Gabe walked slowly over to the edge of the water and looked down. The ripples of current caught the moonlight in their creases and pockets, shining back up at him like shards of glass in the black of night. He took a sharp breath, unable to fill his chest. The air was thick, and his lungs felt tight all of a sudden, as if the salt of the sea were rising up and clinging to him, pulling him down under the surface of the water and out of the harbor with the tide, to the open ocean. He let out the breath. It was done. There was nothing more to think about, and he could never, ever, tell another soul.
New Hampshire: Two Boys Growing Up Together
“I don’t think I can go in there, Travis,” Stephen said to his best friend as they stepped off the bus in front of Northwest New Hampshire Regional High School. The squat modern red brick structure was nestled in against the base of a trio of heavily forested mountains, twenty miles from his home. The early September air was still heavy with the heat of summer, but Stephen shivered as he looked out across the parking lot at the building that would be the center of his world for the next four years.
Travis stood next to him, a backpack slung over his left shoulder, nodding his head slowly. If he was scared, he didn’t show it. “Come on,” he said. “It’ll be an adventure.”
“Sure, right.” Stephen gulped, slipping his own backpack off and holding it loosely at his side. “Adventure.”
“The world’s big, Stevie.” Travis elbowed his friend gently in the shoulder. “This is just the beginning. You’re going to love this, I promise.”
“Right.” Stephen watched the rush of other students flowing around them, as they stood like two rocks in a river.
The boys had different homerooms, so they started the day at opposite ends of the school. Stephen tried to ignore the butterflies filling his stomach as he left Travis and walked alone to his own classroom. But it wasn’t long before he saw Travis again; many of their classes were freshman requirements, so they had four out of six periods together.
At noon, the two of them filed out of Algebra One into the cafeteria. To Stephen, lunch was a free-for-all, a giant room full of panic and disorganization topped off with food. To Travis, it was a moment of amazement. The noise of all those people energized him—so many different conversations going on at once. He listened intently, picking up bits and pieces of what people said, straining to hear as many of the voices as he could. He marveled at the sheer number of people in a single place. He had always known that the world was bigger than his tiny single-street hometown of Forestville, but this was the first time he was actually getting to see that, feel it.
“Did you bring your lunch?” Stephen asked Travis.
Travis nodded his head, unable to take his eyes off the crowd.
“Where do you want to sit?”
“Over there.” Travis pointed to a crowded table with two empty seats toward the middle of the cafeteria.
Stephen’s stomach tightened. He had spent most of the morning with strangers. At least in class, he didn’t have to make unstructured conversation. Here, he would have to worry about making the right impression, being judged by everyone at the table, saying the right thing. “Okay,” he finally managed as he followed Travis over to the table.
The magic of Travis and Stephen’s friendship was that even though Travis loved crowds of people and rooms full of activity, he never left his friend behind. He somehow managed to drag Stephen with him, into conversations in crowded cafeterias, onto the high school basketball team, into school dances. Everywhere Travis went, he was popular. People liked him; they liked to talk to him. And Stephen went with him, standing reluctantly beside him, watching and sometimes participating in the conversations and games that seemed to erupt around the energy of his best friend.
Stephen had substance; beneath his silence there was a quiet determination about everything he did. Stephen almost never said a word during basketball practice. The first time he led a game in free throws and three pointers the crowd went wild while he calmly, almost sheepishly, stayed focused on the ball.
“Stevie,” one of the point guards said after the game was over and they were all sitting around at Morey’s Diner for hamburgers and fries. “Where did that come from?”
Stephen just shrugged his shoulders. “Dunno. I just had some open shots, so I took ‘em.”
Travis was sitting across the table from him. “You never know exactly what he’s thinking, but he’s always thinking,” he said, reaching over the table and messing up Stephen’s hair.
“It’s like it came out of nowhere,” the point guard continued. “Like you were just kind of invisible until you decided to show yourself and score twenty-one points in a single game.”
Stephen winced at the term invisible. He never knew why people felt that they had to be loud to be seen.
“It’s like he’s a ghost,” said another player who was sitting beside Travis.
“Stevie the Ghost,” said the point guard.
Stephen looked over at Travis, and Travis smiled.
Freshman year passed into sophomore year, and the two boys had settled into the routine of high school. They had fewer classes together in their second year, and gradually each was beginning to be a little bit more his own person. Stephen was still shy and a little quiet, and Travis still thrilled at the opportunity to be in front of any crowd, no matter how big or small. But both had grown to realize Northwestern was not really such a big place.
One day early in February, after a particularly grueling basketball practice, Travis left the locker room early, without a word to Stephen. Stephen didn’t think anything of it at the time, figuring they would catch up outside in the gym. Some of the team hung around after practice, even playing a quick game of Horse before they finally headed home. Stephen finished showering and got dressed, gathering his workout gear and shoving it into his duffle bag. He spent a few minutes on the locker room benches after everyone was dressed, listening to the rest of his teammates recount the practice and discussing what their strategy would be for the game later that week. He had even offered a few of his own thoughts about the other team, a private high school from a town sixty miles south, which they had played before only once during Stephen’s freshman year. After he’d heard enough of the recount, Stephen made his way out of the locker room to find Travis.
Sometimes, after practice, a few of his teammates would hang around accompanied by a couple of the cheerleaders who routinely spent time on the bleachers during practice. But a quick glance out at the basketball court told him that the place was deserted. The court was still. The janitor had already shut down the main lights, and the bleak shadows of basketball nets and steel rafters stretched across the wooden floor in the dull sulfur-yellow glare of the auxiliary lights.
Stephen took a right and bypassed the court, instead heading to the gym lobby. The wide linoleum floors of the lobby were silent. Glass cases around the sides of the room housed trophies of the school’s old basketball, baseball and football wins. Photographs of teams and occasionally pictures of single star players dotted the spaces between trophies.
