I avoided Becky by throwing myself into my studies at the Fire Academy. At first mostly I learned how to maintain the fire engine and the alarm system at the station. These are important chores that all junior grade firemen need to know. With proper care of our tools, we can be safer in real fire situations.
When I got opportunities to actually work at the station, I realized that being a fireman involves a lot of waiting around. Sometimes I got to go on ride-alongs with the real firemen, but mostly I just hung out with them.
Not all of it was boring, though. I learned how to put out small fires using the hose. Most of these were simulated in an abandoned lot owned by the department. And I learned how to respond to danger situations. Not all emergencies a fireman deals with are due to fires. Some involve faulty equipment causing sparks in a building or something like that.
Of course, I couldn’t avoid Becky entirely. I did have weekends free and she insisted that I go out and have some fun after working so hard.
“Meet me at the Rooster,” she insisted. “Or I’ll take to you to the Grind.”
“Ugh,” I said. “No dancing. You know I have two left feet. Remember prom?”
Becky laughed. “Of course I remember prom. But what I remember most is prom night.”
I remembered prom night, too. How could I have forgotten it? It was a night I fervently wished I could do over. I should never have come down from my bunk to kiss Becky goodnight. If I hadn’t done that, maybe I wouldn’t have to avoid spending so much time with her just to keep her from coming back to my apartment with me.
For the most part I was able to keep my vow to not have sex with Becky again. Even though she flirted with me, making suggestive remarks, brushing up against me, and kissing me whenever she could, I was able to use work as an excuse to go home by myself.
“Not tonight Becky. I know it’s a weekend, but TJ is going to show me how to uncoil the hose faster tomorrow. We’re going to the station to get some extra practice in.”
“You’re always working GC. Don’t you ever get a night off?”
“Tonight is my night off.”
“What about taking the whole weekend off? We could stay up late tonight and sleep in tomorrow…or not,” she grinned, running a hand down my chest.
“Training is important, Beks. I have to take it seriously. It may mean the difference between life and death.”
In the end, Becky really couldn’t force me to bring her home with me. She could flirt and suggest, but if we were going to just be friends, I didn’t have to take her up on her offers. I just hoped that she’d get the message and find someone else to focus her attentions on.
At work, I eventually finished training and actually got to do my job. It was great being able to work with my brother. But TJ was sort of distracted on the job. Turns out, shortly after I moved in with them, Roselyn discovered she was pregnant. Of course they were both excited for their first child, but I knew that TJ was also a little bit panicky.
“What if she has triplets?” TJ wondered. “Mom and Dad had a hard time with you three. Always crying. Always pooping. And never at the same time!”
“Triplets are like a fluke thing, Teej. Don’t worry about it. I’m sure the doctor would have told you if you were having multiples.”
“They could be wrong. Twins and triplets run in mom’s family.”
“But not in Roselyn’s, right?” TJ shook his head no, momentarily comforted.
The closer Roselyn came to giving birth, though, the more things TJ found to worry about. He was one of those guys who planned out everything. He had their bags packed for the hospital after only six months. Both Roselyn and I tried not to tease him about it.
Of course when she did go into labor, TJ was a wreck. He flailed around like an idiot, screaming and hollering. He was so loud that I heard him even in the basement. When I came upstairs, I saw Roselyn calmly getting dressed to go to the hospital.
“Need me to drive?” I asked.
“No. TJ can do it.” She looked at him. “I think.”
“Keys, keys, where’d I put the keys!” He looked around for the set he had dangling from his left hand.
“They’re right here,” I said grabbing them. “Maybe I better go with you.”
“Suitcase. Need suitcase.”
Roselyn held up her bag. Eventually, the two of us managed to usher my brother into the car and then Roselyn insisted on driving. Since I didn’t want to fight her on that, I just let her, but I sat in the front just to make sure she’d be ok.
