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Sometimes the best thing you can get for Christmas is knowing what you really want.
Rusty Baker is a blond, rich, entitled football player in a high school full of them—just the type of oblivious jock all the bullied kids hate. And he might have stayed that way, except he develops a friendship with out-and-proud Oliver Campbell from the wrong side of the tracks. Rusty thinks the friendship is just pity—Oliver is very bright, and Rusty is very not—but then Oliver kisses him goodbye when Rusty leaves for college, and Rusty is forced to rethink everything he knows about himself.
But even Rusty’s newfound awareness can’t help him survive a semester at Berkeley. He returns home for Thanksgiving break clinging to the one thing he knows to be true: Oliver Campbell is the best thing that’s ever happened to him.
Rusty’s parents disagree, and Rusty finds himself homeless for the holidays. Oliver may not have much money, but he’s got something Rusty has never known: true family. With their help and Oliver’s love, Rusty comes to realize that he may have failed college, but he’ll pass real life with flying rainbow colors.
20% of all proceeds from this title are donated to the Ali Forney Center in New York, whose mission “is to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning (LGBTQ) youth from the harm of homelessness, and to support them in becoming safe and independent as they move from adolescence to adulthood.” To learn more about this charity or to donate directly, please visit http://www.aliforneycenter.org/.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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The Home Pond
It was sort of a shock. I mean, I was supposed to be coming home for Thanksgiving, not getting kicked out of the house a month before Christmas. If I’d been mean about it, I would have blamed Oliver, but I couldn’t. I mean . . . you can’t really blame Oliver for anything. He’s just too damned nice.
In fact, that was why we hung out together all through our senior year. I mean, I’d been hanging with all those other jokers for my entire life. Kindergarten, grade school, middle school—you could have thrown our jock genes in a blender and pretty much swapped all our parts. We were interchangeable. White boys, blue/green eyes, sandy blond/sandy brown hair, good bones, good nutrition, some sort of Teutonic conspiracy to produce a football team in the nouveau riche suburbs of the foothills—that was us. I mean, I had brown eyes and blond hair, and I was the closest thing to an ethnic minority our high school had ever seen.
Oliver showed up in early September of my senior year, slender, brown on brown on brown. Dark brown hair cut with long bangs around his narrow face, dark brown eyes with thick, thick lashes, and light brown skin. He slouched quietly in the back of Mr. Rochester’s English Literature class and eyed the rest of us with sort of a gentle amusement.
“Yo, Rusty,” Clayton called to me as I took my seat by the new boy. “What’s the new guy?”
I looked at Clayton blankly. He was one of those big white-blond kids with a face that ran to red whenever he exerted himself. He was a defensive lineman on the football team, and his father sold insurance. He was also a sadistic fuck who liked to haze freshmen by slamming them against lockers and calling them names until they cried. That shit had been sort of funny when we were sophomores, but my little sister told me the last kid he’d done that to had needed to change schools and see a shrink, and that’s sort of a horrible thing to do to a kid.
It suddenly occurred to me that the dark kid slouching in the corner of the room was a prime target for Clayton, but he was looking at us, all amused like he didn’t give a crap, and that might have offered him a little protection right there.
I liked that. He didn’t give a crap. The last girl I’d dated had been so excited about dating a football player, she’d literally gone down on me before dinner, and, well, I’d liked her, but I hadn’t been sure I wanted to know her that well. I’d also been hungry. I’d sort of pulled her away from my crotch and asked her if we could go eat steak. I think I hurt her feelings—she didn’t say much during dinner, and she’d taken my kiss on the cheek like it was some sort of insult or something.
So this kid, smiling at us friendly but not slobbering all over us or being afraid of us—that was sort of nice.
I didn’t like Clayton saying “What” in conjunction with those laughing brown eyes.
“What do you mean ‘what’?” I’m not that smart but I knew I probably wasn’t going to like that answer either.
“I mean Indian, Mex, darky, what?”
That snapped my head back. My mother wasn’t the warmest person on the planet, but she was not pro on us being rude like that.
“Where the hell were you raised?” I snapped, appalled. “Jesus, he’s a kid. Leave him the hell alone!”
Clayton rolled his eyes at me. “Oh my God, Baker, could you be any more of a fairy princess?” That was fine, though. He was so miffed at me, he’d forgotten about the kid, who was watching our byplay like he was watching a tennis match.
“Do you see me in a dress blowing you?” I asked, and the rest of the class chortled. Clayton turned red(der) and glared at me as the teacher walked in. I leaned back in my seat and gave the kid a reassuring grin.
“He should leave you alone now,” I said quietly as Mr. Rochester pointed to the warm-up on the board. “See that? That’s the page number. There’s a quick assignment we do in our grammar books, and then we correct it.”
“Thanks,” the kid said. “But you know, I’m gay. I’m not really big on the princess dress, but if he wasn’t an asshole, I wouldn’t mind blowing him.”
And that was Oliver.
I sat there, my mouth open, while the class got out their books and started the assignment. After about a minute, the kid looked at me sideways, and finally I saw a waver of uncertainty in him.
“You never met a fag before?” he asked, and again, those painful manners that had been beaten into my and my little sister’s hard heads—pretty much in the cradle—asserted themselves.
“Nope,” I said honestly, “but my mother wouldn’t let me use that word.” I wasn’t sure she’d let a homosexual sit at our dinner table either, but then, that was my mother.