Stephen crossed the lobby and stuck his head out of the front door, being careful not to close it. He knew it was already locked. “Travis?” Stephen called out, his voice echoed in the frigid New Hampshire night. The two of them had agreed to drive home together, and Travis didn’t usually break plans. Stephen ducked back inside and looked around the lobby again. He decided to double back into the gym and check the court again. Maybe he had missed Travis on the bleachers. It was unlikely, though. Travis was never quiet enough to miss. But as he turned around and retraced his steps, he heard the soft thud of something dropping to the wooden floor of the gym. It wasn’t quite like the sound of a basketball, more like someone had dropped a heavy backpack or gym bag. The sound had come from the corner of the gym, in the little cubby that formed when the bleachers were retracted half way up to the closed position against the wall. Stephen walked the twenty or so steps it took for him to get to the half line of the court, when he heard more sounds coming from the same spot. This time it sounded like the rustle of clothing, then the squeak of sneakers against the wooden floor.
“Travis?” Stephen said his friend’s name again under his breath, stopping for a few seconds at the half line and continuing toward the noise in the back of the gym. When he got closer, he could hear whispers coming from the closed off area behind the bleachers. He could identify one of the voices as Travis’s, but he couldn’t recognize the other. He moved closer until finally he could see beyond the corner. What he saw stopped him dead in his tracks. Without thinking, he dropped his gym bag. Travis was kissing another boy in a red sweatshirt and a pair of blue jeans, his arms wrapped around the boy’s waist. It was Danny Plymouth, one of the point guards on the Northwestern basketball team. Danny was a stocky kid, short and thickly muscled with the olive skin and deep brown eyes that hinted at some type of Eastern European heritage.
Danny was from another small town about ten miles East of Forestville, so Travis and Stephen rarely saw him outside of school. But he had started sitting with them occasionally at lunch. Travis had been hot and cold toward Danny. Sometimes he welcomed him into their conversations, shot the breeze or talked about upcoming games or maneuvers from the previous day’s practice. But other times, he was cold and quiet when Danny sat down.
Because of Travis’s popularity and their being on the basketball team, different people always joined them for lunch or sat with them before school or in between classes. So it wasn’t really odd that Danny ate with them. Travis was friendly to whomever sat down next to him. But he was unpredictable around Danny. Sometimes he was glad to see Danny, making room for him to squeeze in next to him at the table, but other times Travis looked down at his lunch when Danny approached and didn’t even make eye contact with him. The mixed up reactions to Danny had struck Stephen as odd, but he hadn’t ever mentioned it.
Now, standing in the darkened gym, watching his best friend grabbing clumsily at Danny, Stephen realized there was much more to the relationship than he had known.
“Umm.” Danny put his hands on Travis’s chest and pushed him slightly away.
Stephen could hear Travis’s muffled voice as he tried to stop Danny from pushing him away. “It’s all right.”
“Umm.” a tone of panic started to build up in Danny’s voice. He was looking over Travis’s shoulder, directly at Stephen’s silhouette. His olive skin had turned bright red, and he was trying desperately to push Travis away.
“What?” Travis said, backing up and looking directly at Danny’s face.
Stephen meant to turn around at that point and walk away. He thought maybe he should leave and give his friend the privacy this moment deserved. But he was so shocked, he found himself frozen. His feet just wouldn’t move. So, when Travis finally did register from the shocked and panicked look on Danny’s face that something was wrong, he turned around to see his best friend standing stock still, staring at him. Stephen’s hands hung loosely at his side and his gym bag sat beside him on the floor.
“Stevie.” Travis said. His face went blank.
Danny scrambled out from behind Travis, grabbing his own gym bag and heading out for the lobby. His walk transitioned into a jog as he got farther away from them, speeding up to a full-on run by the time he reached the door.
“Danny,” Travis called after him. “Wait.” But it was too late. Danny had already burst out of the gym doors, and he was probably halfway through the parking lot by that time. “You forgot your jacket.”
“Oh well,” Stephen said, searching for the right thing to say. “I guess you can give it to him tomorrow.” Travis’s eyes were glassy. Stephen added quietly, “I’m sure you’ll see him.”
Travis nodded slowly. The two boys stood staring at each other for a few minutes. Stephen could see, even from a few feet away that Travis’s lips were chapped and his face was red and blotchy, especially on his chin and around his mouth.
“Stevie, I…” Travis paused.
Stephen said nothing.
“I don’t…this isn’t…I didn’t…” Travis was stuttering. Stephen couldn’t process this. Travis was usually so polished, so absolutely on top of his game. He was always the one talking, telling the story, so well composed. Stephen was usually the one uncomfortable in his own skin, unable to relate to the people around him, nervous and just a little sweaty. But as he looked at his friend tonight, Stephen could see no trace of Travis’s cool collectedness.
“I…” He struggled to continue but he couldn’t manage to get a word out.
Stephen shrugged. “Don’t worry about it,” he finally said. “It’s not a big deal. And besides, I won’t tell anyone.”
“I…” Travis looked down at the floor. He took a few steps and closed the space between them. Stephen could see the tears welling up in his friend’s eyes. Travis clamped his eyes shut for a few seconds and opened them again, looking left to right, but still looking down at the floor.
“Come on.” Stephen put his arm around Travis’s shoulder, corralling him toward the lobby. “Still want to drive home?”
Travis nodded, and the two of them started to walk toward the exit. But Stephen stopped after a few seconds, realizing they had forgotten Danny’s coat. He released his friend and jogged back to grab it off the floor. “Can’t forget this, can you?” he said.
