The first week of summer I looked out from my parents' porch, over the perfectly clean rail to the manicured lawn, from the new sidewalk to the recently repaved street, and recognized that I lived in vanilla pudding. Everything was sterile, monitored, and scrubbed of personality. Vanilla.
Then the new neighbors moved in directly across the street, and I realized they were not vanilla-pudding kind of people.
I didn't think I was either--maybe--but my parents clung to their vanilla lives and hadn't stopped frowning since a bright red couch went into that house three days ago. They muttered with despair that the new neighbors would soon paint their house some obnoxious color or park an RV at the curb. Talk of a homeowners' association reared its head yet again.
And then the wind chimes went up. You'd have thought they were a car alarm going off every few minutes, the way my parents reacted.
I sighed now as the tinkling notes reached me. I liked the sound. It was soothing. I had started trying to anticipate which breeze would cause the little metal pipes to bump each other and send the music floating to me. I realized I was going to go crazy that summer, my summer between high school and college.
I had no friends to distract me, had never had a girlfriend, and couldn't stand my own family. The next three months would seriously test my sanity like no other break had. I wished again that I'd thought to sign up for the summer term or had at least won the argument to get a summer job. I was not, apparently, working-class. My first job would be after college, when "our kind of people" traditionally got their first jobs, and that was that.
But I'd discovered there was a guy about my age in the new neighbors' family. It was stupid. I knew that. It probably wouldn't work. Definitely wouldn't if I couldn't bring myself to get off the porch and talk to him. But maybe it could work. It wouldn't be like school, where the gossip would've turned any new kid against me before I had managed to say hi. He couldn't be influenced, because there was no one around to influence him.
I put my Kindle down, took my glasses off, and contemplated my clothes. Jeans and a T-shirt, no shoes--my rebellion for the day. Casual, nothing to make me stand out as the geek I was. Nothing to make me seem like what they all thought I was. What they'd yelled at me. Why I had no friends.
He came outside again, and I swallowed, trying to convince myself that this could work, simply because there was no reason it shouldn't. He wasn't familiar, so I doubted he was from around here. Hoped. I had no idea how far and wide I might be known. And though he looked a little like a jock, I had heard him laugh and watched him play with his two younger siblings. He didn't seem like the bad kind of jock, so maybe he wouldn't hate me on sight.
He wore an old pair of cutoff sweatpants, tennis shoes, and no shirt--reason enough for my parents to dislike him right there. I envied his physique because, while I was lean, I didn't look like that. His muscles were clearly defined, and he had an easy grace about him. He might be into martial arts instead of sports. His hair was to his shoulders and styled so the wavy locks of blond and brown looked like a lion's mane around his face. My brown curls would make me look like Shirley Temple if I grew them out. And I didn't need to shave, while he looked so cool with his carefully trimmed stubble and aviator sunglasses.
I stood up when he went to his car, a bright yellow two-seater with a flat bed and historic plates that made me wonder if he'd restored it. Maybe with his dad? He reached in and brought out an iPod, then strapped it to his upper arm. Was he going running? I walked to the porch steps, wanting to catch him before he could get away again. Before I could lose my nerve.
That's when I heard them. I stopped cold on the first step, tensing and staring, though I hated that I did. They never came through here. It was a dead end...with an entrance to the new park. Shit. They'd probably be through here a lot now.
A shiver snaked down my spine. I wanted to keep walking, ignore them, go over and make a friend like they didn't matter. But I couldn't. Because they'd never let me get past them, never let me ignore them. And they'd use the names they loved to yell at me, ruining any chance I'd ever have of meeting him with a clean slate. If they were in the right mood, they'd even treat him to a show by beating me up yet again.
I walked back to my chair slowly, hoping they wouldn't notice me on my own porch. At least I had enough courage not to go inside and hide. My hands were shaking, though, and it was a little hard to breathe.
He was looking at me as I sat back down. I almost waved, but if I did, he might wave back, gaining their attention and passing it on to me. So I sat down and stayed there, hiding in the shadows of the porch.
"Hey, man," Collin Cross said to my neighbor. Collin smiled like a news anchor and had a mean right hook.
"Hey," my neighbor said back, draping his earbuds over his shoulder.
"You new here?" Alex Higgins asked. He was tall and dark, with a tendency to spit and get really red faced when he yelled obscenities.
"Yeah. Few days ago."
"You play ball?" Todd Casey asked, nodding to the hoop now attached to the garage. Shorter than the rest, Todd was still a bulldog. He had a loud bark to cover very little bite.
"Some," my neighbor said, frowning a little. And then he smiled brightly like something wonderful had just happened. "Hey, you know any good gay clubs around here?"
I gasped, and I think they did too. Had he lost his mind?
No one moved except for him. His smile suddenly looked frozen on his face, but his hands curled into fists at his sides. He was very still. Ready. Waiting for the signal to fight.
