It was about four o’clock that afternoon when I dropped Jesse off, taking a few minutes to go inside and appropriately thank his parents for letting us use their lake house for my party, and Lily had spent all weekend making me a birthday card like no other I would ever receive. There was glitter and buttons and ribbons glued to the front and inside she had colored a picture of Jesse and me standing with her by their fish tank and she had drawn one of those comic strip bubbles where the fish was saying ‘Happy Birthday Stephen’.
Extraordinary was a fitting word for the amount of time and thought she must have spent on making the card and I think that the way her tiny little arms were squeezing my neck so tightly as I hugged her to say thank you said almost as much as the card did itself and I could admit, that the little girl had managed to weasel her way into my heart, just a little, as I hugged her back just as tightly before Jesse’s mom ushered her into the kitchen so we could say goodbye to each other.
I knew I was going to miss sleeping next to Jesse tonight and I told him so, quietly, as I nuzzled into his neck. He hugged me tightly, whispering how much he was going to miss me too, and I knew I would miss this, the warm feeling I always got when I was in his arms, but I made him promise not to stay away too long. With the holidays coming up and me starting work on Friday, I knew our time together would be somewhat limited, but he assured me that he was going to be around whenever and as much as I wanted him to be.
It was still amazing to think about what had happened to me this weekend, to us, but I had no regrets, no second thoughts at all, but between Jesse’s gifts, me asking him to dance, Bobby knowing and accepting us for what we are, and then Jesse making love to me, it was the start of a great eighteenth year for me. The world looked so much brighter with him next to me, I loved him and he loved me, and it just felt right that we were together. It felt even better when he kissed me goodbye right there in the open for anyone to see, granted we were inside his house, but who knows when some parent or little sister might walk by and see what was happening.
Dad was waiting for me to get home because we were going to go out and have dinner and spend some time together, just the two of us. It had been a while since we had the chance to do that and an even longer while since it was genuine, a time when I knew I didn’t have to worry about letting something slip or accidentally giving him any indication that I was gay, and I was more than ready for that.
He hugged me when I walked in the door and wished me a happy birthday again. I never really thought about it much until I was standing there in his arms, but I guessed that this would probably be my last birthday living here at home. I would probably always be around since it was so close to Thanksgiving, but I was going to go off to college and I was an adult now, and who knows what that meant.
I quickly unpacked my truck and then we headed out. I didn’t really know where we were going but then again, I decided I didn’t care much where we were going to eat. I was with my dad, the one who loved and accepted me for who I was and all that I might become, the one who wanted me to be happy and loved and fulfilled, the one who had always set aside time for me, the one man who made up the other half of my family.
We had a fun night, pretty laid back for something that was supposed to be a birthday dinner, just some burgers and some miniature golf, but mostly just having fun hanging out together. I got a couple presents out of the deal too. My dad gave me a laptop, something I would need for college, he justified, and a drawing set, something a professional artist would use, it was really lavish, including every kind of pencil, chalk, or charcoal I could imagine.
The interesting part of the night came though, when my dad pulled out an envelope and handed it to me, all casually, like it was no big thing, but when I opened it and realized what it was I was pretty speechless. He explained that when my mom died, she had a life insurance policy that I was a half beneficiary of, and that my money had been invested and grown and was now mine since I was eighteen.
He said he thought at the time, that it would be a great way to pay for college, and I could definitely do that and then some with the amount of zeros I was looking at, but since I was already being given offers, some by some serious college scouts, I was pretty sure I would have a full scholarship wherever I did end up going and playing. I wasn’t at all sure where that would be yet, but I knew it would happen. It never occurred to me not to do something I love and have it pay for my education at the same time.
The next three days of school were pretty much a waste since every student was waiting for Thanksgiving and the long weekend that accompanies it and every teacher was trying to keep some semblance of control, but you could tell they were more than ready for the long weekend too. It was definitely exciting for me though, to get to walk into school Monday morning knowing that my three oldest friends really knew me now and, more than that, loved me and accepted me for who I really was, and that one of the hottest guys in school loved me and had just spent all weekend showing me just how much.
When I found Jesse that morning before school it was physically painful having to stop myself from just grabbing onto him and never letting go, but I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that doing that wouldn’t be a good idea, at least not yet. I hadn’t really thought about it much until Jules started giggling, but now I was worried that maybe they would know what we did that night after they left just by seeing how we looked at each other. I caught her eye though and gave her a pleading look that said ‘whatever you think you know, please just keep it to yourself’ earning me the ‘only if you promise to tell me all about it later’ look in return.
