Bear, Otter, & the Kid 03 - The Art of Breathing (9 page)

Dom snarls in frustration, but Otter’s right and we all know it. I’m the one who made the choice to come out like I did, and therefore I’m the one who has to deal with the consequences, whatever they may be.

Besides. It’s
Bear
. I’m not scared of
Bear.

Well. Maybe a little. It
is
Bear, after all.

“Fuck,” I mutter. “This seemed like such a good idea when I had it.”

Otter laughs ruefully. “Given yours and your brother’s histories of ‘good ideas,’ you would think one of you would realize you shouldn’t always do the first thing that pops into your head.”

I scowl at Otter. “I’m not anything like Bear! And besides, if we
didn’t
do the first thing that comes into our head, then we’d sit there thinking about it, and you
know
what happens when Bear allows himself to think too much.”

“Which he’s probably doing now.”

“Fuck,” I say again.

“Fuck, indeed,” Otter agrees. “Probably should get this over with, Kid. We’ve got dinner reservations in an hour. If I know your brother at all, you’re going to need at least that long.”

“Gays take forever,” Creed complains. “Jesus, now there are
three
of them. It’s going to take hours for anything to happen, and when it does, it’s going to be done in song with a choreographed dance number that’ll end with glitter cannons fired into the air.”

“I like glitter,” JJ says quite loudly. “I used to eat it. That and glue.”

“He did,” Creed says. “By the time we would catch him, it looked like a drag queen exploded on his face. And our walls.”

“And why don’t we eat glitter and glue anymore?” Anna asks her son.

“Because you said it makes my poop look like abstract art,” JJ says. Quite loudly. “And Dad said that no one would pay to see my glitter bombs in a museum.” He is his father’s son, make no mistake about that.

People we don’t know turn and stare at us. We stare back. Eventually, they turn away. People are so weird sometimes.

“You sure?” Dom asks me. He’s holding on to my arm like he doesn’t want me to leave his side.

I sigh. “Yeah. Better get this over with. It’ll be fine. Bear’s gonna freak, we’ll probably yell at each other, and then we’ll go have hummus like we always do.”

“Vegetarian food is so gross,” Creed mutters.

“I hate it too,” JJ mutters.

“Be nice,” Anna says. She must have thought I couldn’t hear her over the crowd because I heard her follow it up with, “Me too.”

That family, I swear. I’ll keep them in my prayers.

“Better go now,” Otter says. “Just go easy on him. Okay?”

My hands are sweaty. “Did you tell him the same thing?”

Otter grabs me in another hug. “Of course I did,” he whispers harshly in my ear. “You belong to me just as much as he does. This is just… hard for him to hear. He remembers what he went through figuring out he was gay, and he’s just worried about you.”

“I’m not Bear.”

Otter laughs and pulls away. “You are. More than you could ever know.”

Yeah. Probably more than I care to know.

We having fun yet?
it asks me.

I turn to leave. Dom stops me. “You sure?” he asks again. He looks so worried, the big oaf.

I smile up at him. “I’m sure. Besides, looks like someone is waiting for you.” I point behind him to where Stacey waits on the sidelines. Dom frowns as she waves at him. She looks unsure, but I don’t have time to think about
her
right now. One thing at a time.

“But—”

“It’s fine. It’s just Bear.”

“That’s what worries me.” He lets me go.

 

 

T
HE
SUN
is starting to set off in the west, and I can only see the shadow outline of Bear through the crowd as he stands against the fence, facing away from me. It’s a struggle to put one foot in front of another, but somehow I manage.

It’s
just
Bear,
I scold myself.

It’s just
Bear, I reply.

Well, shit. I really should have thought this through a little bit better.

People slap my back as I walk through the crowd. Someone shakes my hand. An older woman I don’t know hugs me, and there’s a fleeting smell of a cache of roses, and for a moment, I think of Mrs. Paquinn. It hurts, and I have to swallow past the lump in my throat, but knowing her like I do, she’d probably be laughing her ass off right now, insisting on being present for whatever conversation is about to take place between Bear and me. Sure, she’d have a smile on her face, and her eyes would have been shining bright with mischief, but I’d have felt the strength in her grip, her hand squeezing my own to let me know that it’d be okay. Because she
knew
it’d be okay. But she’s not here.