The winter air was cold against his skin as Stephen held Travis’s shoulder in the crook of his arm. But the night was clear and the stars were brilliant, filling the sky with a dazzling display of bright yellow pinheads against the blue black of the galaxy. Travis shuddered against the cold as they crossed the parking lot, and he unlocked his dad’s Subaru station wagon.
“I don’t want to go home,” Travis said as he opened the door and pressed the unlock key to let Stephen in on the passenger side.
“Okay.” Stephen ducked into the car and closed the door behind him. Travis stood outside for a few more minutes and reluctantly climbed in, but did not immediately put the key into the ignition.
“Can we go for a drive?” Travis said. “I really just…I really just need some time to think.”
“Do you want to be alone?”
Travis shook his head and slid the key into the ignition switch. The Subaru sputtered to life in the cold New Hampshire night, and Travis put the car into gear and pulled out of the high school parking lot without another word.
They drove up past Forestville, over the bridge and out into the Vermont countryside. The hum and sputter of the little car marked the passing time. Travis popped a tape into the cassette deck, and Bruce Springsteen came on the tinny factory speakers.
“So.” Stephen was the first to speak. “Are you and Danny boyfriends?”
“What? No!” Travis looked at Stephen, but only for a couple of seconds, until Stephen looked directly back at him. Then he couldn’t meet his friend’s eyes any longer and looked straight out the windshield to focus on the road. “It’s not like that,” he said after a few minutes.
“Well it should be,” Stephen said sharply.
“You were making out. You shouldn’t be making out unless he’s going to be your boyfriend.”
“I was just experimenting. It’s not who I am.” Travis’s voice was different now; the familiar energy of his ‘on voice’ was back. Stephen recognized it and rolled his eyes.
“Travis.” Stephen put his hand on his friends shoulder. “Don’t”
“Don’t do your crowd voice on me.”
“Travis, you’re my best friend. We’ve known each other since we were born. I know your fake voice. Whatever happens, you can’t use that voice with me—first, because you won’t get away with bullshitting me and second, because I’ll be really, really pissed off at you for even trying.”
Travis kept his eyes on the road ahead. Stephen could see his face in the instrument lights, and he watched as a single tear formed on the outside corner of his right eye and slid silently down his cheek.
“It’s okay, Travis.”
“Boyfriend.” Travis repeated the word from a few minutes earlier in a whisper and shook his head.
“Do you like him?”
Travis pursed his lips together as if to speak, but he didn’t say anything for a few minutes.
Stephen grinned. “Well, do you?”
“He’s kind of hot,” Travis finally said, and both boys erupted into laughter. “But he’s a little clingy.”
Stephen nodded. “Is that why you sometimes ignore him when he comes to sit with us at lunch?”
“Yeah, I guess. I don’t know.”
That night they drove around for hours. Stephen called their parents so they wouldn’t wonder where they were. Then he was silent and let Travis do the talking. He didn’t interrupt him once. He let him speak about the things happening in his head and his heart.
The next morning, Stephen found Danny in between classes. He was at his locker putting some books away when Stephen walked up and handed him the jacket he had left on the gymnasium floor. “You left this after practice last night.”
Danny turned scarlet as he took the coat from Stephen’s hand. “It’s not what it looked like,” Danny said.
Stephen smiled softly. “Yeah it was, Danny.” He patted Danny on the back. “It’s cool. Believe me, I’m not going to say anything. Travis is my best friend. I don’t care who he likes.”
Danny let out a sigh of relief. “Thanks.”
Stephen smiled, and then he punched Danny gently on the shoulder and turned to make his way down the hall.
As Stephen walked away from Danny that day, something pulled at his chest from the inside. He had listened to Travis’s confession the night before. At first, when he’d discovered Travis and Danny together, he had felt as if he had interrupted something very personal, something he shouldn’t have seen. But he wasn’t really sure if he was surprised. He hadn’t ever thought about whether Travis was gay or not. There’d been nothing to indicate a preference one way or another. He and Travis had talked about movie stars they thought were ‘hot’ or ‘fine’ but for Stephen, those conversations had always felt slightly aloof—regurgitated from the dialogue they had heard in movies or from older kids in the cafeteria.
But then, as they had driven around the back roads of eastern Vermont, and the initial surprise had worn off, he realized with deep sadness that Travis had felt he’d had to keep it a secret. Something just didn’t fit with that.
Stephen decided to push the thoughts of Travis and Danny to the back of his mind. He couldn’t help thinking they were like clouds on a beautiful day, a mild threat of derailing an otherwise pleasant experience. Stephen shook his head and tried to shrug off that feeling. A second later, the class bell rang, and he broke into a slow jog. He still needed to get to his locker before he went to class. He would definitely be late.
Travis and Stephen decided to go to different colleges. Stephen packed his bags and went to Bellard College, a small liberal arts school in North Carolina, almost as an act of rebellion against his college professor parents. They had let it be known in subtle ways that they’d wanted their son to follow in their footsteps. His high school years were filled with science camp, writing camp, and trips to museums all around Boston and New York. When they looked at college campuses during Stephen’s junior year in high school, his parents had suggested Yale, Stanford, Brown and other schools they thought Stephen should attend.
But Stephen had other plans. He wanted someplace small, where he wouldn’t be overwhelmed with either the sheer volume of people or the academic pressures. He chose Bellard because he liked it. His parents tried to hide their disapproval, but it still shone through in small ways. They would forget the name of his school in mid-sentence or his father would come home and talk about some of his friends’ children who were attending Harvard or Columbia. He would never fail to mention how Stephen was smarter then they were, but choices were choices.
Travis’s parents were surprised he wanted to go to school at all. Travis had started working at his father’s hardware store during high school and though nobody said anything explicitly, they assumed he would take on a full-time position at the store after high school. When he brought home a printed out application form for Emerson College in Boston, they pretended not to notice for a few days. But after he had spent several nights at the kitchen table staring at the application with a dull pencil in his hand, his mother finally helped him outline his essay and fill in the rest of the application, including the financial aid form. His father watched out of the corner of his eye from the living room while he pretended to pay attention to a Patriots game on television.