The kid looked at me for a minute, considering. “Okay, if we keep that word off the table, could you make sure I don’t get stuffed in a trash can during lunch?”
I grinned at him. “I can do that. Can I copy what you got on the grammar warm-up? You scrambled my tiny brain with the big, scary word.”
The boy laughed and handed me his paper so I could copy super quick before Mr. Rochester could call on me. That’s when I saw his name: Oliver Campbell, which wasn’t Hispanic or Indian, but he didn’t look African American either.
I sat with him at lunch that day, and a few of my friends sat with us. (Not Clayton—he had his own squad of goons, and that was a relief.) My buddies harassed Oliver, don’t get me wrong. Brian Halliday asked him if he got a thrill out of sitting with all us football players, ’cause we were all buff. All Oliver had to do was look him up and down once and say, “I may be gay, but I got better standards than that,” and Brian was smirking and talking about cheerleaders. They kept at it, but Oliver was great at rolling his eyes or saying something just as good, and my buddies would start giving each other shit and leaving him alone.
It’s kind of sad when I think about it now. At the time, I thought I hung out with a bunch of okay kids. I figured we were spoiled and sheltered, but that wasn’t our fault, really. I mean, I was proud because we sat down with someone new and different, and didn’t beat him into the ground. Pathetic, really—that’s what I had to be proud of, right? That my peer group didn’t bully people too badly? But it was something to hold on to, even if it was something small. I needed any pride I could find, because I knew college was coming along like a big steamroller to cream me into the fucking pavement.
Now see, I know I’m not that bright. I mean, give me time, and some hints, and an example, and directions carved in rock, and I can power through almost anything.
Not like Oliver. There’s a quickness to him.
When he walks, his elbows come out from his sides in fluid, graceful little motions, and when he talks, his hands dart around his face and shoulders like fish. He can tell jokes, stupid ones but really funny, and rattle off the joke, and then the punch line, and before I have a chance to laugh, surprised because he’s always surprising, he’s on to the next joke.
“Hey, Rusty, why did the chicken cross the road sllloooowwwlllly?”
“Because he doesn’t believe in cars. Why did the squirrel haul ass across the road?”
“Heh heh . . . doesn’t believe in . . . wait—why?”
“Because he does believe in the ghost of chickens past.”
“Wait, is that because the damned things are always getting killed on the—”
“What did the werewolf say to the vampire on the night of the full moon?”
“I have no idea.”
“Things are about to get hairy. What did the vampire say when he got the power vac?”
“Hairy! Hah! Uhm, I dunno—”
“I vant to suck your mud.”
And so on. We could spend an entire lunch, and Oliver would be dropping one-liners like firecrackers behind him, and the rest of us would be dancing in his wake. Most times, he knew what the class assignment was going to be before Mr. Rochester finished his usual joke about his own name.
“We’re going to find the allegory in Jane Eyre, right?”
“Very good, Oliver. How’d you guess?”
“’Cause no one names a guy St. John unless they’re making a point about saints—especially if he’s the guy who gets dumped for some guy whose name sounds like a rock.”
The whole class laughed at that, me included, but I’d had to spend some time in the bathroom the next morning, contemplating God, before I finished, flushed, and said, “Wait. That St. John guy wasn’t real warm, and Mr. Rochester was really solid and good . . . Is that what Oliver meant?”
So Oliver—hellsa quick. Me—hellsa slow. He should have laughed at me, right? Written me off as a dumb jock and gone and huddled with the coven of übergeeks who watched anime, or the girls who read yaoi. But he didn’t. I guess because I’d been nice to him when I hadn’t needed to be, he’d spent our entire senior year returning the favor.
By the end of senior year, after he’d helped me study for the SATs when my football friends were out getting drunk, I was really fucking grateful.
I also felt bad, because I sucked ass on the SATs. My scores were (and Oliver said this, and I’d had to spend another morning in the bathroom to get it) toiletastic! I’d applied to Berkeley and Stanford, because my grades were pretty good and my old man made me, but it wasn’t until I saw the second round of SAT scores that I realized just what a meatloaf I really was. I was so embarrassed, I couldn’t look Oliver in the face for an entire day. I bailed on him during lunch, and most other guys, they would have been hurt and bitchy and whined to their friends about what a conceited asshole I was, but not Oliver.
“What the fuck is up with you?”
He cornered me in the locker room of all places, because I was taking PE sixth period for elective credit like the dumb jock I was.
“What do you mean?” I knew exactly what he meant, but I didn’t know what to say.
“You don’t email me this weekend, you don’t talk to me today—c’mon, Rusty—I thought we were friends.” His black eyebrows were drawn together over his eyes, and his mouth was all pursed and pillowy. He looked cute, like a little kid, and I wanted to hug him and tell him it was okay and make the tantrum go away.
I looked down at my toes instead and clutched my towel tighter around my waist. I wasn’t afraid of him checking me out—I’d been naked in front of girls before, and, well, I’d stopped caring—but I felt naked inside too, and that was new.
“Nothing, I . . . you know. You . . .” I had a lightbulb then—a truth I could tell him that would mean he didn’t have to waste his time with me. “You have smart people to sit with.” I looked up and met his eyes then and smiled, because I was proud of that—it made me sound like an asshole, but it meant he didn’t have to waste his time with me neither.
