Waiting for the bus outside the dingy youth center Billy knew he couldn’t say “I love you.” Love was an emotion adults held in high esteem so he couldn’t deal with it casually. He didn’t want to blurt it out and upset Michael, but he did want him know he loved him when saw him in the lunch line. Love was a final word, a commitment word and while he’d never been in love he thought if he did love someone his love must come from deep within him.
Michael was a few years older and what he admired was Michael’s comfort with his life. He was perfectly as ease when kids yelled obscenities. When he mentioned Michael to David he said. “Meet him because he said something about liking cars.” Cars from Billy’s earliest years had been his obsession, and he couldn’t sleep until the new models arrived in dealers’ showrooms in October. His ritual was pleading with his father to take him first to the Chrysler dealer and then across town to the Buick and Lincoln dealers. He liked expensive cars because they had finer design and great design meant someone cared about beauty and things of beauty inspired him. His favorite car was the 1961 Chrysler 300. His father gave him a metal copy of one that he kept on his desk as a lucky charm and seeing it in the morning gave him confidence.
At David’s urging Billy agreed to meet Michael at his favorite café where the tables were set in the midst of daffodils in the spring and corn flowers in summer. When he thought about how to talk about love with Michael his mind went blank. He didn’t grow up with gay parents, so he’d never witnessed affection between men. For all he knew love between men could be completely different than the movie love between a man and a woman and between Leslie and Phil Johnson who lived next door and weren’t shy about expressing their affection in public. His parents expressed no emotions.
He thought maybe he just thought his feelings were perfectly normal, but if he asked the psychotherapist his cousin Susan twice a week what he thought about them, the therapist might say his feelings were not like the feelings of other boys. But he refused to see the psychotherapist because he was pleased with his life at Lincoln School and didn’t want anyone of his ilk upsetting it. He’d learned not to trust experts because his father lost his entire savings when he’d invested them with a man named Edward Sneed who claimed to be an expert broker. He couldn’t go to Father Jesus Benedict because his father had kept him from being an altar boy because he said priests molested children, and Billy thought that was the most horrible thing a man could possibly do.
Then he thought he wasn’t old enough to even think about loving anything. In movies it was adults who confessed their love to one another, and the Johnsons loved one another. How could he even pretend to love someone? He sat on a weathered bench in the park that ran through his town of abandoned factories and debated if he should even be thinking about saying the word love with Michael. How could he possibly love a person he knew only by sight? As a thousand thoughts muddled his mind he saw a dog nearby circling another dog. He watched the dog sniff the butt of the other dog, and then shift to sniff its snout. Without warning one dog mounted the other and started humping it frantically. The second dog twisted to get away but its excitement had the first dog humping even more frantically. By now he knew the second dog was the female, and she snarled and tried to bite the other’s leg. A neighbor heard the howling dogs and marched down the gravel path from the Court House twirling a bat over his head. He tried to shoo the dogs, but when the dog didn’t stop humping he started beating him with the bat. Billy noticed the male’s penis was locked to the female’s vulva and even when the dogs tried to separate they couldn’t. The neighbor didn’t notice and kept beating both dogs savagely like a crazy man. Billy’s heart went out to the dogs and he approached the man and in a calm voice said, “You should be kind to animals.” His few words did nothing to deter the neighbor’s anger, and he continued beating the dogs without mercy. Eventually with both dogs bleeding profusely the female released her grip on the male’s penis and with her tail between her legs she slunk off whimpering. The male dog turned on the neighbor and bit his arm, and that provoked an even more savage beating. After several minutes of blows to the dog’s hindquarters the dog was barely strong enough to support his body, and he limped off whimpering. Billy was in tears. He couldn’t understand the man’s anger; what kept him from letting the dogs do what they were designed to do naturally?
