They were all waiting on the verandah of my house when we returned that afternoon, Justin’s parents and Sally, their faces pallid and etched with concern.
‘You ready for this, mate?’ I asked Justin.
He looked up at them and nodded grimly.
I pointed the nose of the old Ford into the carport and pulled it to a stop, as the three of them headed down the steps toward us.
‘What are you going to tell them?’ I asked.
‘I’ve been thinking about that on the drive back here,’ he answered. ‘I will be able to stay with you for a while, won’t I?’
‘Yes, of course you can. I want you to stay for as long as you want,’ I replied.
‘Thanks,’ he said, while giving me a smile that showed that he truly was grateful. ‘I just want to tell them that you said it was all right for me to stay here with you, just until I sort myself out, or something. Would that make sense do you reckon?’
‘Yeah. I reckon it will. If you like, I’ll tell your father that you need some time to get your head together and that you are more than welcome to stay.’
‘Thank you,’ he replied.
‘Anytime, mate. Anytime. Just remember I’m here for you. I’m not going anywhere,’ I said to him, while reaching across the seat and giving his hand a quick squeeze.
I watched as Peter and Jenny circled around the truck, heading straight for Justin’s door, while Sally stood back and looked at me with a strange grin on her face. I frowned at her slightly, but all she did was give me a discreet thumb’s up sign.
Embarrassed, I looked away, deciding that it would probably be a good idea if I got out of the vehicle and went around to where I could talk to Justin’s parents face to face, while at the same time the passenger side door of the truck was quickly yanked open and Justin was soon dragged from the vehicle by his mother, who hugged him and kissed him, while his father stood back a little, looking from Justin to me and back again.
‘Oh, Justin,’ Jenny gushed. ‘What were you thinking? Where did you go? We’ve been worried sick about you!’
‘Damn fool boy! It’s about time he started growing up, instead of spending all night out on the town with god knows who, then expecting everyone to be feeling sorry for him!’
‘I’m fine mum. Really!’ he answered, while giving his father a glare that would have sunk the Bismark.
I heard Sally gasp, but we both remained silent.
‘So, where did you find him, then?’ Peter asked.
‘Down by the beach,’ I answered, doing well, I thought, to disguise the feelings of anger that were bubbling away inside me.
‘Well, I suppose I should thank you then?’ he said.
‘No need for that,’ I replied. ‘Just seeing that he’s okay and having him back here is thanks enough for me.’
Justin looked up at me and smiled. For the first time he actually looked happy. And for the very first time I truly knew how I felt about this boy.
‘Hmmmpppfffttt!’ Peter snorted.
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ I asked him. ‘I thought you would be glad that Justin is okay, and that he is safe.’
He didn’t say anything. He just looked from one of us to the other and back again. He may have been relieved to have his son back, I thought, but if that was the case he certainly wasn’t showing it.
‘I think that you and I need to talk,’ I said directly to Peter.
‘About what?’ he asked.
‘About your son, of course!’
He looked from me to Justin, and then to his wife. I could almost see the cogs turning over in his mind, as if he were trying to figure out what was going on here, but judging by the sheer look of exasperation that finally settled on his features it appeared that he had failed.
Justin and his mother were both looking concerned, but neither said anything.
‘You asked me to try and connect with him,’ I said. ‘You wanted me to try and figure out what was wrong. Well, I’ve done that, and now, if you want to know what Justin’s problem is, you’ll need to listen to me.’
‘I . . . I suppose I better,’ he finally said.
‘Come on Justin, let’s go down to the cabin,’ Jenny said, while placing her hands on her son’s shoulders and guiding him toward the roadway.
Justin looked back over his shoulder at me, once again the scared little boy that he had been earlier that afternoon.
‘It’s all right, Jay,’ I said to him. ‘You don’t have to worry. Just come back up to the house whenever you feel like it, all right?’
He nodded his understanding, then walked out onto the roadway with his mother and down toward their cabin, while I turned to face his father.
