By Gene Bixler
Bryan was dying. Bryan knew he was dying. It didn't matter in the least to him that the doctors hadn't reached that conclusion; Bryan knew what he felt. For weeks it had seemed to him that his body was slowly giving up, allowing the virus that was eating him alive to take a little bit more each day than it had permitted the day before. The funny thing was all the doctors Bryan had seen in the last six months had been so optimistic. They'd shared with him story after story of young men his age, nineteen, living for years after the onset of AIDS. They'd all told him that treatments were available, that he could live a normal life for a long time, that he didn't have to act as if there were nothing left for which to fight. But, Bryan didn't want to live for years, or even weeks or months. Bryan would welcome death when it came. In only nineteen years, he had seen too much, lived too much, felt too much. He was tired, weak and he was without hope. And why shouldn't he be? For the last four years, absolutely nothing had gone the way he'd planned.
It had all started innocently enough. Two guys, the neighborhood rabble-rousers, the very best of friends, were inseparable. Bryan, then fifteen, could never be seen except when he was at the side of his very best friend, Mike, a tall, lanky kid of fourteen, who had that sort of look about him that made you want to lock the silver cabinet whenever he came around. His menacing blue eyes and firm jaw could drive an odd sort of fear into any man, but his voice sang of innocence. His short cropped blond hair never seemed to be in any particular sort of style, in sharp contrast to Bryan, who always had to have his jet black hair perfectly shaped. It was the summer of 1992, and both Mike and Bryan would be entering their freshman year of High School at Roosevelt High in Manchester, New Hampshire, but for now, it was early June, and there were parties left to be had, houses left to be egged, and, most importantly, little old ladies left to "help" across the street. Manchester was a small suburban city of roughly forty thousand people, and there wasn't much to do for entertainment, at least not for teens like Mike and Bryan, affectionately known as "The Dynamic Duo." The boys ordinarily spent their evenings running around thecity or harassing the police or just hanging out around the local Dairy Queen (tm), but on this particular Friday night, the guys had been invited to a party over on 15th Street, only about a quarter-mile from their own block.
Shelly's parties were known around the city for their wild nature, but no amount of forewarning could have prepared the duo for the scene they witnessed at eleven-thirty that evening. There were cars lining 15th Street, but it was pretty easy for the boys to tell which house was hosting this activity; it was the one with the door and windows open, where kids were running in and out screaming and throwing all sorts of things at one another. From the looks of the place, you'd have thought this get-together was for pre-schoolers rather than teens ... just the way Mike and Bryan liked it. They walked in the front door of the two-story asylum (though they could just as easily have climbed through a window or jumped down the chimney without drawing the slightest bit of attention) andimmediately fell prey to the party's reckless nature: Bryan was hit on the head with a softball. "Goddammit that hurt. I don't know who the hell threw this thing, but he'd better hope I don't catch him in a dark alley alone sometime!" Bryan seemed a bit annoyed, rubbing his head furiously, but he wasn't really injured.
"Here, man, I got somethin' for ya that'll make all the pain go away." Justin Rhodes would be a second-year senior this year and was, for all intents and purposes, the town's drug supplier. His nasty brown hair, with all that greasy shit dripping out of it and his ugly yellow teeth make him look even stupider than he really is, if that's possible, Bryan noted for the millionth time.
"No thanks, Jus. I'm sure I'll be fine." Bryan had absolutely no desire to find out what drug Justin was talking about. He knew the shit, no matter what it was, would really mess him up, and that was the last thing he needed. He had always been a good student, and he'd planned since grade school toattend Harvard on a full scholarship. He was a dreamer, he knew, but this dream was one he thought he could realize, and he had no intention of beginning a habit now that could only destroy him later. His friends had always told him he needed to loosen up just a tad more and "be a teen," but he felt that his escapades with Mike more than filled that emptiness his friends had accused him of shielding.
"Aw, c'mon, man, it's just a little light stuff to make you feel better. Look." Justin extended hishand to reveal a small plastic bag that was filled with a grassy substance that looked like something out of a spice rack. Pot. Bryan had always felt that pot was one of the worst drugs out there, not because of what it could physically do, but because people always thought it was so harmless.
"Really, bud, it's all right. I'll be okay."
"C'mon, Bryan, you should give it a try." But this wasn't Justin's voice. It was Mike's! Bryan turned to face his best friend, stunned by this sudden interest in illegal drugs. Mike had never once indicated to Bryan that he'd had a desire to try anything like this before, and Bryan didn't really know how to handle this development.
"You can't be serious, Mike! You know as well as I do that this shit can really screw with your mind! It's not like a game or anything, man!"
"I know it's not a game; it's life. And sometimes ya gotta let go a little bit and let life win ... just for a while." With that, Mike took a drag off the joint that had been rolled for him. He choked a little bit, not used to inhaling anything but good old oxygen, but kept puffing away.
Mike continued his "letting go" till about three a.m. That was when things started going downhill. Justin pulled a syringe from one of his coat pockets and offered "The coolest shit in the universe" to anyone who wanted it. The syringe made its way around the room, about a dozen people had used it before it got to Mike and Bryan. Bryan naturally refused the drug, but Mike accepted under pressure. He shot up and almost immediately lost all control of himself. He ran around the rooms of the house shouting incoherently at anyone who would listen. He began throwing things at the walls just to see if he could make "the loudest fucking noise ever." At about four-thirty, Mike began to come off his high, and Bryan decided it was time for the two of them to go home. Mike could hardly walk, so Bryan let Mike lean on him all the way home. The pair walked in silence until they were standing in front of Mike's house ready to say goodnight. "Hey, Bryan?"