Jesse seemed to be dealing with the same struggles that I was, I noticed, when he put his arm around me and I melted against him and the closeness I wanted to feel with him, but only for a second before he remembered where we were also. It sucked, not being able to just be with him, when and how I wanted, and I felt bad, guilty, cowardly almost, not being ready to do that. I guess that’s a lesson everyone has to learn at some point in their life; to live for themselves and that if happiness comes their way to grab on to it and hold on tight because who knows when it will be gone again.
I definitely had the happiness part down, and the holding on tight too, and I really was trying to live for myself, and for Jesse, for us, but somewhere inside me, that little part of me that always says that I don’t care what anyone else thinks was disagreeing with me, and rather loudly too. Sometimes in the form of some bigot asshole like Tim, and sometimes in some stereotypical way, like the coach from some university who came and shook my hand after a game a few months back, and believe me when I say that he had enough macho ego bullshit for us both.
Whatever the reason, I really felt bad, lacking in some way, and I hated that. In English class Monday, we were assigned the normal lame attempt at writing something on the ever original topic, ‘What I am Thankful For’. I did the usual, ‘my family and my health and baseball and my education, for my chance to go to college and grow’ but by the end of the forty-five minutes we had been given, I felt so… sick.
It was all another masked attempt to be what everyone else thought I should be, maybe, it was what I thought they thought I should be, but that could cycle on forever. All I knew was, that while I was thankful, very thankful actually, for all of those reasons, I was also so thankful for being given the chance to love someone so special and to be loved in return, to feel acceptance and the way your heart just seems to feel like it might explode if it got any fuller, but then it never lets you down, it just keeps pumping and beating, it keeps you living, feeling, enjoying, remembering every moment.
By the time Wednesday had arrived I was busy with my preparations for the senior assembly that would take place today. The school had arranged to have speakers from a few different colleges come, and a ‘motivational life expert’ as they called him, and there were small booths set up outside the gym with all kinds of brochures and people to talk to from all the local colleges offering advice and information on everything from financial aid to scholarship opportunities to deciding on a major.
I, of course, had a huge part in any assembly that took place as student body president and that meant introductions and knowing who was supposed to be where and when and making it all happen on track, so when Mrs. Fulton called me into her room on Wednesday morning to tell me she wanted a few kids to read their “What I am Thankful For’ essays aloud at the assembly, including me, I was a little flustered.
That meant fitting them into the already packed schedule, finding them and asking them to be ready to do that in front of the whole senior class in a couple of hours without any preparation really, and getting them there early enough to get comfortable with making a speech publicly. While I had never had any trouble standing up in front of anyone and speaking, I knew there were plenty of people who had a major fear and I didn’t want anyone getting laughed at or hurt or embarrassed.
It was ironic to see who Mrs. Fulton had chosen to speak and when I decided that the names on her list weren’t at all who I would have considered when trying to motivate kids to want to continue their education, I asked her about it. She explained that there were a few types of students; ones who definitely want to and will go to college, ones who want to, but are financially facing a possibility that that may never happen, those who, amazingly after twelve years of schooling haven’t even ever seriously considered going on to college, and those who have no interest in going at all.
I definitely fell in the first category, as did my group of close friends, so when she handed me the list of names, I was hesitant. Besides myself, the list included Mary Beth Hamilton, a four-year cheerleader, Scotty Franklin, the auto shop’s ace student, and Amanda Jenkins, class flirt and who knows how much more, but she was sure these were the kids she wanted, and so I went in search of their class schedules so I could ask them to participate along side me.
Scotty took a little convincing, but I think that was more because I was asking him to leave the auto shop than because I was asking him to speak publicly, but in the end he agreed along with Mary Beth and Amanda. I gave them all passes to get out of class early and asked them to meet me in the gym at ten a.m. before going off to meet the principal and work out the introductions.
I was rereading my own essay when Amanda walked in and plopped down on my lap with her obvious attempt to be the center of my world at that moment, and I inwardly rolled my eyes at her efforts since they were so wasted on me. I wondered if I should just save her the trouble so she could move on to the next helpless sap that walked in the door, but I didn’t have to because thankfully, the principal, Mr. Franklin, walked over and asked her if she could kindly excuse us for a minute as he needed my help, and I thought at that moment, I might follow him anywhere.