‘Feel like a beer?’ I said to him.
‘I don’t know what the hell is going on here,’ he said, sounding slightly suspicious. ‘But yeah, that’s not a bad idea for starters.’
He followed me up the path that led from the carport to the verandah without saying anything, so I didn’t feel obliged to say anything to him just for the sake of making polite conversation.
I had been stewing over what Justin had said to me ever since he had come out with it earlier that afternoon, and the more I thought about it the angrier I had become. The most frustrating part for me, however, was that I couldn’t say anything to Peter about that part of my conversation with Justin, for fear of breaking my promise to Justin that I wouldn’t tell anyone about what he had told me about his sexuality. That was one of the unwritten laws for people like him and me, we all need to deal with our sexuality in our own way, and come out in our own way – or not – if that’s what we want. To break that golden rule would be the quickest way to destroy any relationship that may be developing.
Peter followed me in through the sliding glass doors to the kitchen, where I handed him a cold beer from the refrigerator, before then leading him back out onto the verandah, which was still bathed in a warm afternoon sun. We both sat down and faced each other across the outdoor table.
‘Well, I suppose you found him at least!’ Peter said to me after taking a sip from his beer, with his voice devoid of all emotion.
‘Yeah, well, I think I got lucky there.’
‘Hmmmm . . .’
‘He’s going to be all right, Peter. I don’t think you need to worry about him anymore.’
‘What makes you so sure?’ he asked flatly.
‘Because he told me what his problem was,’ I replied.
He looked at me long and hard, his eyes searching for any clue that I might give up, but I wasn’t prepared to give him any. In the end he just took another sip of beer, before placing the bottle back down on the table.
‘So, are you going to tell me what it is then?’ he eventually asked.
‘Errr . . . I promised him I wouldn’t,’ I replied. ‘When he’s good and ready I feel sure that he’ll come out and tell you himself. Just at the moment though, there’s a lot of stuff going on inside that head of his, and I think he just needs some time to himself to work things out . . . and preferably in an environment where he isn’t feeling as if he’s being crowded or pressured to conform.’
‘Which is where, exactly?’
‘Well . . . here, if that’s what he wants. I’ve told him that if he wants some time to sort things out in his own head, he is more than welcome to stay here for as long as he wants . . . I mean, provided you and Jenny were okay with it of course.’
‘I see,’ he replied, rather coolly.
‘Look, Peter . . . I think that Justin is one of those kids who would rather bottle things up inside of himself than share his feelings with anyone. Being able to talk to others is something that doesn’t come easily for him, especially not if it’s a stranger, and that could possibly be why you didn’t have any luck when you took him to the psychologist.’
‘That’s just stupid,’ Peter responded. ‘That’s what the shrink is meant to do. That’s his job.’
‘That may be the case’ I replied. ‘But it obviously hasn’t worked. That’s why you’ve come here isn’t it? At least since he’s been here though he’s started talking, and he’s started coming out that shell of his, so now that he’s started making some progress, I think it’s only natural that he be allowed to keep it going. Assuming of course that that’s what he wants.’
‘Hmmmm . . .’
‘I don’t want to tell you how to raise your own kids or anything Peter, but have you ever told him you loved him? Or have you ever told him that he doesn’t need to impress anyone, and that all he needs to be is just himself, whoever that person is?’
‘Don’t be stupid. Blokes don’t say those sort of things to each other!’
‘Oh, for Christ sakes,’ I snapped. ‘What are you more worried about . . . telling someone you love them, or losing a son altogether? Just forget about all that macho crap will you? Start thinking about what’s best for the kid!’
‘What’s best for the kid is that he wakes up to himself and starts living in the real world!’
‘Bloody hell, Peter. Will you give him a break? What’s best for him is that he learns to love himself for who he is, without constantly feeling the need to conform to someone else’s standards, or be someone he isn’t. You’ve seen how much he’s changed here, even just in these past few days, so why don’t you give him a chance to finish the job by staying here with me for a while? When he’s ready, I just know that he’ll start talking to you . . . he just needs to figure out how he’s going to say what it is he needs to say.’
