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I open the door and pull the mail from the box with a scowl, then take it to my library where I settle down in my favorite place on the sofa. Riffling through the handful, I toss the junk mail to the other end of the sofa to put in the trash the next time I get up. I open the two bills and set them aside to take to my desk to write checks. I frown at the return address on the last envelope. I know the name well enough; I was in high school with this guy and see him occasionally on the street. We speak cordially, but were never real friends. I rip the envelope open and unfold the letter.
Hi, all you classmates. Realize it's been ten years since we graduated from dear old Johnstown High? It has, and we're planning a gala reunion for the weekend of the 17th of September.
Thanks to our classmate Bill Andrews and his lovely wife Rita, we'll be having a cookout at their home on the river on Friday night. Drinks at 5:30 and eat at 6:30. Come dressed casual and ready to renew old friendships. Saturday night we'll have a formal dinner and a dance for those who still remember how J, at the country club.
A real bargain: $50 covers it all. Fill out the form below and return to Bill with your check. Hope to see you there.
Fondly, Your old classmate Doris
Doris? I have to think for a moment before I remember. She was the girlfriend of the star of the football team. I vaguely remember they got married soon after graduating then divorced. Oh, well. I toss the invitation in with the junk mail. Why would I want to go? Hell, they never accepted me as one of the crowd in school, why should they like me any better now?
I go back to my desk and began grading another set of students' papers. About five, I enter the last grade in my book, get up and stretch, and go to the kitchen to fix a drink. I'm not really hungry, but a small snack of some kind would be good with my drink, so I put a few crackers and some cheese on a plate and carry it back into the den. Unaccountably, I reach over and pull the invitation from the trash and read it again.
There are two or three girls I wouldn't mind seeing again. Wonder if Walt Hanson will be there? I close my eyes seeing the campus stud as I remember him: 6' 4", classic proportioned body, unbelievably handsome face crowned by thick blue/black hair. Even then he made the studs in GQ look commonplace by comparison. Every girl in school simpered when he walked by. He never seemed to have a steady girlfriend, but played the field to the dismay of each of his fellow jocks when it was their girl's turn. But with his innate charm, none of them stayed mad at him for very long because none of their girls, to my knowledge, ever enjoyed a 'backseat' experience with him. I suspect the girls were disappointed, the affairs seldom lasting beyond than a couple of dates.
I don't remember that he ever once looked at me, much less spoke, but I'd sure like to see what he looks like now. Oh, why not? It's not like I have a social calendar. I finish my drink and go fix dinner. On the way, I toss the invitation on my desk with the bills.
I do my school work as soon as I get in each afternoon, for after I eat in the evening my time is for me alone. I finish the book I began last evening and look at the clock, almost time to hit the sack. I sit down at my desk and begin to write the checks. The final item in the pile is the invitation. I look at it again, hoping Cam will be there. It would be good to see her again. Until mother died last year, she and Cam's mother were good friends. Cam's parents still live a few houses up the block from me and with only a few days difference in our ages, Cam and I played together as children. After her second year in college, Cam married her high school sweetheart who had joined the military. They soon moved to California to his new duty station.
Yeah, there are one or two I'd like to see. Be just my luck they won't come. Oh, well, it'll be a change of pace and it isn't as if I get out that much.
Six weeks pass without another thought until I tear off the day's page on my desk calendar and see the notation of the reunion. Damn! I forgotten all about it. Wish now I hadn't sent in my check.
The next afternoon I dress in slacks and a sports shirt and drive off in a somber frame of mind. I slow as I turn onto River Road, looking intently at the mailboxes by each driveway for the number. There. I park on the side of the road and look at the large house. "Bill must be doing well with his distributorship," I mumble to myself, "this is the house Doctor Barnes built."
As I walk up the drive I hear voices from the river side of the house and walk past the garage. A man in a voluminous white apron is opening the top of a huge cooker. The odor of roasting pork hits me. Smells good.
"Nick! Come on over here, buddy. Glad you came." Bill slaps me on the back. "Can you believe three of our class mates right here in town didn't even bother to reply? Man, I don't know what's wrong with some people. Beer in the tub there, wine and assorted sodas in the cooler. Help yourself. Hey, here comes Jeff and Cam."
"Nick!" Cam hugs me tightly. "It's so good to see you. How are you doing?"
"Fine. Hi, Jeff."
"Nick." Jeff shakes my hand and backs away.
"Oh, look, Donna came," Cam exclaims and heads toward her. I don't remember Donna at all.
