Clayton "Bear" Piatt sat on his friend Cody's bed one Saturday afternoon, reading a book and listening to Cody attempting to find a station on the radio. It wasn't working, and every station that came through was either playing music from the fifties, or songs being sung in Spanish.
"Why don't you just turn off the radio?" Bear asked, acting the part of the voice of reason, as always. "It's not like we need music." He grabbed a bookmark off the table that sat beside Cody's bed and used it to mark his place in the novel he was reading, then put the book down and stood up, walking over to where his friend was still messing with the radio.
He watched Cody flipping stations for a few more minutes, then kneeled down on the carpet and gently removed the boys' hand from the panel of buttons he had been pushing, then proceeded to raise the silver antenna and move it - almost imperceptibly - to the left, then to the right, and then the left again. He bit his lip, focused solely on the task at hand, and continued his minute movements of the antenna. Cody's eyes followed his friends' hands, then moved up to his smile when - finally - the sound of static dissipated, replaced by the crystal-clear melody he had been looking for.
"There you go," said Bear, standing up again and wandering back over to the bed. He sat on the edge and grabbed his book, not really reading it, as he returned to watching Cody's search for a station that was playing some form of what he considered to be acceptable music.
The relative quiet was broken by the buzzing sound of Bear's cellphone, the vibration making him jump a little in surprise. He fished the phone from his pocket and checked the number on the caller ID. Although a name wasn't given, he knew immediately who was calling, and it made his heartbeat speed up just slightly.
"Be right back," he muttered to Cody, not waiting for a response before he walked quickly to the restroom, closing and locking the door behind himself. He sat on the lid of the toilet seat, turned on the water in the sink, to drown out any sound, and took a deep breath, trying to calm down, before finally answering the phone. He was only half grateful for the fact that it hadn't gone to voicemail.
The person on the other end spoke before Bear had a chance to,
The voice made Bear's breathing quicken. He attempted to speak, but no sound would come out. It was as though his throat had closed up. He desperately wanted to say something, anything. But he couldn't. It wasn't that he didn't have the words to say - on the contrary. He had imagined this exact conversation over and over a thousand times. He just couldn't seem to force anything to come out.
"I know you're there," the person said after a while, their tone teasing. "I can hear you breathing."
"Why are you calling me, Dustin?" Bear finally spoke, the words coming out sounding angrier than he intended.
Dustin was obviously taken aback by the harshness in his ex-boyfriend's voice, and his own reply came out sounding weaker than he had hoped it would.
"It's been too long. I just wanted - I needed. . ."
Bear fought the urge to sigh when Dustin trailed off.
"What?" He forced out, his irritation obvious, even through the phone. "What is it you needed?"
There was silence on Dustin's end of the line, and Bear was just about to hang up, when he finally began to speak again,
"Please, I just need to talk to you, that's all. Please, Clay."
The sound of Dustin saying his name - his real name - made an unknown feeling well up in Bear's chest. A strong, painful feeling that brought up forbidden memories and threatened to swallow him whole. Dustin was the only person - besides his parents - to ever use his real name, and honestly, that was the way Bear had liked it. It made him feel as though it were something that just the two of them shared, and there was a certain intimacy in that. It was this thought that made Bear finally agree, albeit begrudgingly.
Dustin let out a sigh of relief.
"Thank you, Clay," he said, sounding genuinely happy. "I mean it, thank you."
Bear ignored Dustin's thanks and waited silently for the man to continue speaking. When he didn't, Bear said,
"Well, are you going to say anything?"
"I can't talk to you about this now, over the phone," Dustin responded. "I need to see you, face-to-face."
For the first time since their conversation began, Bear's anger turned to fear. Face-to-face? He wasn't sure he could deal with that - not now, not ever. The false confidence he had hoped to portray melted away as he said,
"I don't know about that, D. . ." He left the sentence to hang in the air and waited for Dustin to pick up on his lack of assurance. To say that he had made a mistake, calling again after all this time. To put an end to this nightmare before it had the chance to begin.
But, damn it all to hell, he didn't.
"Please," the man on the other line repeated. "You know I wouldn't ask this of you unless I really needed it. I mean, I have a life, too. . ." He trailed off, as though he were deep in thought, then came back to himself, finishing with,
"We'll just talk."
"We'll talk?" Bear questioned, the disbelief audible in his words. "That's it?"
"Yes," Dustin responded vehemently. "That's it, I promise."
Dustin could hear Bear chuckle into the phone, the sound deep and without humor, nearly crushing him with its utter despair.
"We never "just talked", D," he said, his voice far away and his tone sad. "Never."