Five hundred students filled one half of the gym as I ran around making sure everyone was where they were supposed to be. It was loud, laughing and talking echoing from the high ceiling, and Bobby managed to get my attention from where he was sitting with Jules and Sean and Jesse, pretty close to the top of the bleachers and straight ahead of the podium. At least while Mary Beth was dazzling us with her dreams to build the tallest pyramid of girls in short skirts or whatever, I could see Jesse smiling. Finally when Mr. Franklin signaled me from where he stood off to the side, talking with the college speakers, I walked over to the podium and began.
“Hey guys, how is everyone today?” I asked into the microphone rather loudly since they were all talking and laughing and I had to get their attention somehow.
I got a rather weak, “Goooooooood,” in response.
“Oh come on, just good? We’re out of classes till after lunch and we’re gonna have some fun, so I think that’s great!” I said more excitedly and hoping my enthusiasm would spread. “Let’s welcome Mr. Franklin, our principal,” I said and started clapping as I stepped back from the microphone and watched him walk over as the students all clapped, some more animatedly than others. Mr. Franklin did the obligatory handshake with me and then I sat down as he started speaking to the class about why we were all gathered here today and what he thought about what we could hopefully take away from this assembly today.
After hearing from the representatives from the local colleges, which is basically pretty boring because either you already know where you want to go and are just waiting to hear back by now or you really have no idea at all, we heard from the motivational speaker. He put on a pretty impressive show and everything he said was right, but if you’ve ever listened to one, sometimes hearing what you know to be true in an over excited fashion from someone who makes it sound so easy can be nothing short of frustrating.
He did say one thing that stuck in my head though, and I couldn’t stop repeating it over and over to myself. He said, “I'd been looking for the answer; I couldn’t see that it was right there, but when I finally found it, I had everything I needed to succeed, to be happy, and to reach out and grab a hold of this life that was mine and make it into what I wanted it to be.”
By the time he was done speaking, everyone was clapping, although I couldn’t decide if it was because he had finally finished or because they actually appreciated his words, but it didn’t really matter either way. I got up again and thanked him for visiting our school and for offering his words of wisdom to us all and then I introduced Mrs. Fulton, who explained that she had chosen four of her students to read a little something she had assigned in honor of the holiday tomorrow and she challenged us to see if we could figure out how her choices were relevant in relation today’s assembly.
Mary Beth went first, wearing her cheerleader uniform, as spunky and giggly as ever, and talking about how she was thankful for the holiday coming up and the vacation that went along with it. She was glad to get to feast on Thursday, followed by one ridiculous marathon of shopping on Black Friday, and then the two days that followed allowed her a suitable amount of time to recover from the whole process. Apparently it boggles the mind being able to get such great deals on things you don’t really even need, unless of course you are Mary Beth Hamilton.
Scotty talked about how he planned on using what he had learned here and what he would learn at some technical school to become a really great mechanic and that maybe he would even learn to restore old cars and someday hoped to open his own shop. His eyes sparkled when he talked about it all, just like someone who genuinely loved what they were talking about, it meant something to Scotty, and everyone in that gym knew it by the end of his speech.
Amanda intrigued me to say the least. I had been in elementary school with her, but we never really were close friends. Back then, the boys hung out with the boys and the girls with the girls. Jules was the exception to that rule, but she was like family, like my sister. Amanda was this animated and flirty, fun girl. She almost always had a smile on her face and while it was hard to tell, probably because she worked hard to keep it hidden, she really was quite intelligent.
As it turns out, she was thankful for things that were real, people that were real, and feelings that left you fulfilled instead of wanting and unsatisfied. She was thankful for the opportunity to create her own future and to make it what she wanted it to be and for the chance she had to do that, by going to college. It turns out, that flirty, giggly Amanda Jenkins wants to be a social worker and help kids get out of bad situations and into good homes. I thought that was an amazingly selfless thing to want to do and I applauded when she was finished.
I had been rereading my essay again as Mary Beth and Scotty had been speaking, and while it was absolutely truthful and accurate, it was only a portion of what I was really thankful for, it was only a small piece of what was important to me, and it felt so wrong overlooking the things that mean the most to me. I went up and thanked Amanda and the others for taking the time to share with us their essays.
I stood there in front of that microphone like I had so many times before over my time in high school, and I looked out at the crowd of kids I had basically grew up with. Some were friends, some I didn’t even really know very well at all, but they were my classmates, and we were in this together.
