Jitterbug (Wake me up before you go)

Jeremy

By Alex Hogan

Illustrated by Alex Hogan

PART ONE 

Shelly had finally decided to leave.  She had at last got up the gumption to move in with her boyfriend, Michael.  They had been going with each other for almost a year, and for some months he’d been wanting them to move in together.  But she was frightened too much domesticity could ruin the romance.  Then she came home one day and told me she’d been talking to a friend of hers who was from the 70s ‘living in sin’ generation, who told her simply that “living with your man is wonderful”.

I was happy for her, of course.  But once she had gone I was staring at empty walls.  I put the TV on, but then the inane sound of its happy voices forced me to switch it off again.

I had moved in with Shelly – Michelle – five years before, when I first left school and came to Brisbane from Toowoomba to study at the University of Queensland.  She was living in a little flat in Taringa, part of an old house that had been divided up.  It was only a couple of suburbs away from the uni, so convenient for me to get to my lectures.  I was pleased – very relieved – for the offer, as it made moving to the big city easier.  Shelly was happy to take her little brother in, but I guess the time comes when we all must move on.

“We’ll still come ’round for a drink and a larf,” she said.  That made me feel a little less alone, only I feared the visits might not last.  “But you should take in a flatmate, Nick,” she continued.  I nodded reluctantly; I supposed I would have to.  I couldn’t manage the flat on my own, not on my librarian wages.  It was my first year out of uni and I was working at the City Library.  I was happy to get a job so quickly, but library work doesn’t pay well.

“But how do I find someone?” I asked.

“You can advertise at the uni.”

So I went up there one day and gave a note to the Union office person.  She pinned it up on the ‘To Rent’ board and wrote the information in her book.  That was it.

I sat at home and waited for the telephone to ring.  I imagined an array of young students traipsing through the place, commenting on this and that, and generally poking around my home.  The thought of some unknown moving into my flat and calling it home was pretty scary.

“Of course you could move out of this flat and into a shared flat yourself,” Shelly offered one day.  Yeah, I suppose I could.  But I just kept sitting at home watching the phone, and watching my bank account go down.  It was autumn, mid-semester, so few students were moving house at that time.  I was beginning to enjoy the flat on my own.  When I’d come home after work and close the door the outside world disappeared.  The flat became my castle.  I would set the kettle boiling, then settle down to a cuppa and a nice long novel, which often ended in a nap.  After waking and yawning, I’d potter around working on various hobbies, and even started dabbling in some writing again, which I used to do when I was still at school.

One day Shelly rang me, excited with some news.  “Nick.  I have someone for you.”

“Oh, yes?  Blonde, big breasts?”  I didn’t even know what my ideal woman was like.

“Ha ha, very funny!  No, I have someone for the flat.”  It hit my stomach like a fist.

“There’s this guy at work” – Shelly worked at the university – “who has just moved to Brisbane.  He is starting in the History Department next semester and is looking for somewhere to live.  Jeremy’s his name.  He seems a nice enough guy,” she assured me. “In fact, he’s very bloody gorgeous.”

Well, that made all the difference didn’t it?  “I don’t know, Michelle.”

“You’ll like him, just see.  I’ll bring him around tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?”

“Yes.  He needs a place, and you need a flatmate.”

I was so mad at her.  But she hung up as if the whole issue were settled.  I should have rung her back, I know, but I also knew that would have got me nowhere.  My big sister had decided, so that was that.

Michelle walked around the flat as if it were still hers.  He followed her, nodding as he did so, which meant I guess that he liked the flat.  We sat down to a coffee that Shelly made, and attempted to talk, Shelly doing most of the chat.  He gave me a little smile as she talked away.  Finally she asked what both of us thought.  Jeremy said he was happy and would like to move in, if it was OK with me.  He was smallish, fine boned, not very tall.  Well, he was shorter than me, but then I’m six foot.  My stomach felt full of kangaroos rather than butterflies, but there was little else I could do – I had no money.  I guess he didn’t look too hostile, so I nodded an OK.

He moved in the next week.  I politely helped him transfer his things from the car to the flat, the little there was, and then retreated to my own room.  He calmly unpacked his bags, whistling softly.  When he was finished he came to my room and knocked quietly.

“I think I’ll go try out the kitchen.  Would you like a coffee?” he said.  I followed him out and showed him where things were.  The kitchen was open, connected to the lounge room.  I started to make the coffee but he insisted he make it and I sit down.  So I did, feeling very conspicuous being waited on by a stranger in my own home.

He brought the coffee over and sat down with me.

“Thank you for this,” I said.

“No.  I want to thank you.  For letting me into your world,” he said and he smiled a cute little smile.  We chatted haltingly.  He seemed, yeah, OK.  After our coffee we went to our separate rooms.

The first weekend he spent in my flat he stayed at home.  I was hoping he’d go out, but he watched TV and was sort of just hanging out.  I felt oppressed, constantly aware of his presence.  The next Friday night I forced myself to ask him if he was going out.