Something funny happened to his face then. He squinched one eye and wrinkled his lip and sucked air through his teeth. His front teeth were a little big, and his canines a little crowded back—like he maybe could have had braces, but it wasn’t so bad that he had to, so he didn’t. He opened his mouth to say something, and then closed it, and then opened it again, and then he narrowed his eyes suspiciously.
“Didn’t you get your SATs back?”
Oh God. It was like he’d read my mind. I looked at my toes again—I had really long toes, to match, well, you know. Not to brag. “Uhm . . .”
“How bad?” he asked, and his voice was absurdly gentle.
“I don’t wanna talk about it,” I said, crossing my big toe over my middle toe. I could wiggle them from that position too.
“That’s pretty bad. What’d your dad say?” Because we both knew my dad had this vision: me in some big college with a letterman’s jacket or something.
And this was the part that really made my toes curl on the wet concrete. “He said he could pull strings. Get me into Berkeley anyway. Told me I’d have to really study when I got there, because this slacking shit wasn’t going to cut it.”
I was surprised when his combat boots snuck into my field of vision and a hand came out and touched me awkwardly on the shoulder.
“I’m sorry, Rusty.”
I shrugged away, feeling worse than shit now, and ignored the shiver down my arm where Oliver had touched me. “I don’t know why you’re sorry. You’re not the idiot who sucked up all your time trying to learn to fuckin’ read and write. You’re the kid who should be going to Berkeley, but you gotta go to junior college instead.” I turned to my open locker and tucked my towel tight around my waist and started to rip out my cargo shorts and tennis shoes and tank top so I could get dressed and give him a ride home. He lived sort of far from my neighborhood—in fact, I’m pretty sure he’d transferred to my school for the AP classes only—but the house itself was cherry. It was small, but painted white, with red and pink flowers growing up the white fence that surrounded the yard. From where I usually sat in the car when I dropped him off, I could see four tiny dogs, who always about lost their minds with pure joy that Oliver was home, and it was getting so I could relate. Anyways, our pattern was for me to let Oliver off outside the gate of his little house, and since I had the car, and it meant he didn’t have to take the bus, I didn’t have a problem with that.
“Yeah,” Oliver agreed, back here in the locker room. “Berkeley would be great. Ain’t gonna lie. But a JC will give me a chance to get my skills up and running, and I’m damned grateful. Rusty, you’re gonna get killed if you go there and you’re not ready. Can’t they see that?”
I leaned my forehead against my locker and swallowed, trying to breathe past the panic. “I’ll be fine,” I lied. “You know me. Time and an instruction book, and I can conquer the frickin’ world.”
“Yeah,” he said, but he didn’t sound optimistic.
The week after that, he asked me if I wanted to work for his dad that summer, part-time or full-time, my choice. His dad was a contractor, and I’d get to do real simple stuff—carry boards, push brooms, run water to the guys with nail guns and screwdrivers who were framing houses or sanding drywall. It wasn’t a lot, but, well, my other job prospect was pushing papers for my old man or someone else’s old man (cause we were swapped around like action figures) in an office.
Guess which one sounded better, right?
Not that the old man saw it that way.
“Rusty, this job could get you valuable contacts in whatever field you pursue—” Dad’s hair had gone brown and gray, but I’ve seen pictures. It used to be blond like mine, streaked by the sun, with undertones of red-brown. His cheeks used to be wreathed with smiles too, but his mouth was a lot thinner now. I couldn’t remember seeing his smile for a while.
“But Dad, this job doesn’t need a suit.”
“Well, maybe you’re old enough to actually think about your future instead of the next girl or the next sunny day. Have you thought of that?”
I hadn’t had a girlfriend since the girl who’d rather have had dick than dinner. It just didn’t seem worth the trouble, really, explaining to them that they didn’t need to put out. And getting some wasn’t as much fun as it used to be—but then, having a friend at the movies had always seemed to be the best part of girlfriends anyway. But, well, Dad had this vision of me, and football-jock-superbanger seemed to be it.
“Dad,” I said, trying to sound grown-up. “You know, maybe this . . . this thing you’ve got set up for me in the future, maybe it’s not really a good fit. You ever think of that? I mean, a college education, I get that, but maybe not Berkeley and the whole nine yards—maybe a JC and some life experience, you think?”
“Russell, we’re not screwing around here—this is your life. You go to a good college, you network, you move on to graduate work. Why would you think that’s changed?”
I opened my mouth, a lot like Oliver had, and closed it, and opened it again. “I . . . I mean, I’m not great at school—you know, there’s tech schools and vocational schools all over the place for guys who don’t, you know—”
“You are not graduating from Western Career College,” my dad snapped, and I grinned and tried to get the smile from him that I vaguely remembered from when I was a kid.
“You can do it!” I sang to the commercial, and apparently that was exactly the wrong thing to sing, because Dad rolled his eyes and walked away.
So I tried Mom.
Now in some houses, Mom would be the guaranteed win, right? “Oh, honey, of course. I understand that you’re feeling out of your depth and you’d like to see if maybe something a little less cerebral might be a better match for your much-vaunted future.” Or, you know, at least “Yeah, go out and sweat in the sun, you’re eighteen, who gives a shit?” right? But that wasn’t the way it was in my house. It wasn’t like Mom was the guaranteed win; it was more like she was better at calculating what was in it for her.
“What will you be spending your money on?” she asked, narrowing her brown eyes at me as though trying to figure the angle. I’d gotten her eyes, but there was something wrong with mine. They were wider and nothing about me looked like I had anything to do with angles. I was all about the curved muscle and brick walls.