"You wanna, like, spend the night with me or something?"
"Why? You want me to?"
"I don't feel real good; I thought if you stayed with me, and I got sick, you could, you know, help me out or whatever."
"Sure, all right."
With that, the two of them headed into Mike's house to go to sleep. Both of them had parents who were pretty easy-going, and it was not unusual for one of the boys to end up sleeping at the other's house, so no permission was ever sought or required for things like this. Whenever Bryan spent the night with Mike, Mike would insist that Bryan take the queen-sized bed while Mike slept on the floor. But this time, Bryan refused to hear of such a thing. He insisted that Mike sleep on the bed and that he sleep on the floor, but Mike would have no part of that. "Man, you know you always get the bed when you're here."
"Not this time. You're sick, man, and you are gonna sleep on the bed."
"Well, it's a big bed. We can both sleep on it ... just this once." There was something in Mike's voice just then that got to Bryan, but he didn't know what it was. A little bit less innocence than normal, maybe?
"Whatever. I'm so tired right now, it won't make much difference to me.". Both boys stripped down to their boxers and climbed into the bed, each one sure to sleep right on the edge so as not to seem "too close" to the other. Normally, the two of them talked for a little bit before going to sleep, but they were both exhausted, and Mike was still fried somewhat, so the two were fast asleep by half past five.
At a quarter of eight, Bryan was awakened by being hit on the arm repeatedly. "Wake up, Bryan, I gotta talk to you. Wake up! C'mon, wake up!"
"Geeze, man, I'm awake already. Now, what the hell do you want?" Bryan shot a look at Mike that could kill several wild elephants, but Mike didn't seem to notice.
"I need to ask you something. It's important."
"It better be really important."
"Do you love me?"
Now this was strange. Mike had never before even come close to approaching that subject with his partner in crime. "Well, you're my best friend, so I guess I kinda love ya in a friendly sort of way, I think. Sure." Bryan wasn't sure he was all that comfortable discussing this subject like this. It made him feel funny to be talking about loving his friend Mike because, truth be told, he did have feelings for Mike that maybe he shouldn't have, but he had alwaysignored those feelings for the good of the friendship.
"I don't mean like that. I mean, like, love love." Uh-oh. This was definitely taking a turn down a strange path. Bryan wasn't sure how to respond. He wanted to say yes, but to do so would put him at great risk. He didn't want to say no and lose his only chance ever of telling his best friend how he really felt. He decided to avoid the question like the lawyer he knew he was.
"Man, I think you're still a little messed up in the head."
Mike didn't appear to hear him. "Because, Bry, I love you. I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm not gonna go after you or anything like that, but I just thought maybe you should know. And before you tell me it's the drugs, you should know that I've felt like this forever; it's just that, until now, I didn't think I should tell you, but last night, I figured out that you gotta do whatever you gotta do, ya know? And I had to tell you this. Is it okay?"
Is it okay? Is it okay? Bryan wanted to say that it was more than okay, that it was wonderful, that it was the best news ever, but he couldn't find his voice. It was like it had just decided to go on vacation or something, so he did the only thing he could think to do: he kissed his friend. And his friend kissed back.
The two sat in contemplative silence for several minutes before Bryan finally spoke up. "Why didn't you ever tell me how you felt?" What a dumb question! Bryan knew precisely why Mike had kept this secret under lock and key, for itwas no doubt the very same reason Bryan had kept his own secret.
"Why do you think? Because you were always talking to me about this girl or that girl, how you wanted to date her, to kiss her, or to sleep with her. I couldn't tell you that I wanted to do all those things with you. I mean, man, the last thing I wanted to do was screw up our friendship, ya know? 'Cause, you're pretty cool as a friend, even if I can't have you for anything else."
"But you can have me for anything else. Anything else you want. I mean, everything I said about all those girls, I said it because I thought I was supposed to, ya know. I didn't want you to think something was up. I mean, Mikey, I always wanted you for more than a friend, for as long as I've known you. But I never thought I could have you that way, so I just, you know, hung out with you. But, honestly, I always wished we could be, well ..." Bryan was fumbling for the right words now, trying to make sure he said everything right. "Boyfriends. I wanted us to be boyfriends."
"Me too, Bryan. Me too."
"Cool." Cool? God, that sounded so lame, but he really didn't know what to say. He felt as if he'd been free-floating for years, bouncing from one cloud to another, trying to find the one that would take him to heaven, and he'd just found it. It's name was Mike.
That one brief conversation would change their lives forever. Neither of them ever again had to feel alone or ashamed. Each knew who he was, and each knew he loved the other, and that knowledge was all they needed.
Bryan and Mike allowed their relationship to grow and nurture itself for the next year. Their friendship never changed, but now a new dimension to their lives was added: love. They did all the things that teens in love normally do. They went to the movies, they went out to dinner, they "experienced the physical side of their relationship." But, even with all this going on, they remained the best of friends, doing the things best friends do, too. Each of them felttruly fulfilled as long as he had the other. They never seemed to grow bored with one another, and by the end of their freshman year in High School, they felt they were truly in love. As teens tend to do, they often discussed the idea of getting married, concluding that it didn't matter if the government allowed it or not, one day, they'd be husbands. They knew, of course, that all teenagers talk about marriage with those they're dating, but the boys felt that their relationship was much stronger than any they'd seen lately. By this time the two of them had come out to several friends who were all incredibly supportive of their relationship, so the "dynamic duo" was sure they were "invincible." Almost.
To be continued...
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