I pour a glass of white wine and ease over to the far side of the yard, watching the influx of people. There are more I don't recognize, probably spouses. I see a tall man limp heavily into the yard, his left arm dangling useless by his side. Got to be Dan. I know he won an athletic scholarship to college, then I heard he got hurt in an accident several years ago. I knew Dan slightly, but we never mingled socially. In fact, I never mingled with any of them, preferring, I told myself, to spend my time reading. Girls didn't interest me and I still find all sports a bore. Dan and the others were all heavily into sports in those days.
Dan's limping toward me, a tin of beer clutched in his good hand. "Nick, good to see you."
"How's it going, Dan. I was sorry to hear about your accident."
Dan shrugged. "Thanks. It hurt to give up playing ball, but I got a job at a radio station down in Florida doing sports-casts." He grins. "Got a great wife and a couple of ankle biters, too."
"I'm glad for you. I always thought you should be doing something like that with your voice. It's gotten even deeper."
Dan laughed. "Took a few lessons from a voice coach to get rid of the accent. Hearing you just now, I'd have taken you for an Australian."
"Same old mix of the local and what I got from my grandparents. They were Scots if you remember."
"For sure you were always easy to understand. Never mumbled like some of the people we were in school with."
After a few more minutes of chat, Dan leaves me to mingle. I refill my glass and return to quiet place, looking over the crowd. Someone coming around the corner of the garage attracts my attention. I feel my mouth drop open. No. No mistake, it's Walt. God! How could he have gotten even more beautiful?
There's a sudden lull in conversations, then several girls and guys I know had been top jocks in school crowd around Walt clamoring greetings.
"Okay, folks, let's eat!" Bill yells. People began to line up at the serving table. I wait until the majority have been served, then go through the line. I look for a place at a table, and finally slide into a chair at the table with Bill and his wife.
"Nice affair. It's good of you to have us all here. You have a lovely home, and this is one of the nicest spots on the river."
Bill laughs. "Would be if Rita and I were ever home enough to enjoy it. Have to get up at four to see the trucks are loaded and out. We don't get home until six or after. Time we finish supper we're ready for bed. Sunday is about the only day we get to spend any time with the kids."
"Walt looks good."
"I thought Rita would never get over him, she had a crush on him like you wouldn't believe. Thought sure I'd never get a ring on her finger with Walt for competition."
"That's not so and you know it, Bill Andrews," Rita snaps back with a smile.
"Come on, honey, you know I was your second choice."
"Was not." She pats his arm affectionately. "When are you getting married, Nick?" she asks.
I shrug. "Whenever someone comes along I can live with. Guess I should have started early like you guys."
Bill grins. "Know two or three would change places with you. Don and Tony both have divorced and remarried."
"No kidding. I thought for sure Don and Carol were solid."
"Pure gossip, but I heard he got tangled up with his secretary and Carol left him. They have a darling little girl. Don had to fight like mad to get visitation rights, because Carol is still bitter about it. Guess that's why they didn't come, afraid they'd see each other," Rita says.
When we finish eating, I get another glass of wine and go to sit on the bench Bill has built at the end of the boat dock. In the now failing light, I see Walt talking with several men. One of them turns and looks around, then points to me. Walt nods and begins to walk toward me. He's acquired a slight limp that I don't remember.
"Nick! I was hoping you'd be here. It's good to see you."
Astonished at the warmth in Walt's voice, I stammer, "Ah, good to see you, too, Walt."
"I've learned a lot about myself these past years, and I want you to know I still remember …"
"Hey, Walt! Come on in the house with us," someone calls.
I see Walt scowl. "In a minute. I'm talking to Nick."
"This party's winding down, and that bunch will reminisce half the night. Let's split and find some place we can talk privately as long as we want."
I can't begin to imagine Walt having that much to say to me, but there's no way I'll miss the opportunity, even now. "I'd like that. Where are you staying?"
"Comfort Inn, but a bunch of the out-of-towners are getting together there. What about your place? I was sorry to hear about your parents' deaths."
"Thanks. It won't be hard for you to find my house. I'm still in the same one on Main, but the city keeps renumbering. It's 1112 for the present."
"I remember your house well." I can't remember his ever being in it. "I'm driving a rental, so I'll meet you there in a few minutes. I could use a good cup of coffee, too."
"It'll be waiting and so will I."
I open the side door as soon as I hear Walt's car in the drive. "Come on in, guy."
"You've done yourself proud, Nick. This is a place a man can really be comfortable in."
"Thanks. After my parents died two years ago I had it done over to suit me. Have a seat. How do you want your coffee?"
"Straight from the pot."
Once I've served him and gotten a mug for myself I sit in my usual spot and look at Walt stretched out in one of the leather chairs. Wonder what he wants to tell me? He's never seemed friendly before.
Walt takes a sip of his coffee. "Bu…. , I started to call you buddy, but I guess we weren't ever that close when we were in school. I … ," he shakes his head and give me a look I can't fathom. "I just wanted to say I've always admired you more than anyone I've ever known," he blurts.