I blinked. “I don’t know. Clothes, the car—I mean, you guys pay for everything else. Maybe I’ll put it in savings and see what I need.”
She nodded consideringly. She worked part-time from home. She had a degree in finance, and she did business for a day-trading firm. “That sounds prudent,” she said. “And I think once you spend some time doing manual labor, it might lose its charm.”
Best summer of my life. Oh my God, give me simple tasks and a logical progression and I am a happy boy. And you know what I figured out after, like, the first month? I figured out that once I understood where I was and what I was doing, once I was comfortable with things, I could think for myself.
On my third day, if someone left a bucket of nails in the middle of the path I was walking, I walked around it. On the sixth, I picked the bucket up and moved it out of the way. The second week I was there, I found the guy with the nail gun and set it next to him. During the third week, I checked to see if the bucket was full enough, and if it wasn’t, I filled it. Then I asked the guy with the nail gun if he could show me how to use it, and by the second month, I could spell the guy with the nail gun, and then, when he came back to do his thing, I went and asked the guy sanding the drywall exactly what the hell he was doing.
They thought I was a frickin’ genius. It was awesome. After the first week, I was totally full-time.
And Oliver’s dad couldn’t get enough of me. I loved that guy! When I moved the nail bucket, he told me good job. By the time I was using the gun, he was telling me I was a natural and asking my opinion and showing me how to use the equipment and shit. He was great. I mean, my dad probably wouldn’t have thought much of him. He was a short Latino guy, his black hair going iron gray, with beefy forearms and a thick middle. He had a bushy mustache and faded tattoos on his sunburned brown skin, but not a day went by without him asking me how I was doing and telling me—hell, telling everyone on the site—what a good job we were doing, or asking our opinion, or letting us know if we needed to hustle and why.
Oliver would come by the site on his lunch hour—he was working at the library, and he seemed to love the hell out of that—and brought us sandwiches and told us funny stories and made sure we drank lots of water. I wanted soda, but Oliver, he told me that shit was bad for me.
“Man, I know it, but I’ve been drinking water all my life; I want something bad for me that doesn’t give me a headache.” My mom didn’t let Estrella pack the good juice in our lunches. It was all this high-end shit that tasted like crap but was good for us.
Oliver studied me over his turkey on dry wheat toast. “Well, if it doesn’t give you a headache, and it makes you feel good, it’s good for you, right?”
I had a sudden thought about his little oval face, and how just looking at it, with the bright and shiny black eyes staring out at me—that was good for me.
“Yeah,” I said, forgetting about food. “Yeah. Good for me.”
I don’t recall what he said after that. I do remember talking him into going swimming at my house after work, that’s what I remember doing, and after he laughed and agreed, and then left for his job, his dad looked at me, head tilted to the side.
“I thought Oliver said you weren’t that kind of friend,” he said quietly.
I looked at him blankly. “What kind of friend?”
Arturo Campbell, whose dad was white and whose mom was Venezuelan (I know this because he told me the first day I met him, which was funny because I really wasn’t curious), shook his head. “Kid, I think that’s gonna be the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question for you, you know that?” And then, before I could embarrass us both by trying to figure that out when we both knew I wasn’t capable of that shit, he took my napkin and my water bottle from me. “Tomorrow, I’ll bring you a soda. Just one. I think you’ve earned one lousy fucking soda.”
So Oliver came over to my house that afternoon and swam, wet and agile as an otter, moving with the same quick little motions with which he walked and spoke. My mom saw him and smiled in greeting, and then walked away. My father walked in and out of the house without acknowledging he was there. My sister was a freshman—she knew all about Oliver. As we were swimming in the cool water under the oppressive heat layer, she came out and asked him if he liked to shop. When he said no, he liked to read, she blew a raspberry at him.
“What was that for?” he asked, smiling that innocent white smile up at her. She was on the deck and he was in the pool. I was in the deep end, treading water, hoping my little sister wouldn’t be shitty to him so I wouldn’t have to act like a three-year-old and call Mom to make her go away.
“That was for being the wrong kind of gay. Jesus, what are stereotypes for?”
I snickered, because she was sharp, and Oliver cracked up so hard he splashed water when his otter-swift hands moved. “Well, mostly they’re to throw back in people’s faces,” he said. “But I’ll go shopping in a bookstore, if that counts.”
Nicole stripped out of her T-shirt and dropped it on the patio, wearing a plain old blue one-piece because she was a little curvy and Mom said it was tasteful. Suddenly I sort of yearned to see her in a paisley bikini; not because I’m a sick perv or anything, but because Nicole was a lot more interesting than that plain blue bathing suit and the plain white T-shirts that she always wore.
“Hmm . . .” she said, thinking hard as she walked gingerly down the pool steps. It was hot enough outside to make the cool sort of a shock. “Would it be the kind of place that served cappuccino and had poetry readings and music nights?”
Oliver’s grin grew a little dreamy. If you went up toward Placerville, there were arty little places like that, but here? Nope. Everything was the big bland Costco of its stock. Pottery Barn was considered unique and one of a kind, because God forbid anything stand out or anything. I always figured that’s why people liked the football team and the basketball team and the marching band so much: put everyone in a uniform, and they all looked the same. I think in our community that was reassuring.
So it didn’t take a genius to figure that small, brown Oliver would be excited about a place not populated by big hunks of clone meat like myself.