“I don’t know where to go.  I’ve only just moved up from Sydney; I don’t know Brisbane.  Do you have any ideas?”

Me?  “I don’t really know Brisbane much either.  I grew up in Toowoomba.  I was student here, but…  I didn’t ever really get out into the night spots.”

“What about just some pubs, or restaurants?”

I shrugged.  “There’s a pizza and pasta shop in St Lucia, just down the road from the uni.”

He suggested we go there.  We?  How about he go and buy a pizza and bring it back?  Anything to give me a tiny bit of space.  But I didn’t suggest that, I just shrugged again.  So we went.

St Lucia has a small cafe area that goes for about two blocks.  Fasta Pasta sits on the nearest corner.  It was only a ten-minute drive away.  I thought we would simply buy a take-way, but Jeremy immediately sat at a table.  I reluctantly sat down with him.

“So, how far away is Toowoomba from here?” he asked me.

“140 ks up the mountains.”

“And how was life in Toowoomba?”

“I spent most of my high school days at home, while it seemed everyone else at school played sport.”

He smiled that smile.  It seemed to slowly develop, curling irresistibly at the sides of his mouth, then invade his whole face.  Somehow it made me feel calmer.  “I spent a lot of my time playing sport,” he said.  “Just to be part of the crowd.  I didn’t really enjoy the crowd, just sort of… did it.  I didn’t think of staying home instead.”

Didn’t he?  Or was he just being polite?

“What did you do at home?” he continued on.

“Oh, read.  Listened to music.  Played some.  The piano.  And, um… wrote some stuff.”

“Wrote?  Music?”

“Poetry mainly.  Some lyrics, sometimes.”

“I’d love to see them one day.  Could I?”

“I guess so…”

After we finished the meal he paid for it, which was very nice of him.  We got home in time to watch MIDSOMER MURDERS.  I had started watching that show on my own after Shelly left.  I would turn the lights out and slowly drink some wine.  Once the show started I felt the need to have the lights out again.  I suggested it, in what I hoped was a light-hearted way.  Jeremy didn’t seem to think it was weird.  So we did.  He happily shared the wine and enjoyed the show with me, sitting in the dark in the chair next to me, the light of the TV silhouetting his face.

The next Friday Jeremy came home from work, threw his keys and uni ID tag onto the kitchen bench, switched the TV on, sat down on the lounge beside me, clapped hands together, and announced: “Pizza?”

Once we settled in at Fasta Pasta he began to tell me about his work and his thesis.  He was due to begin a research master’s in Renaissance History next year, but had a part-time tutoring job for now.

“It’s meant to be part time but I’ve almost got a full-time teaching load, which includes tutoring in the various history courses. Whew, I’m so lucky.  Most universities only seem to teach economics these days, let alone any history, let alone my history.”

“Where did you do your undergraduate degree?”

“At Sydney Uni.  Not many places have Medieval or Renaissance history.  But I just love it.  Ah!  Fantastic period.  I fantasize about it.”  We both chuckled.

“I like history too, I majored in Ancient History.”

“Really?  I guess Michelle knew that.  That’s why she recommended your flat.”

Yeah, I guess so.

“Do you fantasize about Ancient History?” he asked.  I just smiled at him.  “That’s a great period to fantasize over too,” he said, and chuckled.

Our pizza came and we ate in a comfortable silence for a while.

“So, not much work in Ancient History?” he asked.

“No, I guess not.  I sort of really would love to have done Archaeology.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Oh well, not much work.”

He grinned with a mouth full of pizza.  Even then, his grin seemed to light up his whole face.  He looked like a leprechaun.

“Safe, eh?” he said.

“What?”

“Librarian work.  It’s safe.  I mean…”  He seemed to be searching for the right thing to say.  “It’s more reliable, a safer option.”

“Well, yeah.”  Safer than travelling to the Pacific Islands, or the Mediterranean, alone, just me.  “And working out in the Northern Territory didn’t really attract me.”

He laughed.  He accepted my explanation.

“But hey, why not do it still?  There’s a grad dip in Archaeology at UQ.  Why not go for it?  You’ve got your library quals now to fall back on.”

“I dunno.”

He watched me for a while as I picked at the pizza.

“The fear is taking the risk,” he continued.  “It’s hard, I know.  I learnt in my last year of school to take the risk.  Bloody hard.  Terrifying.  But in the end I’m glad I did it.  Better than staying in the space I was in.”

We ate in silence, he looking off into his past.  I wasn’t game to ask questions.  But he soon jolted himself out of it and turned back to me.

“Anyway, why not have a think about it, Nick?”

Maybe.

The next week I was on the desk at work deeply concerned with some problem on the computer when I heard a library user come up to the counter.  I delayed looking up for a moment, then heard a quiet and silky “Well hello there, Nick.”