The summer before they left for college seemed to stretch on forever. The elation of graduating from high school, combined with the warm days and cool mountain nights gave those weeks a mythical quality. The two boys were inseparable during that summer. Their other high school friends had gone their own ways shortly after the week of graduation celebrations. All of them, that is, except Danny. He still came around from time to time. Stephen had actually grown to like him quite a lot.
But Stephen couldn’t help getting a feeling of futility when it came to whatever relationship Danny and Travis still had. Travis was less and less interested. Perhaps he’d outgrown Danny after two years of being together, or perhaps it was Travis’s impending departure for college. Danny was taking a different route—he had enlisted in the navy and would be heading to boot camp in August.
Stephen and Travis had never talked about Danny; he had just slowly become an adjunct to their friendship. He would pop up on weekends or if the boys went somewhere after school. Most of the time, he just slid in beside Travis, but some days he would show up, and Travis would be gone. He’d cross the fence from Travis’s house to Stephen’s. Stephen would be lazing about reading or maybe doing some yard work. On one day in particular, Danny showed up as Stephen was chopping wood in back of his house.
“Hey, Stevie.” Danny had adopted Travis’s nickname for Stephen somewhere along the way.
“Hi. Danny.” Stephen tapped a steel wedge gently into a large chunk of oak with a sledgehammer until the wedge stood up on its own. Then he backed away and swung the sledgehammer down onto the wedge. The clang of the steel came first, followed up by a crack as the wood split into three pieces.
“Guess you won’t be here to burn that wood this year.” Danny watched as Stephen laid down the sledgehammer and picked up the pieces of wood, carrying them over and tossing them neatly on top of the stack of wood running along the fence.
Stephen laughed. “No, not for most of it. I’ll be back for Christmas, though.” He walked back toward the sledgehammer and rolled another stump over to his chopping area. “What about you? How long will you be gone at boot camp? I don’t expect they’ll let you come home for long after you’re done, will they?”
“Nah.” Danny shook his head. “I’ll get a little time off after boot camp, but then I’ll probably put out to sea.”
“So,” Stephen paused for a moment from positioning the wedge on the next stump. “What’s the deal with you and Travis, then? Are you guys going to try and do the long distance thing?”
Stephen watched as Danny shifted his weight back and forth from one foot to the other and dug his hands deep into his pockets. He’d never asked Danny directly about their relationship; he’d never even asked Travis about it. But something that afternoon made him wonder what was really going on.
“You know,” Danny finally said. “Well, um, actually, how much do you know about, um, Travis and me?”
Stephen wiped his brow and shrugged. “Not much, I guess. I just, you know, figured that you guys were, whatever…together, I guess. Boyfriends.”
Danny winced at the last word. “Yeah, well, I don’t know about that.”
Stephen was quiet.
“It’s not really that kind of a thing.” Danny tried to sound casual, but his voice sort of drifted off and he looked away from Stephen.
“But you wanted it to be, didn’t you?”
“I don’t know, Stevie.” Danny shrugged. “It’s easier not calling it something. Means I don’t have to put a label on myself.”
“That sounds more like Travis than you.” Stephen picked up the sledgehammer again and gently tapped the wedge into place on the new stump, the clink, clink, clink of the metal on metal breaking through the quiet heat of the summer day. “Were you guys ever boyfriends?”
“I kind of thought we were. But Travis said he didn’t want that.” Danny looked away again. “I feel bad talking about it without him here.”
Stephen lifted the sledgehammer above his head and brought it down in a loud crash, driving the wedge halfway into the stump, but not splitting it fully. “It’s okay, Danny. I won’t mention it to him if you don’t want me to.”
“For a while,” Danny said, “I thought that you guys were, you know.”
Stephen put the sledgehammer down and looked directly at the other boy. “What?”
“Well, you know, you’re always hanging around each other. You’re best friends and all. And, well, I see the way he looks at you all the time.”
Stephen shook his head. “Nah. I love Travis, but he’s like a brother to me. We grew up together, in these houses our whole lives.” Stephen gestured to the two houses behind him.
Danny nodded silently for a minute, as if digesting things. “He never stops talking about you. Not when we’re alone. It’s always ‘Stevie and I did this’ or ‘Stevie and I are going fishing next week.’” He stopped briefly. “At first, I was a little jealous, because I wanted him to want to be that close to me. It’s not easy, you know, when you want to be close to someone, and you don’t know how to say it. And then you see that person is really, really close to someone else.”
Stephen could see the distant look in Danny’s eyes shift from lost to just a little sad. “I’m sorry, Danny. I always thought he should pay more attention to you.”
Danny waved his hand as if shooing away a mosquito. Stephen thought his eyes betrayed a little bit more pain than he wanted to show. “It’s no big deal. Eventually I stopped being jealous about it and just took it for what it was—this awesome relationship that you two had. Have. You know what the funny thing was?”
Stephen shook his head.
“The funny thing was seeing how much Travis loved you, how much he was always looking forward to being with you or talking about you, made me love him even more because I could see how good a person he is. It just killed me a little he didn’t feel the same way about me that I did about him.”
“Danny.” Stephen brushed the palm of his hand across his forehead, wiping away a thin layer of new sweat, and then he walked over and leaned against the woodpile where he had left a bottle of water. Danny followed suit, leaning back beside him and watching him take a swig. “What are you going to do about the Navy?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean you’re gay. Why are you going into the Navy when you know you can’t be yourself?”
“I’m not sure I’m gay.”
“Oh,” Stephen nodded his head slowly. “This whole thing with Travis? The last few years? You don’t think that’s a pretty strong indicator?”