Two days after his phone call from Dustin, Bear found himself standing outside the front door to the man's house, trying to work up the nerve to ring the doorbell. It was dark outside - after nine o'clock - and the only light came from street lamps that dotted the road. There were no cars in Dustin's driveway, no lights on in the house. If it weren't for Dustin having called him before he came over, Bear would have assumed that no one was home.
Mustering up all the courage he had, Bear leaned forward and pressed his index finger against the doorbell, closing his eyes as he listened to the sound of the bell echoing throughout the small house, able to be heard, even through the closed door.
A light came on in what Bear assumed was the living room before the sound of feet shuffling towards the door reached his ears, and just two seconds afterward, the door opened, revealing Dustin.
He looked just as Bear remembered him - round face, half taken up by eyeglasses with thick black frames, large blue eyes, close-cropped brown hair that rested almost like peach fuzz atop his head, teeth ever-so-slightly crooked, but still white, and a nearly full-grown goatee covering the area around his mouth and on his chin.
He wore a short-sleeved orange tee-shirt and a "Denver Broncos" cap backwards on his head. The light in the doorway behind him seemed to brighten up his features, and Bear could see that he was trying to hide a smile.
"You came," he spoke, sounding shocked and pleased at the same time.
Bear fought the frustration that rose up inside of him at Dustin's surprise that he had actually shown up. He told him he would, and he was never the type to go back on his word. It angered him that Dustin didn't seem to remember that. He forced a smile and replied simply,
"Yeah, I did."
Dustin cocked his head to the side and smirked, looking his old friend over.
"That's a fake smile," he said. "I know it like the back of my hand. That was the same smile you used whenever we had to do those "Why Homosexuality is a Sin" worksheets back in school."
Without thinking about it, Bear smiled a real smile - his first one in about three days.
"I hated those damn worksheets," he muttered, still smiling.
"Me, too," Dustin said, shaking his head, as if he were in the midst of remembering something. "Do you wanna come in?" He asked, his voice quiet.
"Would I be here if I didn't?" Bear said, his smile getting just a little bit bigger.
Dustin moved out of the doorway, allowing Bear room to enter. Once he had, Dustin closed the front door behind him, locked it, then moved to the left side of the room, turning on a lamp on a nearby end table. This brightened the room a bit more, thus allowing Bear to take in his surroundings.
There was a large, leather couch pushed up against the main wall, with a big screen television several feet in front of it. A roll-top desk stood off to the right, with a laptop and a desk lamp resting on top of it, along with several dozen loose sheets of paper, half-filled with hastily scrawled handwriting that Bear immediately recognized as Dustin's. A Bible sat, upside down, on top of the papers, with a capped neon yellow highlighter between the pages, marking the spot where Dustin currently was in the Holy Book.
A plastic tote filled to the top with baby toys sat smack-dab in the middle of the room, and there were dozens of framed photos on the walls. Photos of Dustin alone, photos of a blonde woman that Bear could only assume was his wife, and photos of a baby boy with a tuft of blonde hair, and large, bright blue eyes.
Just like his father.
A sharp pain ripped, suddenly and agonizingly, through Bear's chest at the image of Dustin's wife and little boy. Just as they had three days ago, long-ignored memories flooded his brain - memories of the things he and Dustin had done when no one was watching them. Like the time they got out of school with forged sick notes, and spent the day at the mall, tossing spare change into the fountain, trying every single restaurant in the food court, until they were so full that they could hardly move, and sitting in the coin-operated, vibrating leather chairs, laughing every time someone got in line to wait for a turn on them, which wouldn't come until the boys ran out of quarters.
They took photos in the photo-booth, read magazines at the bookstore, and tried on shirts, jeans, and hats that they had no intention of actually buying, walking through each and every department store in the mall.
The first time the two of them kissed was in the dressing room of one of those department stores. Bear ("Clay" back then) had allowed Dustin to talk him into trying on this God-awful green shirt, with buttons that served no actual purpose running down the length of it. There was a pocket that didn't really open near the top of the shirt, and some sort of rough cord - which reminded Clay of a cable tie - resting along the edges of the stiff collar, hitting against the skin of his neck and making the back of his head itch like it had suddenly been covered in hundreds of bug bites.
Clay was just about to take the shirt off and put his old one back on, when Dustin knocked on the wooden frame of the dressing room door, entering without waiting for his friend to say it was okay for him to do so. This wasn't a big deal, since Dustin had seen him without a shirt dozens of times; locks didn't exist for them. It made for a few awkward encounters, but nothing they couldn't get past.