It was Jeremy.  Uncontrollably I broke into a wide grin and he returned it with his elvish smile.  “If you greet all your customers beaming like that,” he said, “you must be the most popular library in Brisbane.”  I blushed and tried to look away, but couldn’t keep myself from looking back.

“Now Nicko, I have the afternoon off, so thought I’d drop by and see what you get up to when I’m away.  While I’m here, I wonder if you have any light novels set in Renaissance Italy, and not The Da Vinci Code.  Ugh!”  I helped him search for some novels, although it is hard to find novels on a particular subject.  But he seemed just happy to browse, and he spent hours there, wandering about the library.  When it was time for my afternoon tea we went out together and had coffee in a nearby cafe.

“It’s a gorgeous city, Nick.  So warm.  So quiet.  So small.”

I laughed.  “Compared to Toowoomba it’s huge.”

He grinned at me.  I felt warm inside.  Was it the coffee? or the sunshine?

“It’s small, and nice and peaceful and quiet compared to sprawling, smoggy, sooty Sydney.  Yes, I think I’m going to like it here,” he said.  He was still grinning at me as he said it.  I turned my face and looked into the sunshine, closing my eyes and letting it wash over me.

The next day I sat up in bed and looked out the window.  It faces east, so I usually have the thick curtains drawn tight to shut out the invasive morning sun, but this morning I pulled the curtains open and let the light flood in.  It fell across my bed inviting me to a warm, sunny and carefree Saturday morning.  I stretched, and took a long deep breath.  I was happy.  It caught me by surprise, but I was actually looking forward to spending the day just hanging out with Jeremy.  Thoughts of corny all-American-boys’ stories of blood brothers and kindred spirits came to mind.  I laughed at the silly notion, but I was still happy.

* * *

Over the next few weekends we tried different restaurants, and movie shows, then Jeremy said he wanted to try a night-club in the city.  Once in there I grabbed a cocktail I didn’t know anything about and sat at the table with Jeremy.  The noise whirled around me and the yelling of people speaking over the top of it seemed to reverberate in my ears.  And there were so many people.  Happy boys and girls dancing and laughing.  And sad boys and girls yelling and screaming.  Either way, there were boys and girls who were used to this and who came here every week and who knew what to do and who weren’t sitting there clutching their drink and feeling sick.  Jeremy stayed with me.  He didn’t peer around searching for other people to talk to or dance with, he kept focused on me.  At one stage he patted my hand.  He must have seen how uncomfortable I felt.  The warmth of his touch in contrast to the coldness I felt from the strangers in the room was like a thick blanket being wrapped around me.  I smiled at him.  I tried to pretend I was OK, but he asked, “Want to go home?”  I nodded.

On the way home I thanked him. “That’s… not really my thing, those places.  I…”  He watched me for a while.  He looked a little confused at first, but then gave a little smile.

Once at home he poured me a drink, but I declined it.  “I really think I might just go off to bed,” and I headed down to my room.  He stood in the lounge room watching me, still holding the wine glass.

The next Friday I came home after the heaviest of days at work, and collapsed onto the couch.  Jeremy wasn’t home yet, for the house was quiet except for the drone of traffic in the background.  If Jeremy had been home the house would have had some music playing, or the TV on.  Never just nothing.

I enjoyed the peace.  I grabbed a cup of Milo and my book and sat down in the quiet of the lounge room.  But I soon drifted off to sleep.  I knew Jeremy would wake me once he came home by immediately switching on something electronic, without even knowing I was there.  “Oh, sorry man,” I could just hear him say.

But I didn’t ever hear it.  I awoke about two hours later.  The sun had set and the flat was in darkness.  Jeremy must not have been home yet.  In my erratic and confused thinking on first waking, I felt a sudden fear pierce me that something must have happened to him.  A car accident.  The fear woke me immediately.  With a clearer head I realized he was probably working late or doing research in the library.  Or maybe he had gone out without me.  Na.  Who would he have gone with?

I sat up and rubbed my eyes open, then fumbled my way to the kitchen and flicked on the light. .  The fear was still in my stomach that something horrible had happened to him.  I couldn’t eradicate the spectre of staring down at his white, unmoving, unbreathing face, with his eyelids closed over those dark brown eyes.

I shook my head to release the image.  He’d be back soon.  I wanted to switch on the TV just to fill the silence.  The remote control lay on the bench which separated the lounge room from the kitchen.  I reached over to grab it, and saw Jeremy’s ID card lying next to it, where he always puts it when he is at home.  Had he forgotten it in the morning?  He would have come home to get it if he had, surely.  We only lived fifteen minutes from the uni.

I went to his room, trying to walk slowly.  If he was home that was great, then he was all right.  Yes, I should be pleased.  Yes, I was, but… why had he not woken me?