“If we get a place like that up here, you let me know, okay?”
My sister laughed and then dove into the water with a little shriek. When she surfaced, a few feet from me, she said, “I think we’re going to have to build one, sweetheart—and that means we’ll have to shop together after all.”
Oliver laughed and conceded that maybe they would have to bond via retail. Whether she knew it or not, my little sister—who had been a giant ugly bug crawling up my ass when I had my football buddies over—was suddenly on our side.
Estrella came out then with sandwiches and snacks, and I was surprised. She’d never done that when I’d had my other friends over, although there had always been potato chips we could serve.
I climbed out of the pool and toweled my hair before coming over to check out the spread. “This is awesome,” I told her, meaning it. She’d always been really nice to Nicole and me, cooking our favorite stuff, smiling at us when we were eating dinner in the kitchen, or asking us about our day. When we’d been younger, she’d been the nanny, but as we’d gotten past needing one, Mom had kept her on as the housekeeper/cook. I always thought it was because Mom loved her too, but that was something else I think I got wrong. For Mom, she was just super competent help. It was only to Nicole and me that Estrella meant something special.
“Well, I like this friend,” Estrella said, smiling. She had little teeth, with a gap in the front, and a round face and body. She was probably my mom’s age, but she seemed older somehow—maybe it was the softness. I knew that she’d listened to Oliver and me talk in the kitchen when we were studying for the SATs, and that she and Oliver had sometimes had snow-flurry conversations in Spanish that had felt intimate and real. She’d never spoken Spanish to me and Nicole. I felt like I knew her better after she’d made us sandwiches and hot chocolate—and the snacks, by the way, were pretty much one of the best things about the SATs, period.
“I know. I like him, too. His dad is pretty awesome. I wish I could work for him forever.”
Estrella looked at me thoughtfully. “I don’t think your father would like that very much,” she said kindly, and I shrugged.
“Yeah, well, he might change his mind when I flunk out of Berkeley.”
She sighed and patted my hand, which was still wet from the pool. “Maybe you should think of a way to avoid that?”
I winked at her to make her smile. “You know me—anything to get out of hard work.”
Estrella shook her head. “You’re a good boy, Rusty. Keep bringing Oliver by. He’s a good boy, too.”
Nicole and Estrella were smart—they saw the lines being drawn. But not my parents.
They treated Oliver like they treated all of my other friends, and didn’t, not once, notice that the enemy, the secret marauder who would topple all of their hopes and their plans for their baby boy, was in their swimming pool, smiling up at me with bright brown eyes, wearing a pair of plaid shorts that weren’t made for swimming at all.
He came over to swim a lot that summer. I remember little photo shoots in my head, his thin, brown limbs shiny and wet as he stood on our white concrete patio. I liked the way he flipped his hair out of his eyes, and the way he’d swim with his arms at his sides, rippling his long, skinny body. In the water, standing on the bottom step of the pool, he looked exotic, like a merman or something.
I started to think about him, dream about him, in his plaid not-swimming shorts, standing mostly naked on my parents’ patio.
At first, the dreams weren’t anything remarkable. He’d just be smiling at me, like I’d done something great. I mean, I’m not a complete asshole, but great? I have never, ever been accused of greatness. As a football player, I was good enough to play, but that was when I was pushing myself into the ground. As a student, I was in the honors classes because I had outstanding tutors, but that was their smarts, even if it was my sweat that made it stick. But at least in my dreams, Oliver was staring up at me like I had just won the Super Bowl and solved world hunger during the commercial break.
The first time I dreamed that, I woke up almost in tears. I wanted to be back asleep, having that dream so bad.
I didn’t think about it then, and when I did think about it, I tried to focus on the fact that maybe I should stop being a pussy about how bad I didn’t want to go to Berkeley. That if I wanted people to look up to me like that, maybe I should try to be someone worth looking up to.
When I wasn’t working, or at the pool, I was reading. I figured if I could read some of the books that Oliver read, I’d maybe get some of his quickness. I read A Separate Peace and The Chocolate War, but all I really got out of them was that big clots of peer pressure really fucked a kid up. I figured that I didn’t have to worry about that shit anymore. My friends had all taken off.
I mean, we still texted and saw movies together sometimes, but they were all working the same internships and jobs that my dad had wanted me to work. Between the working, the reading, and the swimming, more and more and more, my world revolved around Oliver.
I was okay not having that crowd of friends anymore. With all the reading Oliver and I were doing, we were starting to get the same jokes. Like, when him, me, and Brian Halliday saw that new Bourne movie. We were sitting there, watching guys kick ass on screen, when suddenly it hit me. These movies were about spies who didn’t want to spy anymore. They were getting reborn as someone else. And then, bing-bang-boom, I was back with that Crime and Punishment book that Oliver had given me, and then holy shit and hallelujah, I remembered Mr. Rochester and St. John and Jane Eyre.
“Omigod omigod omigod!” I hissed at Oliver. “Bourne! Get it? It’s like he’s been reborn!”
Oliver jerked, like I’d given him a wedgie or something, and then he turned to me with a smile so big, I swear it made the theater brighter. “God, Rusty, you totally nailed that one.”
I grinned and then turned to Brian, and he was shoving popcorn in his face. “Get it?” I whispered. “It’s his name, but it means something. It’s like . . . like allegory.”
Brian squinted at me. “Shut up and watch the movie,” he muttered. “People are looking at us funny.”