‘And are his parents going to get a say in this little scheme of yours?’ he asked sarcastically.
‘Basically, yes. But that depends on a few things, I reckon.’
‘Like what?’ he demanded.
‘Well, on whether or not you are prepared to listen to what he’s got to say, and whether or not you are prepared to give him a bit of freedom.’
He sat back in his chair and studied me intently, without saying anything.
‘Peter, if I can offer you one piece of advice about Justin it would be this. Just let him be himself. Don’t expect him to be anything other than Justin Black, and when he finally manages to figure out just who that person is, and he can come to terms with that person, then I’m sure that the old Justin that we all knew will come back to us. He’ll come around.’
‘I wish it were that simple,’ he said to me.
‘Well, it can be,’ I answered.
‘But, how can you be so sure about that? I mean, how can I believe that?’
‘Look, Peter,’ I said, leaning forward in my chair so that I was just that little bit closer. ‘If you want to get the old Justin back, you’re going to have to believe it!’
‘What’s that supposed to be? Some kind of threat or something?’ he demanded.
‘No Peter. It’s the facts. Plain and simple. Justin is eighteen years old and he can make up his own mind about what he wants to do . . . with, or without your blessing! What I’m saying is that if you don’t let him have a little space of his own, then chances are you’ll push him away altogether and that will be the end of it . . .’
‘Or the end of him!’
‘I don’t believe it would ever come to that,’ I replied.
‘I hope you’re right about that!’
‘Yeah, so do I.’
Getting to his feet, Peter picked up his beer and swallowed the last few mouthfulls, then put the empty back on the table and looked down at me.
‘I don’t know what it is about you, Scott, but for some reason you’re about the only person that he’s ever seemed to be able to connect with.’
‘We’ve gotten to be pretty good mates over the years,’ I answered. ‘I’m just glad that you came back here this time, before . . .’
‘Yeah, I know what you’re saying. Before it was too late, you mean!’
He stood there for a few moments, just gazing off down toward the cabin that they were staying in, as the last rays of direct sunlight disappeared and the afternoon became evening.
‘Go and talk to him,’ I urged. ‘I think you need to!’
‘Yeah. I suppose I do.’
‘It’ll be a start at least.’
Without saying another word he walked off the verandah and down the steps into the garden, along the path toward the gate, where he stopped and looked back at me.
‘Thanks,’ he said.
‘You’re welcome. Now go and talk to your son,’ I replied.
He nodded, then turned and left me.
* * *
I sat there alone for a few minutes more, just sitting quietly and enjoying the rapidly descending night, when I heard the sliding glass doors open and Sally stepped out on to the verandah, with one of my beers in her hand.
‘You should have been gone ages ago,’ I said to her.
‘Maybe,’ she answered, before sitting down in the chair that Peter had just vacated. ‘I just wanted to make sure that things were all right before I headed off.’
‘Uh, huh,’ I said.
She sat there just looking at me, as if she were waiting for me to say something else, but I kept my mouth shut, thinking to myself that two can play this game.
‘Well?’ she eventually asked.
‘Well, what?’ I replied.
‘What happened? Where did you find him?’
‘Down by the beach,’ I replied, not wanting to give her the full story.
‘Is he all right then?’
‘He will be,’ I replied, with a grin.
‘Oh, honestly Scott. Talking to you is like trying to get blood out of a stone sometimes!’
We both drank some more of our beers and studied each other across the table, with each of us thinking of how we could out-fox the other, much as we have been doing for as long as we have known each other.
After a while however, I decided to put her out of her misery and tell her.
‘You’ll be pleased to know,’ I eventually said to her, ‘that I’m going to have a guest for a while.’
‘What sort of a guest?’ she asked.
‘Well, a house guest actually,’ I said.
‘What? He’s going to stay here? With you?’