I waited a few hours in the waiting room while TJ went into delivery with Roselyn. I don’t know what good he would do, but he had taken all of those birthing classes. Maybe the training would kick in before the baby actually showed up.
I was chatting with Laura, who had been on call that night at the hospital, when TJ came down to tell me that Roselyn had given birth to a healthy baby boy.
“He’s so beautiful,” he told us. “And there’s only one.”
Laura and I laughed. He told us they named the baby Theo.
Since TJ got paternity leave, I was working a lot more at the station covering for him. And we were getting a lot of calls. An arsonist was active in our area. He had been starting small fires all over town. So far none of them had been that dangerous or life-threatening. Mostly they’d caused more property damage.
Uncle Julian and the police were doing everything they could to find out who the arsonist was, but in the meantime we had to put out his fires and hope they caught him before he escalated his attacks.
“Do they have any leads, Dad?” I asked over Sunday dinner with my parents. “Has there been any forensic evidence that might tell you who is behind all of this destruction?”
Dad, who had yet to retire despite Mom’s insistence that he was too old to be going down to the station each week, just shook his head. “This one is a slippery bastard. He seems to know exactly what to do to avoid detection.”
“How do you know these fires are arson and not just fires?” Mom asked.
“There are ways to tell,” TJ said. He went on to explain about start patterns, burn rate and the way a typical house fire or office fire might occur and how an arsonist could simulate, but not completely duplicate those effects.
“It takes someone really skilled to get away with it,” I added. “Or someone who causes so much damage that there is no evidence remaining to indicate how the fire started.”
“Is this arsonist skilled?”
“Not enough to go undetected as an arsonist, but skilled enough not to leave clues,” Dad answered.
When I was ready to leave, Dad gave my shoulder a squeeze. “Don’t worry about the arsonist, son. We’ll catch the guy.”
“I know dad. I just hope we get him before he destroys even more property or hurts someone.”
After supper with my parents, I decided to drive to the gym to work out instead of going home. Theo was a sweet baby and I loved him, but he was LOUD. Even down in my man cave, I could hear his cries. I didn’t feel like going home and having to listen to him and wish that TJ and Roselyn would find a way to make him stop faster than they were able to. Both of them were like zombies. I don’t think either had slept much since he’d been born. He was just a really fussy baby.
At the gym I was surprised to see Alex Fairbanks working out. He’d let his hair grow out, so I almost didn’t recognize him. I hadn’t heard that he’d come back from Champs Les Sim already. I guess I had been more preoccupied with work than I realized, though I was surprised that Becky hadn’t mentioned it.
“Hey, Alex,” I said when he saw me. “I didn’t know you were back in town.”
“Yeah. Just got back.”
I went to work at the machine next to him, and we lifted in silence for awhile.
“How was France,” I finally asked.
“Oh, it was ok,” he answered. I was surprised he didn’t say more. I remember he talked nearly the whole time I had been at his house after graduation. I wondered if his reticence had something to do with the secret he hadn’t been willing to share in front of me that time.
“Are you back for good?” I asked, trying to draw him out.
“Yeah, I guess,” he grunted, letting his weights fall. He got off the bench and headed to the treadmill.
I finished my set and went to the machine next to him. For some reason, I wanted to find out what was going on. Alex didn’t look comfortable to see me start up running beside him.
“Must be nice to be home,” I said once I got my rhythm going. “I bet Becky and your folks were excited to see you.”
Alex didn’t say anything, so I tried again.
“It’s funny, though,” I said. “Becky never mentioned that you were coming home. Last time you were home, she was really excited and couldn’t shut up about it.”
“She doesn’t know I’m back,” he finally answered, startling me. I looked over at him. He was looking down at the numbers on his treadmill. He seemed fascinated by the calorie burn or the miles per hour he’d run.
“She doesn’t know?”
“What about your parents?”
Alex snorted. “Nope.” He increased the speed of his machine so that he was sprinting.
