Rick R. Reed © 2020
All Rights Reserved
“There’s a man in your room. I can smell him.”
Truman Reid confronted his mom, Patsy, in the kitchen. Early morning sun streamed in brightly through the kitchen window over the sink, making Truman long for the relative freedom of summer that was about to be put to rest that very day.
Patsy glowered at him from the stove where she was scrambling eggs. She didn’t often get up to make him breakfast, but Truman had figured—at least at first—that she was doing so because this was Truman’s first day back at school. He’d be a senior at Summitville High. First days of school had always been a source of high anxiety for Truman, who’d been bullied and teased mercilessly throughout almost the entire four years. But now Truman wondered if Patsy had risen early to fix bacon and eggs because she was hiding a man in her room. You know, to distract him. This wasn’t a usual experience for his mom, Truman was sure, and he wondered if he’d embarrassed her. But he couldn’t help but wonder how a man in her room might affect his exclusive hold on her. Would he still get her undivided attention, you know, if this was a “thing”?
Of course, Patsy, lovely, diminutive, with curly black hair and wide eyes, had every right to have a man in her room. Even if that man smelled of cigarettes and motor oil. But she didn’t have the right, Truman opined, to keep secrets from him. A mother should never keep secrets from her boy, right? Wasn’t that one of those unwritten laws?
“That may be. Or may not be,” Patsy said, giving the eggs one final push-around with a spatula before dumping them on a plate. She sighed and eyed him. “I have a right to my privacy. You don’t need to be privy to every detail of my life. I show you that respect and expect the same in return.”
She’s reading my mind. Again. “Oh, I didn’t mean to pry, Mama. I just wanted to say it’s okay if you did have a man sleep over. It’s not like I would mind. It’s not like we’re not both adults around here. We have separate bedrooms and separate lives.” Truman almost choked on the words.
Patsy set the plate of steaming eggs before him. Truman saw, to his delight, that the four pieces of bacon Patsy had fried up before the eggs were all for him.
Patsy smiled, but there was something just a tad bit evil in it. “Thank you, sweetie. I’m so glad to have your go-ahead if I want to whore around.” She chuckled and returned to the counter where she’d left her mug of coffee. She leaned against the counter, mug in hand, and took a sip. Patsy was all of thirty-four years old but looked at least ten years younger in the dappled morning light, and Truman felt a rush of love for her. The bond they had was kind of a you-and-me-against-the-world one. Truman felt he could say just about anything to Patsy, and he knew she felt the same; witness the “whore” comment. What kind of mother said that to her son?
Truman wasn’t sure, but he was glad he had one who did.
Besides, between raising him, which could be, um, challenging at times, and working at the Elite Diner in Summitville’s tiny downtown, she had little time for romance. Given that Truman’s father was still a mystery to him—and to Patsy—he assumed that, once upon a time, she did have her whoring-around days, but he’d seen little evidence of them.
Until this morning.
“So who is he? Can I go take a peek? Is he hot?” Truman laughed.
Patsy answered the three questions in short order: “None of your business. No, you can’t. Yes. Very.” She took another sip of coffee and tightened the sash of her white chenille bathrobe. Truman noticed she was wearing a little makeup this morning—mascara, some blush, a hint of lip gloss. She hadn’t overdone it. Truman would say she looked “dewy” if she asked. “You need to eat up and get in the shower, young man. The bus will be here—” She turned to look at the wall clock on the soffit above the sink. “—in twenty minutes. I know you need your primping time.”
Truman dropped his fork to the table. “Seriously? Only twenty? Good Lord.” He wrapped his bacon up in a paper towel and headed for the single bathroom. Patsy blocked his way. “Since when do we leave our plates on the table? What? You think I’m your servant?”
“Mom!” Truman whined. “You know I need time to get ready. Please, please, please take care of it for me. I’ll love you forever!”
“Okay. This once. And sweetie, I’d thought loving me forever went without saying. But you cook and clean up tonight.”
Truman rushed to the bathroom, wondering if Patsy would use the time to sneak her man out of the house. Too bad the only window looked out on the backyard. It was frosted glass anyway.
He hoped his mom had found someone to love.
He hoped his mom hadn’t found someone to love.
It had been just the two of them for so long, Truman didn’t know if he could cope with someone else vying for Patsy’s affections. He felt a little sense of violation at the thought.
In the bathroom, Truman laid out on the counter all the stuff a boy would need to make a suitable senior-year debut: eyeliner, clear mascara, blush, and the lip gloss that added no extra color to his lips but made them shine.