‘You don’t have to sound quite so shocked about it. I actually thought you’d like the idea!’
‘Hell yeah, I like the idea,’ she gushed. ‘For a while there I thought you pair would never get your act together!’
‘Hey, hang on a sec there! Don’t go getting too excited just yet.’
‘But . . .’
‘No buts. It’s still not quite you’re thinking.’
‘But there is some hope though, isn’t there?’
‘We’ll just have to wait and see,’ I answered, hoping that she wouldn’t be able to see my grin in the near darkness.
* * *
I didn’t really expect Justin to come up to the house that night, as I thought that he and his parents would need some time to themselves, and so I was surprised when there was a knock at the door about an hour later. When I opened it I found him standing there, showered, clean and all dressed up in trendy clothes as if he were going out somewhere, and with his hair pointing this way and that in trendy spikes.
I could hardly believe it was the same boy.
‘What’s this?’ I asked, pointing to his clothes and his hair.
‘This is a changed man you see before you,’ he replied, doing a little twirl and showing himself off for me.
‘Man?’ I chided. ‘Who said you’re a man yet?’
‘Hey, careful there. I’m an emotionally unstable teenager you know. I’m liable to do anything. Even act a little crazy!’
‘Nah, I think you’ve finally grown out of that stage,’ I replied.
‘What makes you so sure?’ he responded.
‘Oh, it’s just a hunch I have!’
We stood there grinning at each other, lost in each other’s eyes, for what seemed like ages, but was in fact little more than a few seconds. I desperately wanted to take him in my arms and hold him, to let him know how happy I was to see him like this, but given the circumstances I knew that that would have to wait for later. Much, much later.
‘So, what’s with the fancy threads then?’ I asked, as we both came inside and I closed the door behind him.
‘Oh, we’re going out to that little Chinese place for dinner, seeing as it’s going to be our last night together for a while. The folks have decided they are going to head home tomorrow! Anyway, that’s why I’m here . . . to tell you to have a shower and get ready, because I told them I wanted you to come too.’
‘What for, mate? If it’s your last night with them, that’s who you should be with, not me. They are your family, you know!’
‘I told them I wanted you there, because I owe you so much. And because they owe you so much!’ he said. ‘And besides, you’re as much family to me as anyone.’
I didn’t quite know what to say to that, so I said nothing, just looked away in the hope that I wouldn’t start blubbering.
‘So, you did manage to talk to them then?’ I eventually managed to ask him.
‘Yeah, I did,’ he answered. ‘And for a change, there was no screaming or yelling or anything.’
‘Well, I’m really pleased about that, mate.’
‘What the hell did you say to my old man? It was like he was a different person when he came back down to the cabin.’
‘I think I shocked him a little,’ I replied.
‘I told him that if he wanted his son back to his old self he would have to give him a bit of freedom, and if he didn’t do that, then he might lose you forever.’
‘And what did he say to that?’
‘He thought I was making a threat of some sort, like I was threatening to take you away from him or something, but I managed to smooth things out,’ I replied. ‘Anyway, what did you tell him?’
‘Just that you somehow managed to convince me that there was nothing to be scared of, and that if I didn’t start to get my shit together now, I’d never be able to.’
‘Wow! Did I really say all that?’ I asked.
‘Not really,’ he joked. ‘But you did help me figure it out for myself . . . sort of.’
‘Glad I could be of assistance,’ I replied. ‘And did you say anything about . . . well, about what you told me this afternoon?’
He looked away from me and simply shook his head.
‘All in good time mate. All in good time.’
‘Yeah,’ he replied. ‘Now, are you coming to dinner or not?’
‘Pushy little bugger, aren’t you?’ I said.
‘You don’t know the half of it!’
I just smiled at him.
I couldn’t believe that this was the same kid who had been ready to throw himself at the mercy of the sea just a few hours ago. It was almost as if this huge weight had been lifted from his shoulders, now that he had been able to actually tell someone his little secret and he could see that it wasn’t that big a deal, and that people actually still did care about him in spite of that.