“It doesn’t matter,” he sighed, reaching over to pull a large splinter of wood off of one of the stacked logs. “They have the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy now, so I can go in with a clean slate. I just have to, you know, play by the rules.”
Stephen nodded quietly. He didn’t know what else to say.
The days of summer stretched on and on in a warm collage of chores and hikes and swims that year. June and July were eternities to themselves, but eventually August rolled around, and it seemed as if summer would actually come to a close after all.
In the final days leading up to Travis and Stephen’s departure for school, the two families held a cookout to celebrate. The two young men sat next to each other in a pair of old wooden Adirondack chairs, surplus products from Travis’s dad’s hardware store. Amid the hamburger and charcoal smoke of the afternoon, they talked through the highlights of their four years in high school, a small crowd of family and friends listening and sometimes adding color to a particular story. The evening seemed to Stephen to possess a sense of fulfillment, of the end of one major set of accomplishments and the dawn of his “real life.” It was unclear to him, though, if his friend shared the same sense of accomplishment. Travis, usually at his best and most showy in front of a crowd, had been strangely quiet all afternoon.
Stephen’s mom eventually commented on the lack of Danny’s presence. It was toward the end of the afternoon, when the shadows were growing long, and the air was just starting to cool off with the mountain chill that blankets the summer evenings of the New Hampshire mountains. Most of the other guests had peeled off, one by one, to their own homes, and it was just Travis and Stephen and their parents. “Funny Danny didn’t show up today,” she remarked as she picked up a few stray paper plates. “He hasn’t headed off to boot camp yet, has he?”
Stephen watched as Travis’s face darkened for just an instant before he recovered. “No, Mrs. D.” Travis had referred to Stephen’s parents as Mr. and Mrs. D. since he had been in fifth grade, the two-syllable Davis being too long for such a cool pre-teen to say. But the nickname had stuck. “He hasn’t left yet. He was just busy today.”
“Oh, well that’s too bad. I’m going to miss seeing him around.” She paused for a moment before heading into the house with the stack of used paper plates full of leftover hamburgers and potato salad. “I’m going to miss all of you guys. I can’t believe it.” She took a breath. The boys were silent, and she shook her head slightly and headed into the house.
Stephen waited for a few minutes after his mom had left before he said anything. The boys were alone now, and the only sounds were the river rushing through at the foot of the yard and the clank of dishes through the open kitchen window of the Davis’s house.
“You never told your parents about Danny, did you?”
Travis exhaled a long, loud sigh and shook his head no.
“Right.” Stephen shook his head in synch with his friend. “How could you tell them that without telling them the other thing.”
“Stevie, not now.”
“Look, dude, if you want to go off to college without ever telling them about who you really are, that’s your deal. It’s not my life, but…”
“That’s right,” Travis cut him off a little too quickly. “It’s not your life. So stop trying to tell me how to talk to my parents, okay? I’m not ready to tell them that stuff yet.”
Stephen shrugged and was silent. He had known Travis long enough to know there was no malice behind the tense words. The boys sat in silence for a few minutes.
“Are you nervous about school?” Stephen asked after a few minutes.
Travis shook his head slowly. “Nervous? Nah, not really.” He let out a slow sigh. “I’m excited. I can’t wait to get down to Boston, see a whole new city. How about you? You got a longer way to go. You nervous?”
Stephen nodded. “Yeah, a little, I guess.” He stared out toward the river. “I’ll miss this place. I’ll miss you.”
Travis winced and shook his head. “I’ll miss you too,” he finally said. “I wasn’t going to think about it, though. I figure we’ll see each other on Thanksgiving and Christmas and then again all next summer.”
“Yeah,” Stephen kept his eyes on the river. “I guess you’re right.”
The Boy From Watertown
There was just enough lawn to fool you into thinking it was a yard, but not enough to actually do anything fun like playing baseball or hide and seek. The house itself was a respectable two-story bungalow with a thick glossy coat of white paint that gave it a shine in the mid-morning sun and something of a glow in the rain. Green shutters framed out the windows, and well-manicured hedges added to the respectability and neatness of the place.
Gabriel Brennan had lived in this house for all of his sixteen years. For as long as he could remember, he’d had a bedroom to himself, but that hadn’t always been the case. When he was just a baby, he had shared a bedroom up in the eaves of the house with two of his brothers. He was lucky, so his brothers told him. As the youngest, he’d gotten an entire bookshelf and a bureau to himself. His two older brothers had to share a bureau and neither one of them had a bookshelf. Of the four bedrooms in the house, his two sisters had shared the bedroom beside his, and his two oldest brothers split a bunk bed across the hall. His parents’ room was the only bedroom downstairs on the main level.
Gabriel was the youngest, eighteen years younger than his oldest brother and ten years younger than his youngest older brother. His two sisters were in the middle—the order had gone James, John, Michael, Mary, Siobhan and Connor. Then Gabriel had rounded out the Brennan family long after anyone expected an addition.
Gabriel’s brothers and sisters had all moved out of the house by the time he was sixteen and a junior in high school and the once loud and rambunctious home had become a slow motion version of its old self. Where there had once been the chaos of barely enforced routine, now there was simply the languid pace of morning after morning of getting up and greeting the day.
Gabriel, or Gabe, as his father and his friends called him, was quiet. It was as if the exhaustion of the house had somehow manifested itself in his personality. He was slow to speak and kept mostly quiet during meals. His parents had done their best to make sure he was involved in as many activities as possible, thinking that might make him more social. But he was as quiet at school as he was at home. However, thanks to his parents’ efforts to bring him out of his shell, he played a number of sports at Saint Luke’s, the Catholic High School he attended. He was good enough to get by in basketball and baseball. He had absolutely no talent in football, and only played for one season—and at that he never saw a game. He proved quite skilled at lacrosse, but he never really enjoyed it. His passion was for running, even if he wasn’t the fastest runner on the cross-country and track teams.