I knocked on his door.  No answer.  I knocked a little louder.  Still nothing.  I eased open the door.  I would just peek inside to see if perhaps he was asleep too.  The light from the hallway showed me inside his room.  I saw the messy, opened-drawer look of someone who had hastily changed his clothes. His blue striped shirt, the one I remembered clearly he had worn in the morning, lay discarded on the bed.  His trousers were in a heap on the floor, just above his work shoes.  His wardrobe door was open.

He had gone out.  He had come in while I slept, changed his clothes, and left again, without me.  At least he had shown the decency not to switch on the TV while I slept.  Which meant he knew I was there.  Which meant he knew he was going out without me.

Who was he with?  Why did he think I would prefer to sleep rather than go out with him?  Didn’t he want to go out with me?  I wandered back to the darkened lounge room and slumped into the chair, and stared at Jeremy’s ID card.

He had left without me.

I told myself I should go out too.  But where?  Maybe I could go and see Shelly, but she’d probably be out with Michael, or, worse still, in.  I ended up sitting glumly watching TV, with the light out, drinking beer.  I started to feel drunk.  I ordered a pizza but couldn’t eat it all on my own.  I hid the remains of it in the back of the fridge.  I moved on to drinking wine, and watched the foreign films on SBS.  I didn’t want to go to bed.  The bedrooms seemed too quiet and lonely.  I stayed up, feeling angry, and feeling stupid for feeling angry.

Eventually I heard him coming home.  I snapped off the TV, raced to clear up the mess, switched off the lights and headed to my bed.  I lay awake, eyes wide open, staring into the darkness, listening.  No sound – the silence was smothering me.  Eventually I heard his key rattle, scrape, and the door squeak open.  I heard his footsteps, him putting his keys down, something dumped on a chair – his jumper – and then him whistling. Whistling!  A stumble, a giggle, a burp.  Footsteps, a bump, a door open, silence.  Then the splash of his urine against the porcelain of the toilet.  I buried my head under the bedclothes, but strained with my inner ears.  The splashing stopped.  Flushing, running water from a tap.  Footsteps, then humming.  He was humming! Then I heard his bedroom door open and close.  A click, then a small amount of light filtered into my room from underneath his closed door.  He was being considerate enough – again – not to wake me by flashing a blinding incandescent light into my face.

Considerate!  Why hadn’t he been considerate enough to take me with him?

I twisted around in bed all night, worried about my possible hangover, worried about why I was so upset over this.  Because I knew no-one else to spend the evening with?  Had he only been spending time with me because he was new in town, and now he had stretched his wings and was going out with others, friends from his work?  Or a woman?  That only made me feel lonelier.  Here I was clinging to some sort of adolescent best-buddies friendship while he was out mating, as any adult would. What could he have thought of me?

In the morning I was hideously embarrassed about how I had reacted the previous night, and about my hangover.  My head felt like it had been sat on by an elephant, and I knew that if I moved too much I might want to throw up. What would I tell the party boy?

Through the haze of my headache, I heard him whistling again.  How could he?  Why was he so happy when I wasn’t?  It made my stomach curl up into a tiny knotted ball.  Everything felt gloomy and depressing.

His whistle grew louder; suddenly it was inside my room and he stood in front of me, his dressing gown hanging open showing his smooth chest and boxer shorts.  I peered up at him through my half-closed lids.  He had that twinkly look in his eyes and that impish grin.  Suddenly I hated him for it.

“Hello there, sleepy head.  God, you were sleeping when I left you last night, sleeping when I got home, and sleeping now.”  He sat down on the bed, a concerned look on his face.  “Are you OK?”  He peered into my face, those brown eyes looking unflinchingly at me.  A streak of sunlight sneaked through my drawn curtains and cast a line of yellow-gold around his face.  I closed my eyes.  I was so happy to see him, yet angry for what he had put me through.

“Where did you go?” I whispered through a dry and cracked throat.

“Just out with some friends,” and he flicked his hand to dismiss the question.  “But what about you?”  He reached out a hand and touched it to my forehead.  God!  Nobody had done that to me since I was about eight!  I automatically flinched.  He drew his hand back quickly.

“Sorry,” he said.

“No, no, it’s OK.” I suddenly wanted to feel the touch of his hand on my skin again.  But he didn’t do it again.  Instead he moved back a little, his eyes avoiding mine.

“Are you sick?” he asked, a slight distance in his voice.

I grasped onto that excuse, because I did feel horribly sick.  “Yes.  Dunno what.”

“The beer last night wouldn’t have helped.”

“No.”  I gingerly shook my head.  “It didn’t.”  Well, it didn’t!  “I felt a little off-colour when I came home.”  A lie.  “And since you’d ditched me for someone else,” I said in as jocular manner as I could manage, “I thought I’d drown my sorrows in beer, but it just made me feel worse.”

I had expected him to grin and punch me in the shoulder.  But he didn’t.  He just gave a little embarrassed laugh.  And then the silence descended on us.

“Well, I suppose I better leave you alone then,” he said at last, and rose to go.