I knew that there was still a long way to get yet, but this was a start at least.
‘Well, are you coming or not?’ he asked again.
‘Yeah. Of course I’ll come mate. But you and your folks go on ahead and I’ll meet you there in about twenty minutes, all right?’
‘How about I tell them to go ahead and then you and I will catch up with them?’
‘No, mate. It’s best if you go with them. Then after dinner I’ll buy you a beer at the pub and you can come home with me. How does that sound?’
‘Fine by me,’ he answered, then he really surprised me by stepping forward and quickly kissing me on the cheek, before heading for the door.
‘What was that for?’ I asked, sounding surprised.
‘Do I really need a reason?’
‘No. You don’t,’ I answered. ‘Actually, you can do that any time you like.’
‘Be careful what you say there. I might just take you up on that!’ he replied, then flashed his beautiful smile at me and was gone.
* * *
Charlie Hong was a great old guy, and ran the best Chinese Restaurant in the state, as far as I was concerned, along with his Australian wife, Leah.
The restaurant used to be an old corner store that had closed down when I was just a little kid. Charlie and his brother, Leo, had settled in the town at about the time I had been about eight or nine. They had bought the store cheaply, then set about turning it into the restaurant, painting the inside walls a rich red colour and decorating it with that bamboo blinds and cheap fake Chinese décor that seemed to be all the rage back then.
As I had gone to school with Charlie and Leah’s daughter, Dianne, I knew them quite well and we would dine there frequently when I was growing up. It hasn’t changed much since then either. And I still loved to go there. There was just something about the food and the company that always appealed to me, but the best feature I always reckoned were the big glass windows at the front that looked out over the lake.
When I arrived tonight I was greeted warmly by Leah and then shown to the table that Justin and his parents were seated at.
‘I was beginning to think that you wouldn’t show,’ Justin said to me as I joined them and greeted his parents.
‘Oh, you know me, mate. I’ve never been one to knock back a free feed!’
‘That’d be right!’
‘Take no notice of him,’ Jenny said. ‘We’re just glad that you could join us.’
‘Thank you very much for inviting me,’ I replied.
‘You’re more than welcome Scott. I know it’s not much of a thank you for what you’ve done for Justin these past few days, but we thought that it was the least we could do.’
‘Well, I’m just glad that I could help in some way,’ I said to them, glancing across at Justin as I did so and seeing him smiling at me, although looking a little embarrassed, sitting upright and with his hands in his lap.
‘So, what will you have to drink?’ Peter asked me, at the same time motioning for Charlie to come over to our table.
‘A Scotch and Dry would be great, thanks,’ I replied.
Charlie arrived and placed menus on the table in front of us and took our orders for drinks, then retreated to the bar where we could see him pouring them into glasses.
‘So, what’s good here?’ Peter asked, picking up the menu and casting an eye over the offerings.
‘Just about everything,’ I answered with a grin. ‘This is about the best Chinese restaurant in the state, I reckon. If you like trying a little bit of everything though, I’d suggest the banquet. It’s pretty good value.’
‘Then the banquet it is then!’ Peter replied, while placing his menu back on the table in front of him.
There was something about the way that he did it that grabbed my attention, sort of arrogant and domineering, and I wondered idly if that was how he was at home. If it was, then maybe it would go a long way to explaining how Justin felt about him.
The drinks arrived a few minutes after that and we placed our order for the meal, then the four of us chatted amongst ourselves while we waited.
Don’t ask me what it was we talked about though, because I can’t remember. Just about everything that happened after that seemed to be a bit of a blur.
I think it was just about then that I felt a hand on my knee under the table. I looked up at Justin and noticed him grinning at me, almost daring me to react.
As casually as I could I reached under the table and took hold of his hand, giving him a gentle squeeze.
We couldn’t stay like that all night of course. But it did give a promise of what may come.
To be continued . . .