"You … you admire me? For what? I mean you have everything."
Walt shakes his head. "You don't remember what happened in our junior year?"
"Lord, no! I don't try to remember much from those years. I don't even know why I bothered with this reunion."
"I'm glad you did, but I would have found you before I left. Look, guy, I guess maybe you don't want to remember, but I do. Like it was yesterday. It was Halloween and you invited the whole gang here for a party. You had shocks of corn and pumpkins everywhere. I remember your mom had baked a ton of cookies. Best I ever ate."
"I remember now. There was only about four of you showed up. None of you stayed long. Guess it was because there wasn't any beer."
He nods. "We knew your mom didn't approve of drinking. I did stay a few minutes more and we tried to talk, but we didn't have much in common. That's when I started to understand you weren't impressed with me in the least. I always wanted to tell you and your mom I'm sorry I didn't stay longer. You had put yourself out and we didn't appreciate it."
"Let the past stay past, Walt. Some memories hurt." I close my eyes for a moment. "Will you be honest with me about one thing?"
"That's one reason I came tonight. What?"
"Why didn't you guys want me around back then?"
Walt winces. "Look at all your books. You never were into sports or dating, and you wouldn't take a drink. All that stuff. Some of the guys had you figured for a fag. I was never quite convinced you were nothing more than a goody-goody because you had several girl friends."
I keep my eyes closed and make no response. The remarks back then were few, but I heard them and they hurt.
After an awkward silence I do nothing to ease, Walt says, "I admired you, Nick, because it never seemed to bother you that you weren't included. You walked to your own drummer." He sees my surprise. "Yeah, I do remember something Mrs. Arrons tried to teach us in English. But I figured all this out about you only after what happened to me right after college.
"It was when you invited me to that party I first realized I was lonely too. One of the reasons I left was I didn't want the gang to think I'd like a fag. Later, I found they didn't give a damn about me as an individual. I don't want to sound conceited here, but you don't know how hard it is to be good looking. My looks attracted the girls like flies to honey, and the guys liked being buddies with a jock. It didn’t hurt that I had some money to throw around either. I don't deny that I enjoyed the popularity, so it really hurt when I realized later they had just been using me."
He gets up and sits beside me on the sofa. I'm startled when he grasps my hand and says, "You never used me like they did."
I'm uncomfortable the way Walt is talking. "Please, Walt…"
He squeezes my hand, which he is still holding, and looks into my eyes. "Nick, it's taken all this time for me to build up enough courage to tell you and I'm going to finish. That party was about the only time we ever said anything to each other, but I left envying you."
"What did I have that you wanted? You were always the golden boy. You had it all."
He winces again. "I can't believe you remember that. God, I hated that tag. It may have seemed to you I had it all, but I'd have given up my car and everything else to have had a home like yours with parents who loved me as much as yours did you. My old man may have been generous with things and his money, but he never made time to take me fishing or to the movies like your dad did with you. Hell, I'm still lucky if I see him more than a few times a year. But that night you sat and listened to me talk, and never once said anything."
"I never knew how you really felt, because I didn't understand what you were trying to say. I'm sorry we never talked again."
"I made sure we didn't. Hell, I was scared shitless you might tell someone what I told you."
I have to smile a little. "Like who? I didn't have any friends, especially any close enough to share a confidence with. All I remember of that night is how happy I was you came. You left me dreaming for weeks after that we would become friends."
"That's what I regret the most, denying myself the one friendship that would have been real. That really hit home four years ago when I could have used that kind of caring. You don't know how close I came to picking up the phone and calling you."
"I wish you had. I'd have listened."
"I know, and I really needed a buddy like you then. The rest of my so-called friends disappeared."
Walt reaches over and squeezes my hand again. "Don't say anything to any of the others at dinner tomorrow. What they don't know won't hurt them."
"This." Walt reaches down and pulls up the left leg of his slacks, revealing a hi-tech leg.
"I'm sorry, Walt. I wish you had called me. Now more than ever."
"I wish I had, too. It was hard for me to take. Just having you there would have helped a lot." He smoothes the slacks leg back down and looks into my eyes. "I figured you right."
"No gasps, no poor Walt, just 'I'm sorry.'" His eyes search mine. "It really doesn't make any difference to you?"
I know any expression of pity won't make it with this guy. "I was going to say you're still the same old Walt to me, but you're not. I like the new and improved version better."
"New and improved?"
"Yeah. I didn't really understand you that night, so I still thought you the most vain guy I'd ever seen, but now you're showing me you've developed real depth of character. For me the golden boy I envied has vanished."
Like hell. He's more golden to me than ever, but he would probably slug me and walk out if I told him why, and it's hard for me to concentrate with him holding my hand. I need to change this conversation before I say something stupid. "More coffee?"