The moment he saw Clay in the shirt, Dustin began to laugh heartily, as if this were the absolute funniest thing he had ever seen. Clay glared at him as he continued to laugh, but the effect of the normally near-deadly look was diminished by the image that the shirt itself made.
"Are you quite finished?" Clay asked after enduring several long minutes of his friends' laughter, his words dripping with sarcasm.
"Just - just a sec - second," Dustin forced out between chuckles. Just when his laughter began to ebb, it would pick up again, falling from his mouth without any conscious control from him.
Finally, Clay sighed and, unable to think of anything else to do to stop his friends' mocking, leaned forward and kissed him right on the mouth.
The kiss lasted only a few seconds, but it felt longer. When Clay pulled back, Dustin's blue eyes were as big as saucers, and his lips were parted just a bit, wet and redder than usual. Clay said nothing, waiting for Dustin to speak first.
When he finally did, all that came out was a dumbfounded "um". Instead of getting nervous and attempting to take back what he had done, Clay just smiled and started to unbutton the shirt, saying as he did,
"I'm taking this damn thing off. You gonna get out, or do you want to stand there and watch me?"
Dustin didn't move, and Clay raised an eyebrow, eyeing his friend as he slowly continued to unbutton the shirt, purposefully taking his time.
"I'm fine either way," he said calmly.
Dustin seemed to come back to himself then, and quickly turned away from Clay, pulled open the dressing room door, nearly stumbling out, almost forgetting to close it, before he yanked it shut faster than he would have cared to admit, had he allowed himself the chance to really think about what had just happened.
They never really spoke about what Clay had done that day, instead filing it under "Things We Don't Talk About", and moving on. But something seemed to shift between them after that. They were slightly more touchy with one another; hitting each others' shoulders after the telling of a joke, sleeping in the same bed when they stayed at each others' houses on the weekends, not giving even a second thought to locking the door while showering in the presence of one another. Not huge changes, but noticeable when grouped together.
When it came to school, they acted just as friendly with each other as always, making sure the kiss was kept completely private. As a traditionally Christian institution, even the slightest display of something other than heterosexuality - whether from males or females - could get you kicked out, and since graduating from a Christian school was something Dustin needed to fulfill his dream of becoming a Pastor, being forcibly removed from the school was not an option. Clay knew how important this career choice was to his friend, and he refused to be the reason that dream didn't come true, his own personal feelings be damned.
One Friday night, Clay found himself sleeping over at Dustin's house, which wasn't really all that unusual, since the two had been having such sleepovers for years. But lying in Dustin's bed, waiting for him to come out of the bathroom, where he had been changing into a pair of pajama pants, he was all too aware of the kiss he and his friend had shared. He rolled over and groaned into the pillow he had been resting on, regretting the action immediately when Dustin's scent filled his nose. It was a good smell - one that he had found himself jerking off to on occasions when Dustin happened to accidentally leave a shirt (or even a pair of boxers) at his house - and let out another groan, this one born not of irritation, but rather, the sudden rush of blood heating his lower half.
With a sigh, he did his best to ignore the smell and sat up, swinging his legs over the side of the bed before tapping his fingers against his knees, hoping the movement would distract him from the reaction his body was having. It almost worked, until Dustin came back into the room, naked from the waist up.
He was quite a sight, Clay had to admit - he had taken his glasses off so he could wash his face, and some water droplets clung to various strands of his short hair, messy as it was, since Dustin had a tendency to run his hands through it without really thinking.
The pajama bottoms were too big for him, and, as such, hung low on his hips, the bones of which were just beginning to become defined. When he turned around to close the bedroom door, Clay could see the very top of his ass, cheeks perfectly round, as he had always assumed they would be. His mouth went dry at the sight, and he swallowed hard, before forcing himself to turn his head and stare at the plain white paint on the wall, knowing that this image would do nothing to help the problem he was having below the waist.
Noticing that his friend wasn't looking at him, Dustin sat next to him on the bed and asked,
"What's up with you, dude? Is something wrong?"
"I'm just thinking," was Clay's response.
Dustin leaned back on the bed, hands behind his head, which was now resting on the pillow.
Clay didn't say anything. He wasn't even really sure he could.
"Hey." Dustin grabbed his elbow and forced him to roll over and look at him. "You know you can talk to me. What's going on?"
"We kissed," he said finally, after several long minutes of silence.
Surprise showed on Dustin's face, but only for a second, before he covered it up with an expression more akin to one of concern.
"We're not supposed to bring this up."
"I know!" Clay sat bolt upright, his voice getting louder, even as he tried to quiet himself. "Alright? I know we're not allowed to talk about it. We're not allowed to do a lot of things. But I just. . ." he paused, voice lowering once more. So low, in fact, that it was almost a whisper. "I liked it."