In the seconds before the others reacted, I wondered if I could get involved. There were four of them. He wouldn't be able to fight them all, something he seemed to expect, though I don't think he had when he'd asked that damning question. Could I go down there and, if nothing else, distract them enough for him to have a better chance of defeating a couple? I had gotten good at taking a punch.
Then Rick Lockhart, that big blond superjock, said the first thing he'd ever said to me back in ninth grade.
"What are you? Some kind of fag?"
My new neighbor actually took a step closer to Rick, who had him by at least six inches and twenty pounds.
"I'm the kind of fag who'd love to thrust his cock into your tight ass. You interested, honey?"
I held my breath but then let it out in a whoosh when Rick took a step back. I wished I could see Rick's face. He'd never backed down from me when I'd panicked and fought back those few times.
"Fuck you!" Rick yelled, then turned away. The side of his face that I could see was bright, blazing red.
"That's what I'm offering, baby," my neighbor called after Rick as the others followed. He held out his hands like he was showing them what he had.
They grumbled too low for me to hear what they were saying, but they walked away.
They actually walked away.
I looked back at him and discovered he was coming over. I closed my eyes and dropped my head. It would just figure that the first chance I had to make a friend in four long years would be with a gay guy. It was horrible to think it, but having a gay friend definitely wouldn't help my reputation or social standing. When I looked back up, he was standing in the flower bed, leaning on the porch railing, smiling at me.
"That was some crazy shit, huh?" he asked.
I said the first thing that popped into my head. "Why would you ask them that question?"
He shrugged and took off his sunglasses, dangling them from his fingertips. His eyes were green.
"One of them checked me out. Full head-to-toe once-over. With a grin. I didn't realize he wasn't out to his friends." He sighed. "Or that they'd react like that."
I felt a little dizzy and gripped the arms of my chair. "Which one?" Because, Jesus Christ, one of the guys who'd tortured me for four years about being something I wasn't was actually gay himself?
He stared at me so long, I thought maybe he wasn't going to answer me. Finally his lips curled just a little, and he shook his head.
"Nah. I'm not going to out him."
I felt instant anger and pointed after them with an arm that shook. "Those assholes have tortured me since I was thirteen, and now you're telling me one of them is gay, but you won't say which one?"
He frowned. "Torturing you how?"
"That word they called you was spray painted onto my locker every day for six weeks in ninth. Someone wrote it on my backpack fifty-six times last year alone. And I can't remember how many ti--" My voice cracked as tears burned my eyes. "How many times they beat the shit out of me in four goddamned years."
I swallowed down the anger, fisting my hands to keep them from shaking as I looked away from him. I couldn't take the shocked pity on his face. And I would not cry.
"God, man, I'm so sorry."
"Save it," I bit out, wiping my damn eyes. "It's over now."
And it was. I'd graduated high school ten days ago. I could let it go, move on. Christ, I hoped I could let it go and move on.
"They do anything else," he said, his voice hard, "you let me know."
I shook my head, staring at my knees. "Yeah, right. That'll really help."
"Hey, man, didn't you see me out there? Not one punch thrown, but you know I won that shit."
I snorted. "Yeah, okay."
"We'll stick together."
I looked back at him, suddenly suspicious. "I'm not gay," I said, clearly pronouncing each word.
He just stared at me for a few seconds, and I had the horrible feeling he wasn't going to believe me. Why did no one ever believe me?
"Okay," he finally said, shrugging again.
"Fine. It bother you that I am?"
I thought about that. It seemed socially suicidal for someone who'd been falsely accused of being gay to have anything to do with a gay guy. I hadn't realized I was suicidal until right then.
"No, it doesn't bother me." And then I said something really stupid. "But are you sure you are? You don't look it."
He grinned at me. "We don't all dress in drag, you know."
I felt myself blush but had to clarify, "I mean, you seem so--"
"Oh God, man," he said, shaking his head at me, "don't you dare say normal."
My blush intensified, and I kept my mouth shut.
"Believe me, I'm sure. I think women are great, but I don't want to sleep with them. There's nothing I like better than rubbing up against a nice, hard--"
"Okay." I held up a hand. "I believe you."
He laughed again. Then someone hollered, "Wesley," from across the street. He turned to look, and I saw a woman in the doorway of his house, waving a phone.
"Sorry, honey, but it's Grandma Belle," she said.
"All right," he answered. "Be right there." He turned back to me. "Gram Belle just got out of the hospital from a hip replacement." He grinned. "I'm her favorite." Then he took a few steps back, leaving footprints in the mulch. "Well, I'll see you around, then..." He raised his eyebrows.
"Malcolm," I said, realizing he wanted my name. "Mal."
He nodded. "See you, Mal."
"See you, Wesley."
He seemed happier for some reason, then turned to trot away. "Call me Wes," he said back to me.
"See you, Wes," I whispered as I watched him leave.
I sighed and wondered if I'd done it--made a friend. I hoped I had even as I wondered if it was a mistake. If nothing else, I supposed, one good thing had come from all this.
Now there was a colorful little sprinkle on the vanilla pudding of my life.