Kids are often cruel to those who are quiet, but Gabe seemed to escape this fate. Playing sports kept him above reproach for the most part. Because he never said anything more than absolutely necessary, his fellow students never knew if he was smart or stupid; if he was quick-tongued or slow; or if he was good with the girls or not. He had the reddish-blond looks people talked about; all he had to do was flash his bright blue eyes, and he melted hearts. He was friendly enough with everyone but not close to anyone. He made it a point never to give anyone enough to judge him deeply.
The two exceptions to Gabe’s stone-like silence were his two cross country and track teammates, Thom Green and Jack McClean. The three of them had run on the Saint Luke’s cross-country and track teams together since their freshman year and had forged a deep bond through miles and miles of practice runs, races and cool downs. They had suffered through shin splints and ankle sprains and Charley horses together, and had become inseparable.
Both Jack and Thom lived in the same neighborhood in the nearby suburb of Waltham, about a ten-minute drive from Gabe’s house in Watertown. But the boys had been like brothers since their freshman year.
Gabe was more talkative with Jack and Thom. Maybe the miles they’d run together and the races they loved gave him something to talk about with them. Maybe they’d experienced the euphoria of winning and the exhaustion of losing together. In some of his deeper moments of teenage self-reflection, Gabe had tried to pinpoint exactly what made him feel like talking when he was around Jack and Thom, but he could never quite figure it out.
If he had figured out how to warm up to the broader population of his school, or if he’d had the ambition to use his looks to his advantage, Gabriel Brennan would have been a very different kid. But he wasn’t the least ambitious in that way. He didn’t want the things that other teenagers seemed to want. He couldn’t care less about popularity or girlfriends or cars or even grades. He sailed through classes, putting whatever effort was necessary in to his schoolwork. He studied when he needed to study and not when there was little or no use in it.
“Gabriel,” his mother asked one Saturday morning when they were both sitting at the kitchen table. Gabe had his nose in a history book, studying for an upcoming test. He nodded and looked up briefly at her. “Have you given any thought to what you want to do for college yet?” She took a sip of her tea and turned the page of a Reader’s Digest magazine she was re-reading for the tenth time.
“Not exactly,” Gabe lied. He had started to think about schools, but he knew what he wanted to do didn’t require a college degree. His parents’ patience had worn thin after the last discussion they’d had about his future.
“You really should, you know.” She played with the tea bag, dunking it swiftly a few times.
“I know,” he said. “Can I borrow Dad’s Jeep tonight?” He tried to change the subject.
She frowned. “Gabriel, I’m talking to you about college.”
He slipped a napkin into the page he was reading and closed the history book. “I know,” he said. “I’m looking at them, I just haven’t really made up my mind yet.”
“You know you’re coming to the end of your junior year. I don’t want to stress you out or anything, but you’ve got to get things in line for that. Senior year will be here before you know it.”
“Ma, you know what I want to do, right?”
She nodded and took another sip of her tea, glancing down at her magazine. “You’ve said it a few times.”
“I feel like you and dad aren’t even listening.”
“We’re listening, Gabriel, we really are, but you know what your father thinks.”
“Watch the mouth.” She looked up.
He shook his head slowly. He didn’t want to get into it with her again. They had the same argument over and over these days. When he was younger and somebody asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up, it was perfectly fine to say you wanted to be a policeman. At sixteen, with the decision about what college he should go to in front of him, that answer just wasn’t right for his parents any longer.
“I don’t know why you won’t listen to me,” Gabe said. “I want to go into law enforcement. I don’t need to go to college for that.”
She looked at him in silence and took a heavy breath. “Gabriel, I think wanting to work in that field is noble. But—”
“—but you and dad don’t think it’s good enough.”
“I think it’s a very big decision not to go to school. You might find later in life that you wish you had.”
Gabe looked at her but said nothing.
The Watertown public track was an old quarter mile loop of crushed rubber and asphalt nestled in among the rolling hills of thickly settled neighborhoods. It was about a ten-minute walk from the Brennan house, and Gabe ran on it during the summer and when he wanted to practice on his own. Almost all the cross country and track events Gabe ran were in meters, but he liked that this track was a quarter mile—what the old guys called a four-forty track. It was nostalgic and cool, a hold out against the progressing tide of the more modern four hundred meters.
“Four hundred and forty yards,” he said out loud to himself as he closed in on the first quarter mile and looked down at his watch. A minute and twenty eight seconds. He focused on the asphalt. He was right where he should be to come in a hair under a six-minute mile. It wasn’t the fastest quarter mile he could put in, but he wanted to pace himself. He hadn’t been able to break six minutes this whole year, and the cross-country season would start in another month.
The early August morning air was still crisp and cool as he filled his lungs. Gabe had woken up ahead of his alarm clock and ambled down to the track while it was mostly still empty. This was his favorite time of the day to run, before the rest of the world woke up. The few clumps of walkers stayed mostly to the inside of the track. Gabe passed a group of them as he rounded out the second quarter mile. He looked back down at his watch. Two minutes and fifty-nine seconds. He had picked up an extra second in the second quarter mile. He drew in a deep breath through his nose and pushed it out through his mouth.
The running helped him clear his mind. He had lain awake most of the night after a particularly tough evening with Thom and Jack, his teammates from cross-country. The three of them had gotten together at Jack’s house to watch a couple of old races—some their own, some college or IAAF races.
It was rough not because he had stayed up late, or worse, that he had been drinking, something he never did. Gabe wasn’t particularly interested in being a goody two shoes, but he was afraid of what he might let himself do or say if he got drunk. No, the evening was rough because all night he’d been unable to stop staring at Thom.