I push through the crowd.

Otter’s right. I saw an opportunity to make a statement, and I took it. Like I’ve done my whole life. It’s part of who I am. It’s part of who
we
are.

This is my brother. This is Derrick. Bear. The one in the world I trust the most. The one in the world I love the most. I can’t stand the thought of disappointing him, though I don’t think I did. I don’t know. There’s a bright ringing in my ears, and my skin feels like it’s crawling. My breath holds, but just barely.

I reach the fence on which his elbows rest. He watches the sun as it sets. It’s scary how much we look alike. Sure, he’s older now, but only by a little (though I give him so much crap for being close to thirty;
it’s the end of the world as you know it
, I told him a little while ago with great glee.
Pretty sure that’s when the hairline starts to recede in this family.
He didn’t find that to be very funny). He looks as he always has. Like Bear.

Except that he doesn’t turn to look at me.

I wait too.

“I remember, once,” he finally says. “You were… five… I think…. Maybe. I don’t know. Some age. It was after she left, at least. I know that much.”

We don’t need to say out loud who
she
is. We both know.

“You were at home, with Mrs. Paquinn, while I was working at the store. There was an announcement over the intercom, saying I had a phone call. Somehow, I knew. Even before I got to the phone, I knew something was wrong. I don’t know
how
I knew. I just did. Of course, my mind took it in a billion different directions. I thought maybe the apartment had burned down. Or that Mrs. P had….” He stops. Takes a breath. “That she’d gotten sick.”
Oh, Bear.
“Or that
she’d
come back out of the blue and wanted to make things different again. Wanted to destroy what I’d somehow managed to cobble together. I think that’s what I was expecting the most. Her. I think I always knew she’d come back at some point. I don’t know why I was so surprised when it finally happened. But… that doesn’t matter now.

“So, I knew I had a phone call and everything from plague and fire to meteors and infestation ran through my head. I ran. As soon as my name was called, I ran. And through every doomsday scenario I had running through my head, I thought to myself, just let him be okay. Just let him be okay.”

“Papa Bear, I—”

“Hush, Kid,” he admonishes softly without looking at me. “Let me finish.” He takes a deep breath. “It was Mrs. Paquinn on the phone. I asked her what was wrong. She asked me why I sounded like I was crying. That she was sure I had snot running down my face and I was probably really embarrassing and she’d have to shop in a new grocery store because she didn’t want to be associated with the guy who runs crying down the frozen foods aisle.”

Oh, Mrs. P. That sounds just like you.

“I asked her what was wrong. ‘Can’t I just call to say hi?’ she asked me. I told her she’d never done that before. ‘Traditions have to start somewhere,’ she said. ‘There should be a first time for everything.’

“‘So you’re just calling me to say hi?’ I asked her. I was pretty sure I was about to explode.

“‘Well, no,’ she said. ‘But you need to take a deep breath before you defecate your work khakis. That would be extremely embarrassing for you.’

“I very calmly asked her then what was wrong. She told me I needed to stop yelling.” Bear paused then, gripping the fence. Finally, “You’d fallen down. Outside. On those shitty steps of those shitty apartments. Your knee had caught the edge of one of the steps just right and had split open. You were at the hospital, getting stitches.

“I panicked then, I think. I don’t really remember it all that well. I drove to the emergency room, sure I’d get there and find that you’d had your leg amputated or that you’d gotten gangrene.”

“Or SARS,” I say, a small smile on my face.

“Or SARS,” he agrees. “I got there, and wonder of all wonder, you were sitting on the edge of one of the beds, looking down at your knee with this
look
on your face, like you were completely and utterly fascinated by the little black threads. I stood by the door, just watching you. Taking you in. Every piece. Every part. All of it was still there. Your knee was a little red and swollen, but it was still there.