“Don’t go out again,” I called with the same joking tone I had used before.  “Don’t leave me again.”  But he just gave that same absent laugh and continued walking down the hall.  So I was abandoned again, with a raging hangover and a lie standing between us.  I felt I was unravelling.

I slowly made my way out of the bed and down to the lounge room.  He was sitting at the dining table eating his breakfast.  I collapsed into a lounge chair and tried again to ask him where he had been last night.  “Some friends from work?”

“Yeah,” he said absently, “and some friends of theirs.”

“Where’d you go?”

“Over to The Valley somewhere.”

“To a Chinese restaurant?” Brisbane’s Chinatown is in The Valley.

“Eh?  Ah, yeah.”

He so obviously didn’t want to talk about it that I had to drop it.  So he had friends, other friends, apart from me.  I regarded him for a while.  He kept his head bent over his breakfast plate during the whole conversation.  His ruffled reddy-brown hair hung in a loose moptop obscuring his face.  I drew in a quick, deep breath, then dragged myself out of the chair and went into the bathroom to start a shower.  Jeremy’s underpants were lying half in and half out of the dirty clothes basket – probably where they landed last night when he was wandering around in the dark getting ready for bed.  I picked them up to throw them in and I caught a familiar whiff.  Ammonia?  No!  I quickly chucked them in the basket.  So he had been out with a woman last night.  Why was he so secretive about that?

And why was I feeling so stupid about it?  I stood there with the shower running, letting valuable water run down the drain.  I looked over to his room, which stood near the bathroom.  The door was open.  I could see his abandoned shirt from last night.  I wondered if it smelt of perfume, if its collar was covered in lipstick.  I turned back and stared at the briefs again.  No doubt about that smell; I knew it from my own solitary nighttime activities.  If he had a girlfriend, then our schoolboy-buddy relationship was over.

I heard his footsteps moving from the lounge room toward the hall.  I quickly stepped into the shower.  But of course he didn’t come into the bathroom while I was there; he never did.

He made breakfast for me while I was in the shower.  I thanked him and sat down, very happy for the gesture.  But as I ate he left the room.  When I came later into the bathroom to clean my teeth I noticed he had cleared up all his laundry.  By the time I was properly dressed he was out of the flat.

From then on he never left his keys and ID card on the bench, nor left the TV on while out of the room.  He kept himself neat and tidy and contained, no more jocks left hanging loosely over the laundry hamper.  He barely stayed in the same room as me.  He’d sit in his own room and study.  The only time we really were together was to eat.  He was very polite, but barely looked me in the eye.

I was flabbergasted by his strong reaction to the whole event.  Especially since it didn’t feel like much had been said or done.  Was he really that upset that I had gotten myself drunk that night?  He couldn’t have had any idea what my reaction that night had been.

I raised the topic with him one evening over tea, to try and dispel it.

“You know, I wasn’t angry with you for leaving me at home.  Who’d want to go out with you anyway?”

He looked up briefly, but not long enough to make eye contact, then returned to his meal.

“That was a joke,” I said.

He just nodded.

“Really Jer, I was sick that night anyway.”

He nodded again.

I was grasping for something else to say when he said, “I knew you were; that was why I did it.”

My God, he was talking about it.  I grasped at it.  “That’s why you went out without me?  Well, yeah, that’s OK then.  I don’t mind.”

He stopped, put his knife and fork down, and looked directly at me for the first time in days.  “You don’t mind me going out without you?  Well, that’s good.  I didn’t ever think you would mind.  I mean, why would you?”

Why would I?  “Of course, that’s what I mean,” I said trying to cover my shame.  “So, what did you mean, then?”

“When?”

“When you said that was why you did it?”

He just stared at me, saying nothing.  Slowly he shook his head.  He began to pack up his dish.  “Doesn’t matter,” he mumbled, and stood up to leave the table.

“No, no, Jeremy, it does.  I want to know what has happened.  ’Cause frankly, I don’t understand.”   I followed him into the kitchen.

“Well, if you don’t understand it doesn’t matter.”

“Well it does if I don’t know.  ’Cause maybe whatever you think has happened didn’t really.”  If that made any sense.

Jeremy started to wash up his dishes.  Neat and tidy and contained, totally different to what he had been like.

“Don’t do that.  It doesn’t matter, leave them.”  I went to grab the dishes, and my hand grazed over the top of his.  I looked down at our hands on top of each other.  I rather enjoyed the feel of his warmth under my hand.  I was grateful to be within human range of him again.

He sighed, and slowly moved his hand away.  “I… I thought… what I meant was…”  He wiped his hand on the tea-towel.  “I knew you were sick.  I was just worried about you.  You looked pretty bad, I thought it was more than just a hang-over.  I simply went to feel your forehead to see if you had a temperature.”

“Yeah, I realised that, but what’s that got to do with all this?”

He looked up again. “Why did you pull away, then?”

