll have to love it; that's the rule that goes with this present. We're required to love the CD that we get."
"I've loved every other dumb-ass thing you've ever gotten me," I said; "why would this be any different?"
"Well, that's it, then," he said. "CDs all around, and no pissing and moaning about what we pick."
Outside the classroom door, things grew uncomfortable, as they often did lately. I tried to think of something else to say. "Hey, would you be interested in coming by tomorrow some time and maybe going to the Rec and playing some racquetball? I haven't hardly done shit since football, and I gotta get conditioned for soccer season."
He said quietly, "Yeah, I'd like that." With that we walked into class and sat down.
We ended up going the next afternoon, and for once we actually had a good time.
This was typical of the fits and starts we had during that time period: once in a while, it seemed as though maybe things would work themselves out. It felt good. Almost normal again. But then I'd catch him gazing at me, or I'd hear something in his tone of voice when he talked to me. Then the dream I had back in September would come back to me, and I knew that with the way he felt about me now, things would never be normal again.
I reflected on all that as I drove to his house with his present. When I got there, Matt's mom let me in, and I went up to his room.
He was watching TV; when he looked up and saw me, he smiled a little, and said, "Hey, Andy." He saw the gift in my hand and said, "All right! My holiday dose of culture; what did you get me?"
"Youíll have to open it and see," I said. "What did you get me?"
He got up and went to his closet and brought back a gift bag with a card attached.
Damn, I thought. I'll bet he wrote something. I didn't even get a card for him.
"You go first," he said, looking nervously at me.
I slid the card out of its envelope, read it, and doubled over with laughter. It was a raunchy card about Santa fucking the reindeer. Trying to regain composure, I asked, "Where did you get that?"
"New Fine Arts," he said. I raised my eyebrows; he grinned. The New Fine Arts Theater was an upscale porno shop in Dallas. "Have you ever been in there?"
"No," I said.
"Well, I gotta tell you about it some time. Anyway, open it."
I looked in the bag and pulled out the CD. It was a CD from an older metal band, Extreme. The CD's name was "Pornograffiti."
I looked at the picture on the cover. "A hair band, Matt? Didn't this come out when we were, like, ten?"
"Hey; I put a lot of thought into this," he said. "No pissing and moaning, remember the rules? You take it home and listen to it. You'll learn to like it. You're too much into the damn college-music bands. Listen to it until your brain sucks it in. It'll be good for you!"
"Okay, I'll give 'em a chance," I said. "Thanks, man."
I fell silent; the air was thick with what once was. I tried to speak, but my voice caught in my throat.
Matt came to my rescue. "All right--hand it over."
I gave it to him and he tore into the wrapping. "Bach. Brandenburgische Kon..." he trailed off, unsure of himself.
"Brandenburg Concertos," I said. "Concerti, actually, I guess, is the plural. Numbers One through Three. The group is headed by a guy named Pinnock, using the kind of instruments they had during Bachís day instead of modern instruments. It's a kick in the ass, Matt. You'll like it if you give it a chance. Especially the third one."
He looked at me. "You think?"
"I know you will," I said. "Let me listen to it with you and I'll help you..."
I stopped. "Maybe you can give it a few listens and we could talk about it some day. Oh, and be sure to read the liner notes. Itíll help you get the piece."
A look of exasperation passed over his face. "Andy," he began, "look, man, I wish you'd just..."
Then he seemed to change his mind about what he was going to say, and sighed.
"Thanks. Yeah, Iíll listen to it. If you gave it to me, it's gotta be cool. You Da Man with the classical shit."
"Damn right," I said, uneasily.
I needed to leave.
"We can hang out some over break, if you want," he offered.
If I want? Donít do me any favors, I thought bitterly.
"Yeah, sure," I said. "I'll call you."
He looked me straight in the eye and said, "No, you won't."
Twenty seconds passed as we stared into each otherís eyes.
I lowered my gaze to the floor. "I will, Matt," I said quietly.
"Okay, then," he said. "Or maybe Iíll call you."
"That would be fine," I said.
I turned to leave.
"Merry Christmas, Andy," he said.