“You must have heard me, because you looked up and said, ‘Hi, Bear! I fell down and cut myself. It bled a lot, and that was gross, but I’ve been sewed back together, and I think deserve some ice cream now.’ You got up from the edge of the bed. Walked over to me. Took my hand. You looked up at me and asked me why I looked so pale. I couldn’t really say then that it was one of the first times I knew you were more than a brother to me. It hit me then that what I was feeling, all the horrors in my head, were what most parents must go through when they get a phone call like that.”

“You took me for ice cream,” I tell him. I remember that much, at least.

He smiles distantly. “Yeah. I did. And now you’re here. Now you’re… you. It’s funny, isn’t it. You were up there, on the stage, being braver than anyone else I know, and all I could think about was the scar. That little scar on your leg.”

“It’s certainly ruined my chance of becoming a kneecap model,” I say.

“You sure?”

I know what he’s asking. “Pretty sure.”

“You haven’t… tried… anything? Right?”

“Tried what?”

He turns red. “You know.” He mimes something that looks like he’s petting a giraffe. Or molesting one.

Oh sweet Jesus. He better not be—“Bear, are you asking me if I’ve had sex?”

“You’re damn right I am.”

I look at him in horror. “We’re at my
graduation
!” Shoot me. Please. In the face.

“I don’t give a flying fuck where we’re at! You better not be a whore, Tyson!”

Oh boy. Here we go.
Here’s
the Bear I know. “Please tell me you’ve lost your mind. It’s the only rational explanation that would make sense for the words coming out of your mouth.”

He looks at me for the first time since we started speaking and his eyes go wide. “
Have
you?” he demands.

“Why, of course, Bear! Just last week I got to have a twelve-way with the varsity wrestling team. Boy, do they know how to pile-drive, I’ll tell you what!”

“I… you… I swear to
God
, Tyson….”

“You asked me if I’ve had
sex
! I tell you I’m gay and
that’s
the first thing you want to know? You need to go back to therapy. I’ll call Eddie. Clearly, you have some unresolved issues.”

“I… kill….”

I know his brain is already misfiring. Prepare for an Epic Bear Tirade In T-minus three.

“Not while
I’m
alive… I….”

Two.

“Dental dams… fifteen years old… over my dead….”

One.

“When
I
was your age… holy
fuck
….”

Ignition.

“You’d better have another thought coming! You know what could
happen
to you? Jesus Christ, Kid! It starts that way, sure. Oh, hey! Look! That guy’s giving me the come-fuck-me-eyes! That’s how it starts! He’ll introduce himself as something ridiculous, like Gustavo Tiberius, because
everyone
has idiotic names these days, and he’ll say it in a generic Bond villain accent that you’ll
swoon
over. Then he’ll wine and dine you and take you to some absurd-sounding French restaurant that charges eight dollars for a glass of water that you didn’t even
want
, and afterwards, he’ll ask you if you want to go to his place, and sure enough, you’ll think that’s a
great
idea. He’ll mention he lives in the middle of the woods, and you’ll
still
go because you think sex is
cool
and you totally want to get
laid
. You’ll get to his house and see that he collects clown china dolls and has a picture of Jesus hanging on the cross with his mother’s face superimposed over Jesus’, and he’ll ask you if you want something to drink. You’ll say yes, but it will taste funny because it’s full of date rape, and you’ll wake up tied down onto a department-store mannequin that
also
has his mother’s face on it, and Gustavo Fucking Tiberius will ask you if you like to be
spanked
, because his
mother
likes it, and I won’t have it, Tyson James Thompson! You hear me? I won’t have you spanked like his mannequin mother! You will stay a virgin for the
rest of your life
, so help me
God
, or I will make sure you are locked in the Green Monstrosity until you take your last breath! Do not fuck with me on this, you hear me? Gustavo won’t get his hands on you!” By the end, he’s shouting, and I’m pretty sure everyone within a four-mile radius heard the entire diatribe. This is why more gay teenagers don’t come out to their parents: they don’t want to know anything about mannequin date rape. Or whatever he said. Gross.

“Gustavo Tiberius?” I ask him incredulously. “Give me
some
credit here. I’d at least wait until the second date before I put out for someone named
Gustavo
Tiberius
. I do have
some
standards, after all.”

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