I shrugged.  “I don’t know.  I just hadn’t had anyone do that since I was a kid,” I continued.  “That’s all.”

A bewildered look crossed his face.  But as quick as it came, it left.

“OK then, that’s good.  Excellent.  I just wanted you to know that.”  Then he smiled, a brief, tentative version of that gorgeous smile he’d always had before.  I couldn’t help but smile back, I was so glad to see it.  Then he blushed.  I just caught it before he quickly moved out of the room, not letting me see it anymore.  “I have to go, though.  Sorry,” he said.

At last we had made some sort of breakthrough, but now he was avoiding me again.  Maybe we hadn’t sorted out what had gone wrong, because he still didn’t know what had upset me that night, and I still didn’t understand what had upset him.  But at least he had smiled again.

He came out of his room with his jacket and keys.  As he headed for the front door I said, “I was hoping we could watch TV together tonight.”  I hadn’t planned to say that; it just came out.  He stopped walking and looked at me.  I looked at him a little embarrassed.  He gave a little half smile.  “You’d like to do that?”

“Yes.  MIDSOMER MURDERS is on tonight.  We used to have fun watching that.  It’s not half the laugh watching it alone.”

His eyes seemed to relax a little, and some of the guardedness in his face began to wane.

“Maybe tomorrow night,” I continued, “we could get a DVD?  Just spend a night at home for a change, like we used to.”

He nodded.  A slow little nod.  “OK, Nick.  If you would like to, I would too.”

We smiled at each other.

“But I have to go now, though.  Have a date.  I mean – ha!  You know, someone to meet.”

I nodded, and he left.  I didn’t know.  Did he have a date or was he hanging out with mates?  He never told me.  But I wasn’t going to let that upset me this time.  He said he’d stay home and watch a movie with me.  I was elated.

JeremyWO2large

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PART TWO

Slowly we tried to make our way back to where we were before.  Although Jeremy didn’t return to leaving his keys and wallet on the kitchen bench, he would sit up at night with me during the week and chat, and about one night out of every second weekend he’d order pizza and we’d sit in the dark and watch a DVD.  But I wondered if there wasn’t still some small distance there, or a wariness, or that his friendliness was forced.

He wouldn’t talk about where he went when he was out, or who he was with.  He’d dismiss it each time I tried to ask, pretending it wasn’t important.  So I stopped asking him.  If he didn’t want to tell me, if he didn’t want to invite me along, I didn’t feel right to badger him.

I started spending more time in my room.  I felt like I did at school when all the boys would go off at lunchtime to play football or cricket, and I’d be sitting eating my lunch alone.

One day at work, an invitation went around from the Head Librarian for a staff dinner.  Apparently it was a tradition for the staff to go out to a restaurant twice a year.  Most of the staff, especially those who had been there for years, either laughed about it or groaned at the imposition.  I was torn between being excited about an organised social event and being scared to face it.

We were booked at a major restaurant in The Valley on a Friday night.  I didn’t bother to tell Jeremy I was going out.
I met up with some of the party at a nearby carpark and we walked to the mall where the restaurant was.   On the way we all chit-chatted.  I was among people I worked with every day.  I talked to them at work, but now, in this situation, we were strangers again.  I suddenly regretted my decision to come.  I strayed to the back of the group letting the others go before me.

Along the way we passed a hotel with an attached nightclub.  Men milled outside waiting for the club to open.

“That’s a gay bar, that one,” one of my colleagues said.

“Yeah?  I remember it back in the 70s,” another said.  “It sure wasn’t then.”

“Well, you better not stare at it for too long now.  They may get the wrong idea.”  Laughter.

“Anyone you fancy there?”  More laughter.

But I didn’t turn my gaze away, because in front of the nightclub I saw Jeremy.

He saw me too.  He was standing among the crowd of men, and particularly close to one of them.  As I watched I saw his fingers slowly entwine with the other man’s.  He was still looking at me as he did so, almost as if he were challenging me.  But underneath I saw a note of fear.

Now I understood.  He turned his eyes away from mine and stared off distantly into space.  At that moment the club opened its doors.  The man whose hand he held moved, and briefly Jeremy looked back at me, then followed his partner in with the crowd.

I lay awake that night thinking of those two hands, watching Jeremy’s fingers twist around to hold the other man’s.  I felt a sudden, almost physical, desire for those fingers to be mine.  I wanted to know how it felt to hold Jeremy’s hand.  I wanted him to lean against me.  I wanted to sit together and watch TV with our bodies resting against each other.  I wanted to break that physical barrier between two men.  But how do you go up to a man and touch him, skin to skin?  How do you let a man know you want to hold him close, to feel his heart beat against your own?

Jeremy obviously knew.  But would he want to do it with me?  Or would he just want to have sex?  I clenched my eyes.  The thought of Jeremy touching me – my equipment – embarrassed me.  And the thought of me touching his – .  No!  I did not want to go there.