He didn’t know what had happened to him over the last year, but lately he’d been finding himself lost in thought about his fellow runners, or worse, staring at random guys he happened to see walking down the street. He’d notice the musculature of some guy’s shoulders or his calves or glutes. He’d try to rationalize that he was only admiring them for the work they required, for the exercise and commitment to sport. But more and more often, he knew that wasn’t why he was looking. What had made matters worse last night was that Thom was staring back at him. A lot. The three of them had been lying on the floor in front of the television, and Thom had adjusted his legs so that his calf was touching Gabe’s calf, and he’d left it there. It drove Gabe insane, but he refused to acknowledge it, silently soaking up the heat of skin on skin.
He focused on the asphalt track in front of him. The sun was just starting to burn through the early morning haze, and he could feel the beginning of what would be a hot day. He cleared his third quarter mile and looked down at his watch to realize he was at four minutes and thirty-four seconds.
“Shit,” he said out loud, feeling the burn in his lungs from just speaking that single word. He doubled his focus, did a mental inventory of his body—arches, fine, there was never an issue with them; shins, slight twinge of pain with each strike, the beginning of another bout of shin splints if he wasn’t careful, he would have to ice them; knees, fine, a dull throbbing pain in each that was always there; glutes, ah, there was the problem. He wasn’t engaging his glutes enough. He leaned slightly forward and purposely lined his legs up, lengthening his stride and intentionally pushing from his rear muscles. Each stride became more of a leap than a step.
He quickened his pace and raced against the thoughts in his head. He briefly pictured a team racing with him, edging toward the finish line. He imagined Jack and Thom next to him, running hell bent for leather, legs stretched out in front of them, spikes thumping in rapid succession as they hit the track. He looked down at his own legs, and the image in his mind blended with what he saw. It started to work. He felt the seconds ticking away, but he was going to come in just under what he wanted to for the first mile. He rounded the bend and crossed the finish line at five minutes and fifty-nine seconds. He kept going, to see if he could maintain the pace for two consecutive miles.
He let off the gas just a little bit, trying to find his momentum in the new pace. His mind wandered back to the imaginary team he had running against him. He saw the sweat dripping down Jack and Thom’s faces. He imagined what Thom’s singlet would look like, drenched from the center of his back down. He shook his head and tried to think of his breathing instead. The competition in his head was turning slowly into something else altogether, and if he let it go as he had before, it would end in something he was having trouble coping with.
Gabe continued around for another three laps, losing a couple of seconds on each split. He looked down at his watch as he rounded the first corner of the track on his final lap. He was set to make a second mile at just over six minutes and ten seconds. He pushed as hard as he could, his legs aching, a hollow feeling in his stomach as he tried to manage just how much he could sprint going into the last two hundred yards. He pushed harder, and the images of the other two boys crept back into his mind, only this time they were on the sidelines at the finish, shouting at him to run faster. In his mind, Thom’s lips were dry and chapped, as they had been when he’d seen him the night before. He crossed the finish line, and the images vanished from his mind. He bent over, heaving and feeling slightly nauseous.
“Walk it out,” a voice came from the side of the track. He looked over to see his father leaning on the waist-high fence that circled the track. “Don’t stand still. You know better than that. Get moving into your cool down lap, go on.”
Gabe nodded at his father and started off into a slow shuffling jog. He wondered when his dad had shown up to watch him, and he felt the heat of shame underneath the sweat from his work out, thinking of the things he’d been imagining in his father’s presence. He shook it off. It wasn’t like his dad could see into his head.
As he finished up his cool down lap, his father met him on the track. “Walk a couple more laps with me?” he said to Gabe.
Gabe nodded. He was slowly getting his breath back. “What’d you come down for Dad? You’re usually at work now.”
His father nodded. “I figured you’d be down here, and it seemed like a good chance to get my walk in.”
Gabe nodded at him. “You want to talk about the college thing,” Gabe said.
His father smiled. “Actually, yeah, Gabe. That’s part of it.”
“Only part of it, Da?” Gabe looked up and smiled at his dad. “Am I in trouble for something?”
Gabe noticed his father smiled at the antique word, “da.” Nobody used that term. Even the Irish families had dropped it generations ago. But as children, the Brennan siblings had all called their father that. Gabe wasn’t sure exactly why, but he had some vague memory of his mother laughing and telling him it had started because his oldest brother couldn’t pronounce “dad” fully. Instead he’d called their father “da,” and it had stuck through all the kids, though they had all shifted to “dad” as they grew older.
His father reached over and ran a hand through Gabe’s wet hair. “When have you ever been in trouble?”
Gabe knew that his father was different with him than he’d been with Gabe’s brothers and sisters. He was softer, more affectionate. Where the older Brennan siblings had faced a particularly strict and sometimes tough father, Gabriel had gotten the mild end of his father’s parenting run. But Gabe never really did anything wrong.
His dad’s life was also different now than it was earlier in his career. He had more job security, he worked fewer hours, and he had more energy to put into his family. He spent as much time as he could with Gabe. He attended all of his games, spent time teaching him how to work on cars—all the things he had missed with his other kids. When all of the Brennan siblings got together and their parents were not around, they would tell stories of the short-tempered, sometimes explosive man their father had been for them, and they would all kid Gabe about ending up with the softer, gentler set of parents.
The two of them walked along for half of the loop without saying a word. Gabe regained his breath and walked with his hands on his hips, swinging his arms occasionally and stretching them across his chest in a cycle of activities.
“Gabe,” his father finally said as they closed the first four hundred and forty yards of walking together. “I’ve been thinking about a few things.”
Oh no. Here it comes. Whatever it is, it won’t be good.
His father must have seen the look on his face, because he smiled at Gabe and said, “Relax, it’s nothing bad. I’ve been thinking about how you want to go into the police force.”