“So I guess I’m supposed to read this essay I wrote for Mrs. Fulton’s class,” I started, “but I’m pretty sure you can all guess what it says, and you’d be right if you thought it said that I am thankful for the education I have received here, or the baseball scholarship I’ll probably get that will pay for college while still allowing me to play the sport I have played since I was a kid and still love and also happen to be good at after all these years. All of that is true, I have learned so much here, and I can honestly stand here today and tell you that I have some of the best friends and team mates and teachers, but what I didn’t write, what I left out… is that I’m thankful that my friends and family are the people they are and that I have surrounded myself with people that are supportive and loving and accepting.”
“You know, it’s funny, I thought I had this all figured out… life I mean. I just turned eighteen, I have some offers from colleges already, I might even know what I want to be when I grow up, but recently I learned something new, something I thought I already knew, but I learned that there is more to it, so much more than I ever realized before. The things that we all think are important… well it turns out, that they aren’t so much, which kind of makes you wonder then, what is?”
“Well, let me share with you what I learned. Respect is important, understanding and taking the time to listen is important, being there for someone and showing them you care is important… love is important. I don’t mean love like… I love my school or I love my car or I love that new CD by my favorite band. No, I mean truth, unconditional love, and being able to show someone that you love them for who they are, no exceptions or demands, and who they help you to be. It’s… awesome really, to be able to say that you know what that actually feels like to have someone love you like that and to be able to say to that person, with all the confidence you have, that you know it is the best thing that has ever happened and that you wouldn’t trade this feeling or this time for anything else in the world.”
“Like he said earlier, I also had been looking for the answer; I couldn’t see that it was right there, but when I finally found it, I had everything I needed to succeed, to be happy, and all I had to do was reach out and grab a hold of this life that was mine and make it into what I wanted it to be. So, I want to say thank you to my friends, in honor of Thanksgiving I guess, but more because I want to give to you what you have given me. And to that person that I love… because you make me believe in myself, because you helped me to know it was right to be me, just as I am, because you have always been there believing in me, because we have learned what real love is together…”
“I love you Jesse. I’m thankful for the chance we have to make our life ours… together.”
My eyes were on him the whole time, sitting up there watching me, finally speaking from the heart, and when I said it aloud, it was confusing watching his face. It was a mixture of amazing love and respect and pride and happiness and loyalty and fear and worry and fortitude and resilience and courage. I knew very well, how it felt to feel so many things at one time, but I just smiled at him before I walked out of the gym that day to wait for my friends and my boyfriend.
I was done hiding and I was done pretending and I was done not being truthful and I was going to be all that I could and give Jesse everything he had always given me, from day one, strength and love and power and bravery and respect. I heard Mr. Franklin stumble through some sort of closing statement, his words muffled by the gym walls, but I didn’t really care what he was saying at the moment, I was just waiting for Jesse to walk out the door because I wanted nothing more than to hug him and never have to let go.
I was pretty sure there would be some sort of downfall from my statement, from being candid and open and honest, real about who I was and how I felt, but I really didn’t care too much right then. Some people slowly started coming out of the gym doors and I know they saw me standing there. A few people smiled, I got some hugs, some ‘wow that was… fill in some adjective here’s’, and there was definitely some whispering and giggling, but all I cared about was seeing Jesse walk out that door smiling.
You know how when you are waiting for something, it takes forever? I must have stood there for ten minutes watching the steady flow of seniors exiting the gym, each face appearing in the doorway and me being let down each time it wasn’t Jesse, only to have my faith renewed knowing he could be the next face I saw. I knew he was up at the top of the bleachers so it made sense that he would be one of the last ones out, but come on already! I just wanted a hug.
He finally did come out, with almost no one left behind him, and surrounded by our friends, the ones that loved and accepted us as we were and wanted to see us happy. I had given up about five minutes ago waiting for him right next to the door and was casually leaning on the side of a table when he did emerge from the sea of bodies and faces, and when he did, it was kind of funny watching him battle with himself. You could tell he just wanted to run over and jump into my arms too, but I think the Bobby, Jules, and Sean noticed because Bobby had his hand on Jesse’s arm, probably intending to hold him back from doing anything crazy.
I had taken a big enough risk as it was saying Jesse’s name out loud, and while I suppose I could lie my way out of it all if necessary, there was no way that I would. Although, that didn’t mean that we needed to become a spectacle in the school either. People were going to look, I knew that, but there was no need for us to make it into something that they could and, some people, like Tim, probably would use to make it into something that made me cringe even thinking about.
When Jesse finally did make it to me though, I didn’t hesitate to take one look at his smiling face and reach out and grab his hand in mine and pull him toward me until he was hugging me just as tightly as I was hugging him. It felt phenomenal, uplifting, exceptional, almost… free. Free to be, to exist, to live, to feel… to love, completely, genuinely.