I knew something was wrong, so I just let him run it out. Eventually he had to give up the speed and slow down again to catch his breath. I waited until he was able to talk again before I asked another question.
“Hey Alex, want to go get a beer or something? You can explain to me why you’re here instead of at home being welcomed by your family.”
“No offense GC, but I don’t really want to talk about it.”
“Maybe you should.”
Alex laughed. “I’m actually kind of surprised you don’t already know. You and Becky are going out, right? Don’t you two tell each other everything?”
“What?” I was so surprised by his words that I missed a step on my treadmill and nearly fell. “Whoa. Who said we were going out?”
“Well aren’t you?”
“Um, no. We’re just friends.”
Alex and I both stopped our machines and jumped off. “I thought you were dating,” he said.
“She was supposed to explain it to you,” I said, remembering that Becky had promised to set Alex straight. “We’ve just been good friends. We’ve known each other for a long time.”
Alex looked thoughtful. “I’m still sort of surprised she didn’t tell you,” he said.
“Tell me what? We haven’t hung out a lot lately. I’ve been sort of busy with work and…I guess I’m sort of avoiding her.” I hoped if I opened up to Alex he would open up to me. He looked like he needed a friend. I remembered how everyone used to like him back in school. I wondered why he hadn’t kept in touch with any of those old friends.
“Let’s go get that drink, GC. You can tell me why you’re avoiding my sister and I’ll tell you why I am.”
So we ended up at the Watering Hole. It was actually my first time in the establishment, but I didn’t want Alex to know that I was such a light weight. He was so well traveled and smart, I didn’t want him to think I was a bumpkin.
“Tell me about Becky?” I asked Alex before he could ask me once we’d ordered and received our drinks at the bar.
“She and the folks are sort of upset with me right now,” he said. “I left France early.”
“You quit school?”
“How can you ‘sort of’ quit school?”
“You get kicked out.” Alex took a swig of his drink, and headed over to a table to sit down. I just stood there in shock. Alex had been the smartest kid I knew…smarter even than Laura, who was the valedictorian of my graduating class.
When I took a seat across from him, I asked, “You got expelled?”
“Yeah. That’s what happens when you stop going to class.”
“But why would you do that?”
Alex shrugged. “Lots of reasons. I realized I hated medicine. I also realized that I hated the idea of going into practice with my old man. He wanted me to be a psychologist just like him. Did you know that?”
I nodded. I knew that Dr. Fairbanks had been really proud that Alex was going to medical school and that he’d been accepted into the prestigious exchange program with the French hospitals. “Becky told me about it,” I said.
“Well, it was never really my dream. I figured that out when I met someone over there.”
“The artist,” I said, remembering his conversation at dinner with his family.
“The artist. Yes.” Alex got a faraway look in his eyes. He was clearly remembering his lover.
“What happened to her? Is she the reason you stopped going to class?”
“Do you remember how I was at dinner that night you guys graduated? I was so excited. I wanted to tell my parents all about my friend in France?” When I nodded, he continued, “I thought my parents would be happy for me. I mean, I really thought they’d support me. Dad’s a shrink, isn’t he supposed to be supportive of everyone? No matter what?”
Alex took another drink. I looked confused. Why wouldn’t his parents have been happy about him finding someone he loved?
“They didn’t want you to date someone from France?”
“No. They didn’t want me to date this specific person. GC, don’t you get it? Can’t you tell?”
I shook my head. What was I supposed to tell?
“I’m gay, GC. My lover, the artist, his name was Rene.”
I heard his words and I processed what he was saying. Alex was gay. I took a drink. I still didn’t completely understand. Ok, so Alex liked guys. Is that why his parents didn’t know he was home?
“So?” I finally said.
“So…” Alex waved his hand sort of vaguely.
“They were mad?”
“No. Dad was…disappointed. He got all psychoanalyst on me. He asked me if I was just experimenting because I was in a foreign environment.”