I refill our cups and sit down. "That was a nice party tonight. It was great of Bill and Rita to have us."
He grins momentarily. "Trying to change the topic?"
"Something like that. I can tell it bothers you a lot."
"Perceptive of you. I guess you always were, I was just too dumb to understand how much." He grabs my hand again. "I'll always regret not having spent time with you back then."
"It's okay. We moved in different worlds and you were my dream that never came true. Don't tear yourself up over this. It's forgotten."
I manage a tiny smile. "You're going to make this confession time whether I like it or not, aren't you?"
Walt nods. "You're still strong on church, aren't you?"
He shakes his head. "Never did mean much to me other than dull sermons."
I laugh. "I've sat through some of those, too."
"Maybe so, but you're stronger for it. Remember the time our history teacher made us visit a different church each Sunday? I liked yours best because the sermon was so short."
"Still is. Pastor gets 15 minutes max, or he gets the axe."
Walt laughs, the first pure mirth I've heard from him. "That should be a universal rule."
His next question surprises me. "You read all those books?" The walls of my library are bookshelves, all packed to the limit.
I breath a sigh of relief that we're off subjects painful to both of us. "Of course. That's my recreation. I'm no more into team sports now than I was in school, though I did some ice skating and swimming when I could."
"I looked at a few while you were getting the coffee … this is damn good coffee by the way … and I saw a few I know are gay."
Oh, shit! I knew I should have moved them into my bedroom, but these are newly acquired titles I'm still reading. When I look back up he's staring at me. "Well?"
"How would a stud like you know a gay book? I thought you read nothing deeper than Playboy."
"Jack-off material for high school boys. I did finish college, you know. So?"
He's not going to let it go; stubborn as he always was when he wanted something. I close my eyes for a second to think, then decide he deserves the truth. "You and the other guys were right about me. For a long time I was confused, but after I was in college I finally figured out I was gay."
"Funny how sometimes others can see what isn't obvious to you for a while. Just like it's taken me all this time to realize I was being used by others."
"You aren't leaving?"
"Did you expect me to?"
"Yes. You're the stud every woman's after. You could have walked off with damn near every woman at the party tonight, married or not." I can't help the bitterness that creeps into my voice. "Why are you still sitting here drinking coffee with the school queer? Aren't you afraid I'll jump your bones?"
I'm amazed when he breaks out laughing. "I can still take you with one hand tied behind my back if I want, you're skinny as ever." He grabs my hand and squeezes it again. "I was trying to work up the courage to tell you the same thing."
"You're kidding!" My golden boy gay! Impossible!
"When I didn't see you after we'd eaten tonight, I was afraid you'd left. When Tom pointed you out to me and I saw you sitting on the dock alone I knew instantly I wanted to be with you for the rest of my life."
"You don't even know me, Walt. How can you be sure we'd get along?"
"The honesty you've shown while we've been talking proves you haven't changed. I said I admired you. It's more. I've thought about you every day since my accident, and I swore I'd find you, because you liked me for who I am, not what I have." He squeezes my hand tightly. "You've remained a giver, Nick. Give me your love. I want and need it badly. I've never known real love until now."
"I've been in love with you since high school, but I was too confused to know it then, thank God, otherwise I'd have been a lot more miserable than I was." I squeeze his hand in return. "I still love you, Walt, but you're living up north and I'm working here at a job I like. How can we make a life together?"
Walt leans over and kisses me; a kiss I joyfully return. "The old man's going into partial retirement, so he wants me to take over here." He grins. "He'll be coming into the office just often enough to screw things up." Then his expression turns serious. "You'll have all my love, Nick, but can you accept it from a guy that's no longer whole?"
"I haven't told you everything, Walt. The reason I finally admitted to myself I'm gay is because my last roommate in college was an amputee. He was straight, but I couldn't keep my eyes off him. He got pissed and forced me to admit to him – and myself – that I'm a gay devotee and found him a real turn-on. To me you're perfect now. I hope you'll use crutches whenever we're alone."
Walt grins. "You just became my golden boy, Nick. This damn leg bothers me a lot. I can't wait to get home at night and take it off." He smiles. "Yeah, I've still got enough ego to not let people know I'm a cripple."
I give him my biggest smile. "You and your stump are my dream come true. Can you live with that?"
"With you? Damn right."
Where're we going to live?"
"Right here. I love this house. Can I move in with you next week?"
"I'm not into a week's free trial. It's all or nothing."
"Damn, you're making it tough."
"You unknowingly rejected me way back when. It's been so long I'm not risking your rejecting me again," I grin. "Especially for a woman."
"You should be so lucky." He seals his commitment with a kiss.
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