After seeing the dogs Billy questioned his understanding of love. That set him off on another quest to find a definition of love. Again, he boarded a bus and went back to the library. This time in its dimly lit alcoves he found shelves of books with love in the title, and after perusing tomes he took a stack he could balance, boarded the bus and hauled them back to his room without dropping a single book. He didn’t want his parents to find him reading after his bedtime, so he rigged up the gooseneck so he could pull the covers over it and read while the rest of the room was dark. John Keats’s “I love you the more in that I believe you had liked me for my own sake and for nothing else.” struck a chord. Love wasn’t the mystical enchantment he thought it was but an act of will. Billy wanted love to be simple but now he had to ask if he had enough experience or some inherent strength that would enable him to ever love? He read long love poems but their love was totally different from his feeling of closeness to Michael. He found Elbert Hubbard’s “A friend is someone who knows all about you and still loves you.” Maybe it wasn’t love he wanted from Michael but his friendship.
Billy wasn’t the kind of boy who could simply walk up to someone and introduce himself. He felt he had to have a reason to speak to someone, especially someone he didn’t know. He envied the boys who shared camaraderie with other boys in the locker room, but if he didn’t know someone, some fear stopped him from initiating a conversation. He thought that came from his father. When Billy suggested he should use a soaking hose to save water in his mother’s meager rose garden his father erupted with a diatribe about why sprinklers did the best job of watering because they always had. Billy later said he thought the Dodgers would win the pennant that year. His father’s face glowed red, and he leaned across the table to swat him. “The Cardinals are by far the superior club, you silly boy. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” After that Billy decided to say little at the dinner table; it was easier on his stomach to say nothing than to provoke his father.
As the day of his meeting with Michael grew closer Billy wondered what Michael would think of him. His body was strong but thin, he thought he was good looking but not handsome. He assumed Michael was straight, but his face was kind, so Billy expected he wouldn’t be cruel. Even if Michael was a kind man he’d be put off by someone he barely knew who wanted to talk about love. Billy wondered was it ever appropriate to discuss love unless he was asked to do so? In movies it seemed so easy, but whenever Billy thought about saying the word love, his stomach cramped. He spent several nights debating whether he go ahead with meeting Michael or have David tell him he was leaving town or make up some other excuse. But every time he knew his stomach would stop aching if he called their date off something compelled him to go ahead with the meeting.
At dinner, Billy’s father caught him gazing at the ceiling. “What’s troubling you, boy?”
“I haven’t seen you studying. You come back with poor grades, and I’ll take you out to the woodshed.”
His mother passed a bowl of burnt carrots.” You haven’t been the same, dearest. Some girl let you down?”
“It’s really nothing, just thinking about someone.”
His father passed the bowl of carrots. “You don’t have time for anyone unless they can do something for you.”
Billy wasn’t sure where it came from, but he heard him saying, “I want to be happy.”
His father pounded his fist on the table, “Where did you get that cockamamie idea? Happiness is the result of hard work. You can be happy when you retire.”
“I’m sorry. It was a slip.”
“Unless you want to spend the rest of your life begging on the street with other low-lifes, sign up for a job at the plant and apply yourself to it full time like me.”
Billy feared his father’s response so he lied. “I’ve always wanted to be a doctor.”
“Then you make sure your grades are the best or you’ll never be accepted, and for them you have to find a way for pay for it. I can afford their exorbitant fees.”
Billy went to bed that night more depressed than he’d ever been. He saw his choice was either a crippling life like his father’s or leaving the only place he knew and trust he’d find work.
The day of his meeting with Michael had finally arrived. Dew on lawns sparkled as he walked to the café on broken sidewalks. Michael was wearing gym shorts and a tank top. Billy said sheepishly “Thanks for coming. I wasn’t sure someone like you would want to meet me.”
“David says nice things about you. Can I get you a coffee?”
“Sure, thanks.” Michael went to the counter and came back with steaming mugs and put them on the tiny table. “David says you don’t like contact sports.”
“I don’t like it when men have to hurt each other to win.”
“Do you consider wrestling a contact sport?”
“I never thought about it. I do like gymnastics.”
“Me, too. That and diving are my favorite sports.”
Billy looked him in the eye. “I hear you like cars.”
“I do, but you know what interests me?”
“I’m taking a pet rescue course and just read that when dogs are mating the best thing you can do is to let nature take its course. If you yell it only makes it harder for the female to release the barbed penis.”
“Last week I saw a man beat mating dogs with a bat, and it broke my heart.”
“I hope you calmly told him he shouldn’t harm animals.”
When Billy heard those words he was relieved he’d never have to use the word love with Michael.