I could see Dr. Fairbanks doing that. When I saw him as a patient, it used to annoy the crap out of me when he’d answer my questions with questions. I had hated that.
“What about your mom?”
“She cried, but she asked me to tell her all about Rene. She tried to be excited for me, but how could she be when I’d never give her grandchildren or something like that. I don’t know. It didn’t seem so genuine when I’d tell her how funny he was and she’d hiccup and sniffle and wipe away tears with her tissue.”
“Maybe she was just surprised.”
“That’s for sure.”
“Becky said she always knew I was gay. She was surprised that I hadn’t figured it out before I went to France.”
“Sounds like Becky,” I said. I swallowed the remainder of my drink and ordered another round for both of us.
“I still don’t get why you haven’t gone home.”
“They don’t really want to see me,” Alex said, sounding bitter. “They all acted like everything was fine, but I knew it wasn’t. They never once asked me about Rene when I called from France after I got back. They just talked about school. And then, when things with Rene and I got a little strained, no one wanted to talk to me about that either.”
“So you’re not with him anymore?”
“No. It was over before I came back. He didn’t like it that I had dropped out of school. He said I was acting like a bum and I needed to get my head on straight.”
“Sounds like he was right.”
“And I hated that. I was awful to him. We fought and I decided to just pack it up and come home. So here I am.”
“Here you are, but what are you going to do?”
“Fuck if I know.”
Alex got up and headed to the shuffleboard table. He dropped in a few simoleons and the little pucks were dispensed from a slot in the side. “Game?” he asked me. I said sure, and we started to play.
I knew Alex didn’t want to talk about his folks, but I couldn’t let it go. “You should go home,” I finally said.
“Why? So that I’ll get the same lecture from dear old dad? He’ll ask me if I have analyzed the root of my problem. He’ll tell me that I need to accept myself or some shit like that before I can be accepted by others.”
“Sounds like something he’d say.”
“Well, I do accept myself. He’s the one who doesn’t accept me.”
I wasn’t sure if that was true, but what did I know about Alex’s situation? All I knew was that if you couldn’t go to your family when you were hurting, you were in really bad shape. I didn’t think Alex’s family was much different from my own. Yes, Becky could be pushy and Dr. Fairbanks always asked questions, but they seemed like a very close family.
Alex and I played in companionable silence for awhile. He ordered himself another drink, but I declined when the bartender offered me one.
Seeing Alex down another swallow of the concoction we’d been drinking, I got an idea. “You know what I’m going to do to help you, Alex?”
“What’s that?” He looked over at me.
“Well, first I’m going to kick your ass at this game,” I said as he slid a puck down the board. He was currently ahead 5-0, but I knew I could turn it around.
“Oh yeah?” He pumped a fist when his puck out-distanced mine…again.
“Yeah,” I said with confidence I really didn’t feel. “And I’m going to let you get drunk.” I added. “Then I’m going to take you home.”
Alex, who was pretty close to getting to that drunk point already, gave me a strange look. “Are you propositioning me?”
I laughed. “Me? No. I’m just going to help you out.” I lined up to take my shot, but as always I missed. “Crap.”
“You suck at this, GC,” Alex mocked me. Then he said, “Don’t know how dumping my drunk ass off at the folks’ will help me, but it will surely be interesting.”
“Yeah, sure will. But first I have to win this game.”
“If you beat me, GC, I’ll willingly let you take me to my parents’ house. How’s that?”
“You’re on. Best two out of three.”
So we continued playing. I lost the first game, of course, but Alex kept ordering drinks for himself while I kept declining. His game went steadily down hill.
While we played, Alex got me to tell him why I was avoiding Becky. I told him about prom night and how we’d lost our virginity together.
“If I wasn’t so drunk, I might have to punch you for fuckin’ my baby sister,” he said to me. “She’s just a kid.”
“Who Becky? We were both kids. Stupid kids messing around after prom.”
“Stupid prom,” Alex agreed.