He stepped into the shower after brushing, flossing, and exfoliating his face.
When he emerged, breathless, in what he thought was far too little time, Patsy rolled her eyes and then smiled. “The bus is waiting outside. I signaled Fred to hang on for you, but I think he may be losing his patience. Didn’t you hear him honk? Three times?”
“I heard him.” Truman, ever observant, noticed Patsy’s bedroom door, just off the kitchen, was open. It had been closed before. Patsy had hastily made up the bed, from the looks of it. He thought about mentioning it to her but decided to give her some slack. After all, one day he might want a little privacy, although he still didn’t know how he felt about his mom’s newfound secretiveness. Or why it was even necessary.
Besides, he didn’t have time to interrogate her. A honk sounded outside—again.
Patsy kissed him on the cheek and handed him his lunch in a brown paper sack.
“There’s no carbs in this, right?” Truman asked.
She side-eyed him. “What do you think? Celery, carrots, ham-and-cheese rollups, and a Honeycrisp apple. You worry about carbs but have no problem wolfing down four slices of bacon!”
“Thanks, Mom.” He snatched the paper-towel-wrapped packet of bacon he’d made earlier off the table. “Bacon doesn’t have carbs, or hardly any. Carbs are what make you fat.”
The bus horn sounded again.
Patsy slapped Truman’s ass. “Scoot!”
Truman hurried to the door. When he had it open, she called after him, “Love you, son.”
He waved over his shoulder and called back, “Love you more.”
When he boarded the bus, there were whispers. There were snickers. Someone said, “Get her!” which caused an eruption of laughter as Truman headed for the back of the bus.
He was used to it. There was a time when he would have been devastated by the laughter and the remarks, but now? Just another part of the school day, he told himself. Truman knew it was important that they didn’t know they could get to him. So he took a little bow, left, then right. He forced himself to smile at the other kids, who gawked at him. “Please. No special ruckus for the likes of me.”
Once upon a time, he wouldn’t have dared say such a thing. He would have hurried to his seat, face burning and head bowed. That was before he knew the power of claiming your own identity, however different it was. That was before he stopped believing he was worthless because he wasn’t like everyone else. That was before he’d caught on to the lie that being different somehow made you less. Often it made the reverse true.
He headed toward a pair of empty seats near the back of the bus, knowing every eye was trained on him. For his first day of school, he’d paired black skinny jeans with a hot-pink-and-black polka-dot button-down shirt—he’d raided Patsy’s closet for the blouse. Black Chuck Taylors completed the ensemble. He thought the look had kind of an eighties vibe, back in the olden days when his mama was born. For Truman, today’s outfit was dressing down. For everyone else on the bus, well, he knew they were stupefied into silence by his ensemble. He couldn’t imagine why. He’d been dressing this way—a style he’d come to term gender-fuck—since freshman year, when the bullying and teasing had reached a tipping point, driving him to the literal edge. He’d almost jumped off the roof of the high school after a particularly humiliating and cruel prank.
What he’d learned that year was not to hide who he was but to claim it—to get right up in the faces of those who dared challenge him, in effect saying, “Fuck you, sister. This is who I am. If you don’t like it, that’s your problem, not mine.”
It took a while, and many days of daring, to come to school in thrift-store treasures that played with the idea of gender with a mélange of male and female options, a little makeup to highlight his handsome yet waifish appearance, and an attitude that one might be tempted to say he’d borrowed from someone like RuPaul. Fierce. When he began saying, with his outward appearance and attitude, that he was different, and that this difference was his right, the bullying and teasing continued but slowed dramatically. It was hard for someone to call him a “sissy,” a “fag,” or a “piss-willy” if he first claimed those terms for himself. It became difficult, if not impossible, for the bullies to challenge what they thought of as his effeminate ways if Truman himself not only didn’t hide them but celebrated them.
Of course, inside, Truman was always terrified he’d be pummeled, teased unmercifully, spit on, or worse, but he tried his best to never let that fear show. He discovered, after a long time of practice, that one could be quivering with fear on the inside while his outside could exude a calm radiance.
No one knew he was shaking in his boots if they couldn’t see it.
Though the bullying and teasing never quite came to the halt Truman dreamed of, it slowed increasingly over the past three years of Truman’s high school career. For this, he was grateful. Yet he always harbored a little anxiety that the front he projected would one day come tumbling down, things would go back to the way they once were, and he’d find himself again on his knees in the dark of his bedroom praying tearfully to God that the hurt would stop, if only for one single day. He’d spent too many nights in the past like that, even wishing his very identity away.