For a minute I was real disappointed. I felt like I was seeing the sun for the first time, but Oliver elbowed me and grinned and gave me the thumbs-up. For an irrational, terrifying moment, I thought about grabbing his hand and kissing it, because I was that fucking grateful, right?
But I didn’t. I turned my attention back to the movie. Afterward, Oliver and I asked Brian if he wanted to go out to ice cream with us, but he said no.
“I gotta be up early in the morning,” he said, sounding like my dad. “If I’m not there on time, your dad gets on my case. Jesus, Rusty, I can’t believe you came from that guy.”
Yeah. Brian had taken the internship in my dad’s office, and I guess I was supposed to have taken the one offered by his dad. Nice. Swapping us like the little game pieces we were supposed to be seemed more and more cold-blooded.
“Don’t look at me.” I shrugged. “I’m working construction. I get there at nine, I leave at five, and my boss buys me soda when his son’s not looking. I got it good.”
“He does not.” Oliver looked properly horrified. I smiled back at him. I loved grinning at him. I wanted to wrap my arm around his neck and ruffle his hair, but that had never been us.
“He does too,” I told him, figuring Mr. Campbell wouldn’t mind too much if I gave this away. “But only once a week. The rest of the time it’s horchata.” Which I didn’t particularly like, but he meant well, so I drank it anyway.
Oliver smiled, very proud of himself. “Yeah. My dad, he listens to me if he knows what’s good for him.”
I looked at Brian to try to share the awesome that was Oliver’s dad. “He does, too,” I told him seriously. “I mean, I never in a million years thought anyone could actually . . . you know . . . listen like this guy. He’s awesome to work for. I wish I lived with him.”
Brian sneered. “Yeah, well, you and Oliver get any cozier, maybe you can.”
I recoiled. “Man, what crawled up your ass?”
“Not the same thing that’s about to climb up yours.”
I looked at him, floundering. “That’s so ugly,” I said at last, my voice low. “How come you gotta be like that? You weren’t like that in school. You guys were always really nice to Oliver in school.”
“Yeah, well, that’s when we thought he was your friend. It’s a little different when he’s your boyfriend. You know that, Rusty. It’s like . . . like we can let them hang around us, but there’s got to be a line.”
“Besides,” Oliver said quietly at my side. “They were like this in school. You were just too sweet to take it that way.”
“Is that how you like ’em? Sweet?” Brian’s voice was nasty, and something in his face was hurt, too. It hit me that he felt like he was losing me. And he was mad at Oliver because Oliver was the one who would get me in the end.
“I . . .” I shut my mouth and opened it again, and I wished suddenly that I was a kid again, in grade school, where all you had to do was go out and catch the ball, and that made kids your friends. “I’m sorry,” I said, turning to Oliver. “I’m sorry I was too stupid to know they were being mean. You’ve been a real good friend to me. I wouldn’t have let anyone be mean.”
Brian scoffed—and I never knew what that word meant until I heard that sound come out of his mouth.
“God, Rusty. Have a nice life. Give your mom my apologies for your going-away party. I’m not going to make it.”
“You’re having a going-away party?” Oliver asked, brightening, and I wanted to sit down and cry on my knees.
“I guess it was a surprise,” I said.
“And I guess you weren’t invited,” Brian said to Oliver. “Which is great. It’ll just be Rusty and his family staring at each other. I’m pretty sure after tonight, nobody else is going to want to have a damned thing to do with you, either.”
And he turned and walked off to his car. I watched him go, feeling empty and dumb.
“You know,” I said into the warm night, “you’re really the only person I would want to come.”
Oliver reached up and patted my shoulder. “That’s okay. I’ll show up anyway. You tell me where and when, and I’ll be at your party.”
I was planning to tell my mom, but she brought it up first. She’s like a ninja. I was walking out of my room after my post-work shower, going to hunt up some more food in the kitchen. I swear that woman heard the floorboard creak as I passed her office, because her voice shot out like an arrow and stopped me in my tracks.
“Rusty, have you had a falling out with your friends?”
I turned around and looked into her office and saw the back of her head. Mom had blonde hair. I think it was dyed, though, because if she missed her stylist appointment, her roots were brownish gray. But I rarely got to see that, it was almost always perfect. Some guys had moms who went running in public or sometimes wore sweats or went camping and didn’t wash their hair for a week. My mom only sweat at the gym, and since she went to one of those women-only gyms, we had to take her word for it. Every day: slacks, a twinset, and pearls. I don’t think I remember her wearing jeans.
Right now, she turned the chair away from the dark-wood desk to face me and brushed her blonde hair from her eyes in a way that looked like ballet.
“Yeah, Mom,” I said, because apparently being not bright meant I couldn’t lie either. “They were being mean to Oliver.”
Mom blinked and adjusted her summer cardigan. This one was pink. “The little dark-haired boy?”
He wasn’t that little. Five six? Five feet seven? Sure, I was almost six feet tall, but Oliver wasn’t child-sized.
“Yeah, that’s the one.”
“What would they have against him? I mean, I know his father’s in construction, but I don’t think any of your friends are that poorly mannered—”
“He’s gay, Mom—”
Mom jerked her head back. “I did not know that,” she said. Her voice didn’t really rise, but she gave the impression of a big ocean wave: same thing on the surface, but a vast swell of power underneath. “Why is he here so often?”