Then I explained about the night in my apartment and all of the times she’d tried to get me to repeat it. “Who knew my sister was such a slut,” he slurred.
“She’s not,” I defended her.
“Sounds like it. She practically raped you just ‘cause she was horny.”
“No she didn’t,” I insisted. “And you shouldn’t talk about your sister that way.” Alex sort of laughed, but I could tell it was the alcohol that made it seem so funny.
“’Kay. But jus’ sayin’.”
“I win!” I finally boasted at the end of the third game. Alex, who was pretty unsteady on his feet, missed my hand when I held it up for a high five.
“I guess that means it’s time to go home,” he said drunkenly. He let me walk him out to my truck to drive him over to the Fairbanks’ house. Because Alex could barely walk, I practically had to hold him up to get him out of the bar.
“Sure you’re not prop..propo….prop’sitionin’ me?” Alex stuttered drunkenly, when I put my arm around him.
“I’m sure.” I laughed. “Let’s get you home.”
I had no idea how hard it would be to maneuver a drunk person into a truck, but getting Alex strapped in was a chore. When I put the seatbelt around him, Alex hit on me.
“Too bad you’re not gay, GC. You’ve got good hair.”
“What does hair have to do with anything?” I chuckled, leaning away from Alex to strap myself into my own seatbelt.
“Nothin’. Jus’ a stupid gay cliché. Hey, that rhymed.” Alex snickered.
“You’re a poet and didn’t know it.” Alex continued to laugh at my lame joke.
I started the truck and headed out to the Fairbanks’. Alex didn’t say much more as we drove, but, when we were nearly there, he looked at me almost soberly and said, “I can’t GC. I can’t go home yet. Please. Don’t take me there.”
“You should see your parents,” I insisted.
“Not yet. Not like this. Tomorrow? I promise I’ll go tomorrow. You can take me yourself, but don’t take me now.”
I nodded. “Ok, but where will you go?”
Alex looked at me imploringly, “Do you have a couch?”
“I promise I won’t throw up on it. I’m not that drunk.”
“Yes you are. But I’ll let you sleep there anyway. I’ve got a bucket.”
“You’re a good friend, GC.”
I nodded again, though Alex didn’t see it. He leaned his head against the window and fell asleep. He was snoring lightly when I pulled into my garage and parked the truck.
It was easier to get Alex out of the truck and down to my apartment. He was completely passed out, so I used my training to fireman’s carry him. He was heavier than he looked, but I didn’t mind. I felt bad that I’d allowed him to get so drunk. It hadn’t been a good idea. I was glad I hadn’t taken him to his parents.
Alex woke slightly when I plopped him on the couch.
“Sorry Buddy,” I murmured when he groaned. “Bathrooms over there,” I pointed behind me. “If you have to yak, try to make it to the john.”
“’Kay,” he answered, but his eyes stayed closed.
I figured I should at least remove his shoes so he’d be more comfortable. He stirred a little when I did this.
“You ok, Alex?”
“Yeah. Sorry, GC.”
“It’s nothing. My fault anyway.”
“Nuh uh,” he moved his head as if to say no, but this seemed to be more than he could handle. I could see him turn slightly green.
“Bathroom!” I urged, and heaved him up and helped him sort of stumble-run to the toilet. I stood there awkwardly listening to him hurl the contents of his stomach, not knowing really what to do. I guess that was one way to prevent a massive hangover in the morning. I got Alex a glass of water and made him drink it after he was finished throwing up.
“You going to make it now?” I asked when he had swallowed it all.
“Yeah. Sorry again.”
“Can you get to the couch on your own?”
I stepped aside and watched as Alex shuffled to the couch and collapsed. When I was sure he would be relatively fine, I headed to my room, shutting the door.
As I fell asleep, I thought about Alex in the other room. I hoped he’d be ok. I wondered if his parents would forgive him and show him how much they loved him no matter what. I had to believe they would…that’s what my mom and dad would do.