I looked back at him "Thanks, man," I said. "You, too. Look, weíll get together some during the holidays.
I mean it."
He smiled. "Of course we will."
I did spend some time with him during the break. Usually at the rec center or at his house, playing video games. We kept it light, superficial. Itís odd to say that, because in a way, weíd usually kept things light and superficial throughout the years of our friendship. But these days, the good-times attitude seemed forced.
My heart was never far from broken. I knew I couldn't--shouldn't--love him. Not the way I did. I knew he didn't want that, didn't want me to be that way, wished I wasn't that way. I'd worked for months pulling my love for him back into myself and shutting it tightly in a box. I didn't hold that against him--but why did he have to feel the way he did about me? Why did he have to make me feel like a germ? And since he did, why did he insist on going through the motions of being friends? He clearly no longer had the heart for it. I didn't know the answers to any of these things, and I didn't know what to do about it. And while I was angry about his attitude toward me, I didn't want things all fucked up the way they were now.
New Year's Eve found us together, with our dates, at a party hosted by Kathryn Squires, one of the cheerleaders.
When the clock struck midnight, after we'd kissed our women, I pulled him away and we stepped into the back yard. I took a chair by the pool and motioned for him to sit next to me.
When he'd gotten settled in, I said to him, "I just needed to say something. I needed to ask for something."
"Go ahead," he said.
"Matt," I began, "we can find a way, can't we? I mean, with one semester left?"
He looked at me with surprise, then said quietly, "We can do whatever you need."
Whatever I need? I bristled. He was the one with the problem. He was the one who was all bent out of shape about me. And I didn't need his pity or his solicitude or his charity-friendship.
Well, at least he doesn't totally hate me, I thought. He's trying; why can't I just do my best to live with it?
Because I didn't want whatever it was between us to have to be about "trying." It never had to be like that before. And I hated having him feel that I was defective, hated him for making me feel that I was defective.
I said, "Can we please not keep making a big deal out of this? Why does that...that night...why does that have to keep fuckin' things up? Can't we just go on from there? We hit a bump. Can't we just move on down the road? We do okay, and then you always...I mean, I don't see why..."
I don't see why you can't let me love you and not treat me like a virus for it, I thought. But what I said was, "Look. Just be my friend, okay? Why should it be so hard? I'm not any different from how I've ever been."
"You're full of shit," he said angrily. "You keep acting like..."
He stopped, and I watched him struggle to get hold of his temper. He took a deep, ragged breath, and said, "I'm sorry. Of course I can be your friend. I've always been your friend. I'll do what you want. Just show me how you want me to be your friend and I'll do that."
"There's nothing to show," I said. "I just want it to be like it used to be, back before..." I choked on the thought and tried to say it another way. "I just want you not to always be lookin' at me like you..." My voice trailed off; I was too ashamed to say it out loud. Finally I looked down at the ground and said, quietly, "I want it like it's always been."
I raised my head; he was staring at me. I grew uncomfortable watching him as he studied my face.
Finally he said, "You don't even know what you're doing, do you?"
"I'm not fuckin' doing anything," I said indignantly. "I told you what I want and I don't see what the big deal is. You'll either do it or you won't."
"Andy," he said with a tenderness that caught me off-guard, "you're lying. You're lying to me, but worst of all, you're lying to yourself. I know you don't mean to be and I know you don't think you are, but you are." He put his hand on my shoulder. "But I'm tired, dude. I'm tired of doing this by myself. So we'll play it your way. Sure. I can make it like it's always been."
"I'm not fuckin' lying, and I don't know what the hell you're talking about," I said. "But I don't care about all that. We can get past it. Just stop making a big deal out of things."
"All right; whatever you want," he said quietly. "Happy New Year, then." He smiled at me, sort of. It looked for all the world like a wounded smile, and that pissed me off. "I'll try to show you," he said. "But I'll do what you want."
Show me what? I thought. But I wasn't in any shape to get into it. Ever again. I'd said my piece and he'd said he'd do what I wanted. Best to leave it at that.
"Happy New Year," I said.
We went back into the house, found our dates, and began following the new rules.
Copyright 2003-2007 by Adam Phillips