Just like Pinocchio, he’d once been desperate to be a “real” boy.
But Truman, through hard-won self-acceptance, realized he was just as real as any other boy…or girl.
For now, all he had to do was stare out the window and wait for the bus to transport him to Summitville High. It was his final year, the year when seniors ruled the school. What would these nine or so months hold for him?
Truman couldn’t wait to jump the hurdle of this final year and get out. He knew that once he put Summitville behind him, with its small minds and judgments, he could really begin to live. He could be the person he was meant to be—somewhere with bright lights, skyscrapers, cosmopolitan drinks, and cosmopolitan people…
He took his gaze away from the view out the window, the sun-dappled foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, and opened the book he’d started a week ago—Letters to a Young Artist by Anna Deavere Smith. The book was fast becoming his bible; it deepened his faith that something bigger lay in wait for him beyond the tree-covered rises of this provincial valley.
Near the last stop before they got to the high school, Truman couldn’t prevent a grin from spreading across his face, because he spied his best friend waiting there beneath the shade of an old maple. Like Truman, Alicia Adams had endured her fair share of teasing over her school years. She’d tell you herself she was fat, black, and sassy, and if you didn’t like it, you needed to get over yourself, because that’s just the way God made her. Hey, if Ms. Oprah Winfrey could claim those same attributes and be adored by the masses, well then, by God, so could she.
Like Truman, Alicia put up a brave front but had been tormented a lot—especially in elementary school—until one day a group of mean girls pushed her past her breaking point and she lashed out with fists, claws, and a brick. Alicia wasn’t proud of how she’d sent two of the mean girls to the emergency room, at least not in retrospect; but she was proud of how her actions, decidedly not compassionate or kind, had afforded her a measure of fear-based respect she used to her advantage from about the sixth grade onward.
She and Truman had become pals when she became his first defender and supporter. She knew what it was like to be different, and she celebrated Truman’s courage when he’d shown up one day at school in a “Sissies Rule” T-shirt and makeup. Her defense and his gratitude had forged a bond—one that allowed each to be vulnerable around the other. That was something neither could claim with almost anyone else.
A dark shadow crawled in front of the sun when Truman thought of Alicia’s brother, now playing basketball at Ohio State. Darrell. Truman closed his eyes for a moment, thinking of him, of the warmth of his eyes—and his arms. He’d thought they were in love. And, in his naïve way, he’d supposed Darrell would forgo a full-ride scholarship to stay in town and close to Truman. He knew it was horribly selfish to expect such a thing, but Truman read a lot of gay romance, and his thoughts were clouded by their easy visions of happy-ever-afters.
He forced his mind away from the image of Darrell, the two of them pressed close, their contrasts of skin color, height, and weight not mattering. He realized toward the end of that summer after Darrell’s senior year, he had no choice other than to let him go, to wish him well at school. He could still harbor the belief that one day Darrell would come back to him.
He’d gotten disabused of the notion, though, once Darrell was really gone to that metropolis of Columbus, Ohio, and a school with five times the population of Summitville. The fact that their love affair had ended all too quickly became easier to endure as a figure stepped out from behind Alicia. A figure that caused Truman to forget, if only for a moment, all about Darrell.
Wait. A. Minute.
Who is that? Truman wondered.
The boy, young man really, was one Truman had never seen before. He’d know if he had! Good God, this one was unforgettable.
There was something about the guy that set Truman’s heart to racing, that erased every logical thought from Truman’s mind as all the blood in his body rushed south.
It wasn’t only the fact that he was gorgeous—which he was, with cropped black hair and a five o’clock shadow—but there was something about him that called to the nurturing side of Truman. Even at a glance and from this distance, there was something dark and brooding about him. It set him apart, making him both mysterious and alluring. For just a moment, everything around Truman silenced—the chatter and laughter of the other kids on the bus, the grumble of its engine, the whine of its brakes as it slowed to a stop, and the pneumatic whoosh of the doors opening.
Truman knew, somewhere in the back of his mind, that these sounds should be there, but for one brief, shining moment, all that existed was the boy.
He was at least six feet tall, probably a couple of inches above that. Broad shoulders. Beefy. To use one of Patsy’s terms, he was “strapping.” Unlike Truman he dressed not to attract attention to himself. He wore only a pair of faded Levi’s, a plain white crewneck T-shirt that had seen many washings, and a pair of very basic black canvas tennis shoes. Slung over one shoulder was a battered and faded red backpack.