He dropped his head, unable to look the man in the eyes, but he could hear him breathe out sharply at the admission. This was it. He was going to kick him out of his house, and he would never speak to him again.
Just as he was thinking about walking out the door and leaving before Dustin could tell him to, if only to save a little face, he was pushed backwards, up against the wall, and Dustin's mouth was on his.
"I hate you," he whispered against Clay's lips, then went right back to kissing him again.
'I know,' Clay found himself thinking, even as he was getting lost in the feel of his friends' tongue touching his own. 'Trust me, I hate me, too.'
"Want to sit down?" Dustin's voice pulled Bear from his memories, the suddenness of it a little jarring.
"Thanks." He took a seat on the couch, pushing aside a stuffed rabbit that was lying haphazardly on the cushion. Dustin sat at the other end, keeping some distance between the two of them, which Bear was grateful for.
"How have you been?" Dustin asked.
"Is that really why you called me here? To see what I've been doing with my life?"
"Is there anything wrong with that?" Dustin's voice was quiet. "We were friends, man. Good friends. I've missed you."
Bear fought back a snort.
"'Friends', right. Before I screwed everything up."
"We were friends," Dustin insisted. "And you didn't screw anything up. Things just went. . ." he paused, as though he were thinking over his next words carefully. "The way they were always supposed to."
"You really believe that?" Bear asked, and saw that Dustin was now absentmindedly playing with the cross on the chain around his neck.
"I have to." His voice went quiet again.
"Why did you call me 'baby' on the phone?"
Dustin looked startled at this question, but, to his credit, he answered, anyway.
"It just slipped out, to be honest. I used to call you that all the time, remember?"
Bear did remember; he remembered each and every time the word had come out of Dustin's mouth. He remembered everything that had led up to each and every moment. And he pushed back those memories as best he could, instead changing the subject.
"Where's your wife?"
"She took our son to her parents' for a few days. And before you ask, yes, she knows I was going to call you over."
"Is that all she knows?"
"Yeah," Dustin replied. "I never told her about any of the things that went on between us when we were younger. All she's ever been is a pastor's wife, you know? It wouldn't have gone over well."
"I guess not," Bear mumbled.
"Can I ask you something?" Dustin didn't wait for Bear to respond in the affirmative. "What did you do after I graduated? I called you a few times, but you never picked up. You never called me back. I asked around about you, but no one at school would tell me much."
This response was going to be a difficult one to give. In truth, Bear fell apart after Dustin graduated. He tried to repress the things he felt - not just for Dustin, but for the other guys (and girls) he developed crushes on as the years went by. He despised himself, and his feelings, and his emotional and sexual urges. The constant repression, and the stress it caused, eventually morphed into a severe case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, one that dominated Bear's mind for a few excruciatingly long years, until he finally got up the nerve to talk to a psychologist about it.
The psychologist listened intently as he poured his heart out, at last relieving himself of all the filth that had been building up for so long. Once everything was out in the open, the psychologist prescribed him some anti-anxiety medication, which worked like a dream, and had him come to one-on-one sessions every week for a year. He was off the meds exactly twelve months later, and had a much healthier attitude towards his once-ignored bisexuality.
"Things were tough," Bear admitted finally. "I had some issues to work out. But I'm doing better now."
"I'm glad," said Dustin, and Bear got the feeling that he was being sincere. "You deserve to be happy. You deserve it more than anyone."
"So do you." Bear smiled and went to stand up from the couch. "Listen," he said, "it's getting late. I should probably head home. I hate driving in the dark."
"Me, too." Dustin stood up, as well, following Bear's lead. They walked to the front door in silence, and just as Bear was about to open the door and leave, Dustin stopped him.
"I don't know if you want to hear this," he said quietly, "but I loved you. I think there's a part of me that still does."
Bear sighed through his nose. He had dreamed about Dustin saying that for years, and now that he finally had, it just made his chest ache.
"I loved you, too. I always will. But we just weren't meant to be. God's plan is God's plan, right?"
"Right," echoed Dustin, but it didn't really sound like he believed it.
"Goodbye, D." Bear didn't really want to leave, but he needed to get this over with. Like ripping off a band-aid. "It was good to see you again."
Bear unlocked the door, opened it, and started to walk out. Before Dustin could close it, however, he turned back around, a smirk on his face, and said,
"By the way, the Broncos suck."
Dustin chuckled deeply as the door closed behind him, and the sound reverberated into the night, gone as quickly as it had come, never to be heard again.