I swallowed. I reminded myself I’d suspected this. I’d thought my friends were decent, and I’d been wrong, but I’d always known my parents were dicks, and I’d been right about that.
“He’s my friend. He helped me study for the SATs. And his father gave me my job.”
“Oh,” she said, and her eyes were narrowed. She was doing some sort of calculation, I could tell. “You owe a debt. I understand. Well, then . . .” Her voice trailed off, and I could see that she was struggling with the sham of the “surprise party.” And then an odd look crossed her face. Her eyes got big and shiny, and for a moment her chin wrinkled. She took a deep breath, and everything smoothed out. “You should invite him to your going-away dinner,” she said simply, as though this was something I’d always known about. “It’s Tuesday, in two weeks. We’ll be going out. Make sure he dresses appropriately.”
I heard her later, cancelling caterers and fighting for her deposit back, and I felt bad. Maybe that had been what the shiny eyes were all about. She was going to lose money on this deal. That sucked, but I wasn’t going to go make up to all my shitty friends and drop Oliver. For one thing, I was almost done with that Crime and Punishment book, and I needed to talk to Oliver and find out if that really scummy guy was a bad guy or just doing that stuff because he felt like he was supposed to.
So Oliver came with us. He was wearing an old suit jacket and jeans, with a white shirt underneath, and he looked good. His wrists stuck out of the sleeves, though, like he’d grown since he got it, and the color was blue. I don’t think the fabric was that good. But that was okay. We sat through dinner while Nicole teased me about how I was supposed to send her all the skinny on the professors and the quad and the good places to hang out. I rolled my eyes and asked her how I’d know these things anyway.
“You’ve always been better at knowing the cool stuff,” I told her, and it was true. Nicole did like to shop, but she liked to shop vintage music stores and antique shops and stuff. She went to poetry readings in her spare time and could tell you who on the bookstore shelf had actually grown up in our little spot in the foothills. Before our town exploded into feeder suburbs to Intel, it used to be a little artsy place with windy roads and lots of trees and big stretches of nothing. A lot of our local authors wrote about the evil of industry and the soullessness of the suburbs, which did absolutely nothing for me. At least Raskolnikov killed people, right?
Nicole sighed and rolled her eyes. “At least look for the places that Oliver would like to hang out, okay?”
I grinned at Oliver. “That’s easy. The library.”
Oliver grinned back. “I even think that’s on the campus map,” he conceded.
I was suddenly struck by a thought. (Which, you know, gets me into trouble.) “Wait, Oliver. Where do you like to hang out?” I couldn’t remember him ever being anywhere besides my house except for his house or the library.
Oliver’s face did a weird thing then, and in a way, it reminded me of my mom’s face when she’d had to cancel my party. “With you, dumbass.” He said it with a smile, and for a moment, I thought he was going to zing me, but he pulled back somehow. Dumbass didn’t sound like an insult when he said it. It sounded like sweetheart or baby or one of those other gross words that girls liked us to call them.
But because it was dumbass, it didn’t make me gag.
“Oh my God!” Nicole rolled her eyes. “That’s gross. Men should never talk to each other that way. Ever. I don’t care who they sleep with!”
“Nicole!” my mother snapped, and my sister turned to her chicken and asparagus with a meekness I did not believe. Sure enough, she looked up at me under her lowered brows, and I stuck my tongue out at her. Her shoulders shook and her look shifted to a glare, and then she looked next to me, to where Oliver was sitting (he got the end on account of being left-handed), and I saw him sticking out his tongue and crossing his eyes.
Nicole burst into giggles, and Oliver and I joined her. My parents glared at the three of us, but they weren’t going to start shrieking about manners in the middle of the restaurant—that would be rude.
So it was a good dinner. I thought I might miss Nicole when I was gone. When we were little, she used to sneak into my room at night and sing silly kids songs to me. I don’t know where she heard them—kindergarten, maybe? Preschool? Our mom wasn’t one for singing nonsense songs, but Nicole remembered every one she heard. Probably why she loved vintage vinyl records so much. Anyway, as we all walked through the balmy air to the parking lot, I remembered that.
We’d driven in two separate cars so I could pick Oliver up, and my Prius with the moonroof had a decent backseat. I thought maybe some company would be nice.
“Nicole, you want to ride with us?” I asked all of a sudden. “We can go for ice cream, and then get home.”
Nicole looked up at me with a smile on her round face while she pushed brown hair out of her eyes, and for a moment, it looked like she was going to say yes. Then she grew thoughtful, and she said, “No, Rusty. You go ahead. We’ve got tomorrow before you leave, but you’ve only got Oliver for tonight.”
I shrugged and got into the car, but, as dumb as I am, there were a few things I didn’t miss.
I didn’t miss the way my parents glared at Nicole, and I didn’t miss the way she looked at them, innocent as pie, which is how she usually looked when she’d been robbing my drawers for those awful white T-shirts.
And I didn’t miss the way Oliver beamed like a dark sun, either. It made me feel good, right? Because he was my friend.
I meant to take us to ice cream, but as I neared the turnoff for the strip mall that had the Ben & Jerry’s in it, Oliver made a no sound.
“Just keep driving,” he murmured, and so we did.
We rolled down the windows and the wind was perfect. It smelled like cut brown grasses, because the hills were scorched, and we drove the long straight highways through Amador, listening to music and talking about what we thought college was going to be like.
I said, “You know, it’s probably going to look like the inside of my dorm room. I’m never going to cut it.”