Mesmerized, Truman watched as he made his way to the bus and then disappeared from view for an instant as he boarded. Truman snapped out of his reverie as he realized Alicia was staring at him as she stood a few people back in line. She stuck her tongue out as their eyes met. Truman chuckled. And he went right back to searching for just one more glimpse of that face.
And then he was on the bus, passing close enough to Truman to touch. Truman swore his heart stopped. Their eyes met, and Truman was nearly bowled over by how crystalline blue they were, bluer than Truman’s own, with an icy paleness from which it was impossible to look away. The lashes fringing those eyes were as black as the hair on his head—which, by the way, contrasted wonderfully with the pale blue—and long enough to cause a twinge of jealousy and desire to flare up in Truman.
Truman swore he felt something pass between him and the boy in that smallest exchange of glances. Something charged. Truman actually felt the downy hair on his neck rise, tingling. He would be hard-pressed to say just what that something was, but he knew for certain that a kind of communication definitely took place.
For the fearful, teased boy who still lived somewhere inside Truman, there was a supposition that the good-looking boy met his glance because he was appalled by what he saw. Through those self-hating eyes, Truman would see a boy dressed all wrong, a boy with makeup who should be ashamed of himself. He wasn’t a real boy. Through that lens, Truman saw disgust.
And it made his blood run cold.
But the other—and ever growing even stronger—part of Truman hoped that what had passed between them was recognition, a kind of kindred-souls thing. Maybe a little interest?
Dare he hope for attraction? Even lust?
Alicia plopped into the seat beside him with a sigh. She punched him, hard, in the bicep, which drew his reverie to a close. Frowning, Truman looked over at her and began rubbing at his upper arm. “Ouch! That hurt!”
“Dude! Where were you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Honey, you were not on this bus. You were someplace far, far away. Over the rainbow, maybe?” Alicia snickered as she settled into the seat, spreading her stretch-pant-clad legs and crowding Truman. Some things never changed.
“Very funny.” Truman had a lingering thought, yearning, about the black-haired boy and had to fight the impulse to turn and look for him in the seats behind. “I was just thinking about the year ahead.”
“I know, right? Seniors. Can you believe it?” Alicia settled her stuff on her lap—her phone, a spiral-bound notebook, and one of those clear plastic organizers that seemed so old-school, which had an assortment of pens and pencils in it.
“It should be an interesting year,” Truman said and thought especially if he’s in some of my classes. And then he chastised himself. Jesus, pull yourself together. Next you’re gonna be doodling his name in your notebook, right in the middle of a big red heart. Whatever his name was…Heathcliff? Gage? Hunter?
“Interesting?” Alicia made a huffing sound. “That’s a good word for it. There’s way too many days ahead of us until graduation, and we can finally break free from this shithole one-horse town.”
“And be the superstars we are meant to be?”
“Damn right.” Their heads canted toward each other as they laughed. “Who you got for homeroom?”
“Mr. Bernard! I am so grateful.” Dane Bernard, although old enough to be Truman’s dad—and could be, for all Truman knew—had come out almost simultaneously with Truman during Truman’s freshman year. That connection helped negate a thirtysome-year difference in their ages. They’d forged a special bond. Truman considered Mr. Bernard, and his new husband, Mr. Wolcott, friends as well as mentors and role models. He and Patsy had even been honored to attend their wedding at the beginning of last summer.
“Lucky,” Alicia said. “I’m stuck with some chick goes by the name of Ms. Waggle.”
Truman cocked his head. “Who dat?”
“I don’t know. She’s new. First job out of school from what I hear.”
“So that means go easy on her. Behave yourself,” Truman said, knowing what he was asking for was hopeless.
“Right. Sure thing.” Alicia snickered. “You know how easy I go on everyone.”
They sat, for once, in silence for the rest of the ride to Summitville High.
Truman didn’t know what Alicia was thinking about. For one, he supposed she was preoccupied with what kind of year it might turn out to be. Remarkable? Devastating? A year in which she might finally find herself a boyfriend, maybe? Would she pull good enough grades to get into a decent college, like her brother, with his basketball full-ride scholarship? Alicia’s family, like Truman’s, could never in a million years afford to send a kid through college, even one of the cheapest state schools, without help. It was reaching for the stars.
He supposed all or none of those things might be cycling through Alicia’s mind. Maybe she was simply thinking about what color to paint her nails. Or nothing at all.
As for Truman, his mind was filled with one thought.