The next morning Jeremy was sitting quietly reading.  The room was deathly quiet.  I switched the TV on.

“Hello there,” I greeted him cheerfully.

He looked up and gave a nervous smile.

“Did you get through last night OK?” I asked.

His smile wavered.

“No hangovers?” I asked.  He was still unsure.  “I’m just trying to get my own back for my hangover, that’s all.”  And I punched him lightly in the arm.

He made a tentative attempt at his old cheery smile, but his eyes were wary.

“It’s OK, Jeremy,” I said, and sat down beside him.  We watched TV for a bit, and chatted haltingly.  I wanted to talk about last night, but couldn’t.  Eventually he found an excuse to get up and do something else.

We never spoke about the club.  At times I’d find myself watching his slender, small, almost elf-like body, and feel an emptiness, a grieving.  I kept thinking of his hand in the hand of the other man.  I kept thinking about the evenings we used to spend together.  With every night that he spent away I felt myself drift further from him.

* * *

I came home from work one day when spring was in the air.  The jacarandas were starting to blossom and the winter westerly wind had turned around.   You could almost feel the new life in the air.  I sighed deeply.  Spring could do whatever it wanted to try and cheer the world up; it could not work its magic on me.  I gathered the mail from the letter box and headed in.  Once in the flat I shut the windows and curtains.

Among the letters was one from James Coombs.  I sat on the lounge and stared at the envelope.  Jamie Coombs was the kid I used to sit next to in 4th class at school.  I only sat with him because I was placed there by the teacher to split Jamie up from his best friend Bryan.
Jamie was cool.  Not in a bad boy, smoking-in-the-toilets way.  Nor in a best-at-all-sports way.   Just in that sort of being born into it way.  He never had to work at it; he never lorded it over us all.  He could be friendly to the nerdy and the cool alike; it didn’t make any difference.  He could do his school work and not play sport and still be cool.  He went on to become school captain in our final year at high school, and here he was now, organising a five-year reunion.

So Jamie hadn’t written specifically to me.  I tossed the letter onto the coffee table.  Jeremy came home.  He walked over to the window and drew the curtains, letting in the offending spring sunshine.  He opened the window and drew in a breath.

“Wow.  You can smell the humidity in the air already.  I’m looking forward to summer.  To experiencing my first sub-tropical summer.”

I said nothing.

He turned back and sat on the arm of the chair near me.  He noticed the letter.  “You know this James?”

“Yeah.  I sat next to him at school.”

“He’s a friend?”

“It was in 4th class.  But… yeah.”
“So… are you going?”

I shrugged.  “I might.  Would you?  I mean, if it were yours?”

“No way.  Not unless Brett was going too.”

“Brett?  Was he your… um… best friend?”

“Dammit!  He was just a friend.  Just like your James!”  He got up and headed out of the room.

Just like James?  Had Brett been his boyfriend?  And did he think Jamie was mine?  I barely spoke to Jamie after 4th class.  In high school I was sort of friends with Andrew and Gavin.  Would they be at the reunion?  Maybe.  The thought of going back to my old school, to see all those people I never really knew…  But I had pretended that James was my friend.

I watched the empty space where Jeremy had been.  I had said the wrong thing to him again.  And again I didn’t know what or how or why.
I called out, “I will go.”

He poked his head back into the room.  “Huh?”

“I will go to the reunion.  It’ll be nice to see my old friends.”

He stared at me.  “I thought you said you didn’t have many friends at school.”

When had I said that?  Back in those dim dark days when we went out every weekend and Jeremy only spent time with me and I thought I had a best friend at last?  What was having a friend all about?  How did one make friends, keep friends?

“I had friends!  You’re not the only one who has friends.  And I might stay there for a week’s holiday too.  Good idea.  I could do with some time out of here.  Out of the city, I mean.”

Jeremy continued to stare at me, then moved back into the hallway without a word.

I applied for leave.  A week to go back to Toowoomba for the reunion and stay with my parents for a while.  Back home to sleepy Toowoomba, to Mum fussing over me and Dad chatting quietly over his newspaper and ABC TV current affairs.

I left Friday after work.  Jeremy helped me pack the car, patted me on the back and told me to drive safely.  I presumed he’d be out partying at some gay bar, so didn’t ask.  I’d have nine days at home.  I wouldn’t be back until the next Sunday.  Jeremy stood in the driveway as I left.  As I turned out of the street I could still see him in my rear-vision mirror.

Brisbane is on the plain near the coast. To get to Toowoomba you travel west across flat farmlands, pleasant and green, then hit the Great Dividing Range, and after a dramatic climb you find yourself immediately in Toowoomba.

Mum put on a roast for me, something I didn’t ever have in Brisbane.  She fussed over the meal, and Dad talked mildly about current political events.  It was nice.  It was calm.  It was predictable.  I made my way to my room feeling relaxed.  I lay down in my old bed, remembering Space Invader games, Power Rangers, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and drifted off to sleep.