Oliver sighed, and then I sighed too. It would have been nice if he could have lied to me, just once, but that wasn’t him.
“You know, you can email me when you’re gone, right? Text, Skype, all of that.”
I brightened a little. All that shit. I’d forget. Oh crap, I should tell him that. “You’re going to have to poke me a little, okay? You know, like now? I forget.”
Oliver shook his head. “You don’t, really,” he said with an apologetic smile. “You just don’t like calling people out of the blue. Once I text you or something, you’re all okay.” His teeth glinted a little in one of the rare streetlamps, and he shook his bangs out of his eyes. “Actually, Rusty, you’re sort of a little bit shy.”
My face heated in the confines of the car, and I wished I could have stuck my head out the window like a big yellow dog.
“You say that, and now I’m all embarrassed,” I told him, and his laugh was a soft sound blown away by the wind.
After about an hour of driving out in the mostly rural country off Jackson Highway, I stopped at a gas station to fill up. Oliver trotted inside and came out with two frosties in cups, mine with lots of caramel and nuts.
He waited until I was done pumping gas and said, “Pull over to the back of the station. You can savor it then.”
I looked at him quick and saw that he was laughing a little at the idea of savoring gas station ice cream, and I laughed too. But behind the gas station, there was miles and miles of nothing. Far off in the distance, you could see the lights that meant the urban sprawl of Sacramento was starting, but there wasn’t even one light behind the store.
Oliver and I both leaned against the Toyota and “savored” our sweating ice cream. A breeze blew across all of that dried nothing and I found I was scooting up against Oliver a little for warmth. He didn’t seem to mind.
For a few moments, we didn’t say a word, and the world was perfect.
Then, into the quiet, Oliver said, “Rusty, if I try something, do you promise to still call me if it doesn’t work?”
God, I’m dumb.
“Try something like what? That thing with the computer so we can see each other? Because I can do that already.”
Oliver laughed into his empty ice-cream cup and talked about something else. “Rusty, who was the last girl you dated?”
“Jennifer Brukholtz—you remember, I told you about her?”
“No dick before dinner,” Oliver said dryly. “Yeah. Not easy to forget.”
I sulked and scooped out the last of the ice cream with my spoon, and then sucked the spoon upside down on my tongue, creating a perfect seal. Oliver turned toward me, looking up at me with those eyes that said I was all that. My tongue got sucked in around the spoon and for a minute I was stuck, Oliver laughing at me, my tongue glued to the roof of my mouth like every bad dream I’d ever had about public speaking, except I wasn’t naked.
I had a sudden thought then, of me naked, and Oliver in front of me the same way.
I stopped breathing, and the spoon loosened from the top of my mouth and started to slide out. Oliver caught it before it could stop dangling off my lips and put it in his ice-cream cup. Very deliberately, he took the cup from me, put it in his own, and set them both on top of the car behind me.
“You just thought about it, didn’t you?” he asked quietly.
I’m dumb, remember? No lying. I nodded my head and swallowed. “Yeah.”
There was just enough light from behind us to see it dancing in the brown of his eyes.
“I’ve thought about it a lot,” he said quietly. “And you’re leaving tomorrow. Which means if this doesn’t work out, it’ll be okay. We’ll be friends and we’ll text and—”
“If what doesn’t work out?” I asked, and his lips quirked upwards, leaving perfect apostrophes on either side of his brown mouth.
“Just close your eyes,” he said softly, and I did.
He moved slowly, reaching behind my head and pulling it down, and when I was right where he needed to be, he raised up a little. I could feel puffs of breath against my mouth, and then a tickle against my lips. And another, harder. And one more, warmer.
I gasped, opening my mouth, and his tongue swept in, teasing a little, until I teased back.
He sighed into my mouth, and for a moment it felt like he was going to pull away, but I wasn’t ready. I reached behind him and pulled him closer to me, and his tongue went deeper. Ohhh . . . this was kissing. I sighed back at him, and he pulled away, leaving me to suck on his tongue until the last minute, because I wanted him some more.
And then it hit me.
Oliver had kissed me, and I’d kissed him back.
I dropped my arms and jerked back, cracking my elbow on the side of the car. Oliver took a hurried step backward himself and gave a startled laugh, clapping his hand over his mouth.
“Oh my God, Rusty, are you okay?” His words came out muffled from behind his fingers. He was still laughing.
I rubbed my elbow and tried to breathe through that funny-bone pain that is almost as not funny as getting kissed by your best male friend when you thought you were straight.
“I’m a little confused,” I told him honestly. “And my elbow hurts.”
He ventured closer and hesitantly put his hands on my shoulders. I wanted to shrug them off and remind him that I wasn’t gay, but I didn’t. They felt good there, soothing, and I lowered my head and let him touch me.
“You don’t have to do anything,” he said quietly. “You don’t have to kiss me back or worry that I’ll do that again. Just . . . think about it, okay? Just think about it, and we’ll be friends like we always have been.”
I nodded, but I didn’t move. I must have at some point, I know, because we eventually got back into the car and drove home, but I don’t remember that moment when we stepped away from each other. In fact, for a long time, my head was still there, listening to cicadas and feeling the touch of his hands and the tender wind of his breath on my face.
[D]raws you in and then never lets you go.
[O]ne of the best I have read all year.
I teared up so many times reading this book.
[I] loved every word.
I found it – my 5 star Christmas story!