Gabe nodded. He hated talking about this subject with his father, but this time his tone at least sounded better than it had in the past.
“Well, I know I’ve been a little stubborn with you on the topic.”
“Dad,” Gabe interjected.
“No, just hold on.” His father put a hand on his shoulder as they walked. “Just let me talk for a minute.”
Gabe let out a long huff.
“I know it’s what you want to do, and if it is, then I’m behind you. But I want to have a serious conversation with you about it, and then we don’t have to talk about it ever again if you don’t want to.”
They walked for a couple of strides in silence. Finally Gabe looked up. “Well, go on Dad. I’m listening.”
His father took a deep breath. “Gabe, you know I love you, we love you, your Ma and I. A lot.”
Gabe nodded but was silent.
“And, well…” His father trailed off and shook his head before he continued. “What I’m trying to say is that it takes all kinds of people to make the world go around, and I’ve been watching you for all your life, and well, Gabe, I think you’re going to find as you grow up that you’re a little different than other boys. Other men.”
The hair on the back of Gabe’s neck began to stand up, and he felt a chill across his shoulder blades. “What are you talking about, Da?”
His father stopped walking and faced him. They were in the outermost ring of the track, far away from either of the two groups of walkers. “I want you to know that different is a good thing. You should be proud if you’re different. Your Ma and I love you for who you are, every fiber of who you are.”
Gabe stood like a stone.
“I watch you Gabe, and I see you dealing with this. And I want you to know that it’s okay. Whatever you’re feeling and whatever you are, it’s who you are and that’s amazing.”
“What does this have to do with being a cop?” Gabe’s voice had a snap to it that even he didn’t expect.
“If you want to be a cop because you feel like you need to prove something to yourself or that you need to somehow change who you are to fit into some kind of…I don’t know, some kind of expectation, well, I want you to know that you don’t have to do that.”
Gabe looked away from his father and around the track. “Can we go now?” He asked.
His father sighed and followed his son’s gaze out across the giant black oval. “Do you hear what I’m trying to say to you, Gabriel?”
Gabe wanted to be mad, but he couldn’t. Maybe it was because he was tired from the run, maybe it was because the heat of the day was starting to come up and he could feel the salty crust of drying sweat across his forehead, or maybe it was because he was overwhelmed because his father had identified something he hadn’t even been able to acknowledge. Not only had he identified it, but he’d also tried to let Gabe know that it was okay. But that just somehow seemed to make everything worse. He wanted to be angry. He wanted to yell and scream and take off running down the street as hard as he could. But the stillness between him and his father was like a spell, and he found it was impossible to be mad.
Instead, he felt a wave of exhaustion and frustration but on the edges of that combination of feelings was a thin, emerging glint of relief. “Da,” he finally said after a moment of thought. “I don’t want to be a cop because I feel like I need to prove something. I want to be a cop because they help people.”
His father nodded.
“You know when Thom got in trouble last year?”
His father shook his head, a puzzled look crossing his face.
“Well, he did,” Gabe said. “He was stupid and, well, it’s not important, but he got caught in a lot of fights, some of them real bad, and he was about to get in a lot of trouble. This cop ended up having to take him in because he beat the crap out of some kid. But the cop wasn’t a jerk about it. He took Thom outside the police station, bought him a can of tonic, and they sat down on a bench. And the cop, he just talked to him, let him know what was ahead for him if he didn’t sort things out. Told him that everybody gets mad sometimes, but that he can’t go around blowing a fuse at random people. And something clicked for Thom. Something the cop said. I don’t know exactly what it was. He told me about it once, that’s how I know all about it, but he didn’t tell me everything the cop said. He just said that he was fighting with a lot of shit—sorry, Dad—I mean stuff. He was fighting with a lot of stuff in his own head. The cop was the first person to ask him about it, to try and hear him out for his side of the story. Up until that point people had either just let Thom do his own thing, or they’d been afraid of him, afraid of getting in a fight with him because he was a little crazy, really. But no one listened to him.”
“What about you and Jack?” his father said. “You guys are his friends. Did he ever talk to you about any of the stuff he was going through?”
“No.” Gabe shook his head. “Not until after it all happened with the cop. We knew something was wrong. He showed up to practice banged up and bloody a few times. We tried to say something to him once or twice, but he never wanted to talk about it with us.”
“Do you know what it was that was bothering him? I know he didn’t tell you, but did you have a guess?”
Gabe looked up, and he thought he registered something in his father’s eyes but he quickly looked away. “No,” Gabe said. “No, I didn’t know what it was.”
“Uh-huh.” His father looked at him suspiciously for a moment, but whatever it was in his eyes vanished.
“Anyway, I want to be like that. I want to help people out and make the world a safer, better place. I can’t do that as an engineer or an executive.”
His father raised his eyebrows as if he were going to speak but thought better of it.
“I think I can make a difference as a cop.”
“Okay,” his father said. “Then here is the deal.”
Gabe rolled his eyes. “I knew it, I knew there had to be a catch.”
“There’s no catch. You can’t be a cop in any town that really matters until you’re at least twenty-one.”
“Yeah.” Gabe nodded.
“So, I want you to go to college in between the time you graduate high school and the time you go to the academy. I don’t care what you major in. If you want to be in law enforcement, study criminal justice. It will be a great fit for you, you can use it in your career as an officer, and you’ll keep yourself out of trouble.”
“Trouble?” Gabe squinted his eyes at his father.
“And,” his father raised a finger. “I’ll pay for it, so you won’t have to get a job. You can focus on your studies. What do you say?”
Gabe shrugged, and they began to walk off the track in the direction of the Brennan house. “Okay,” he finally said. “I guess I can probably go with that. But I’m not changing my mind about being a cop.”
His dad smiled at him, and they walked the few blocks home.