The reunion was a Saturday night.  That morning I went with Mum to the supermarket.  I wandered about suggesting items to buy, enjoying being an adult shopping with my mother instead of a reluctant teen resenting every minute.  At the checkout I saw Wade.  He was behind the cash register.  How many old schoolboys were now working in the shops of my home town?  I looked the other way while the money was exchanged.

“Hi Nick.”

Had he spoken to me?  I turned and looked at him.

“How’s it going, mate?” I stared at him.  Mate?
When I was in Year 8 he and I had spent some Monday afternoons in metalwork class.  He was one of the smoking-in-the-toilets cool set.  But none of his friends were in this class, so he allowed himself to talk to me.  Then one afternoon he and his hangers-on cornered me on the back school oval.  They surrounded me and he attacked me bare-fisted.  He seemed to be genuinely angry with me over something, but had neglected to tell me what it was.  Once the ordeal was over I broke the greatest schoolboy code of all and told the Deputy Principal.  It worked.  Wade and his followers hated me for it, but they never tried to hurt me again.

Now here he was calling me ‘mate’.
“Whatya up to these days?” he asked.

“I’m a librarian at the Brisbane City Council Library,” I said abruptly, and left, without returning his pseudo-friendly smile.

After we walked out of the supermarket Mum said, without looking at me, “I hope he isn’t at the reunion tonight.”
The day drifted by too quickly.  Evening ultimately came and I had to make myself go to the reunion.  On one side of the hall was a long table.  We were expected to go up there to sign-in to some book.  Milling by it were various members of the good-at-sports cool crowd.

I wandered over to the drinks table and picked up a ready-poured wine, then turned around to start mingling.  My favourite occupation.  I scanned the room for Andrew or Gavin.  I couldn’t find them.  Gavin had gone down to New South Wales to study engineering, so I ought to have guessed he wouldn’t be there.

Most people were already talking to someone else.  I told myself that what I should do is go up and try to muscle-in on the conversations.  I flexed my muscles, then looked at the faces.  They all seemed to belong to the junior-school-council crowd or the I’m-studying-journalism crowd or the I backpacked-to-India crowd.  They all seemed to be with partners, girlfriends and boyfriends.  And all opposite-sex couplings, I noticed.  I looked over to the walls, seeking the sanctuary of the shadows and corners.

“Ah, Nicholas.  Happy to see a familiar face.”

Craig.  I’d forgotten about him.  Why had he come?  He used to hang around with me and Andrew a little.  We were the ones who attracted the total drop-outs from the pack.

“Hi Craig.”  He stuck to me, talking incessantly about computer hardware and aircraft carriers.  I let him talk, not interested in either topic and having nothing to add but the occasional nod when his unblinking stare got too much for me.

Lisa, the blonde pin-up girl of the class, walked past.  He called out a hello to her, but she ignored it.  Then out of Craig’s lips came a slew of invectives against almost every girl in the class.  I watched in amazement.  I couldn’t help myself; I had to ask: “Do you feel the same way about all the boys?”

“Yes!  Most of them are shits too.”  He kept staring after Lisa, then slowly turned around to me.  “What the fuck was that supposed to mean?  Are you implying that I’m a bloody poofter?  Shit!”  And he stormed off.

I watched him walk away then felt the rest of the crowd close up around him, leaving me on the outer.  I went back to the drinks table.

“Nick.  Nice to see you could come.”  It was Jamie.  He came up and shook my hand.  I stared at the conjoined hands.  I thought only people over thirty shook hands, or politicians.

“Hi Jamie, and… Kirsty.”

“Hi Nick,” Kirsty said.  “Glad to see you here.  You must come over to the sign-in table and fill in your details.”

“Yes, and let us know what you have been doing since you left school,” Jamie said.  “We are going to put out a newsletter to everyone with the information.  And it can go out to those who couldn’t come.  Speaking of which…  Do you have any contact details for Andrew Banner?  I couldn’t find him, and I know you and he were friends.”

I shook my head.  He and I had never maintained contact after we left school.  “We just sat together in Maths.”

“Oh.  I thought you were good friends.  Anyway, tell me what you are doing these days?  Do you have a job?”

I mumbled something about libraries and the city.  They both nodded politely.  I doubt they could really hear me over the noise of the music.

“That sounds good Nick.”  Jamie said.  “Myself, I finished my communications degree at Charles Sturt Uni and now have a job on the news team at Channel 9.”

Fantastic.  I tried to smile politely.

Kirsty told me something about sport and some training facility she went.  I nodded appropriately.

“Are you here with anyone?” Jamie continued.  “Do you have a partner?”   I shook my head.

“As you can see, James and I are now married,” Kirsty said.

Kirsty had been the girl school captain.  Blonde, sporty, good public speaker, played the lead role in the school production.  The perfect girl.  They were married?  Already?  I shook my head in disbelief.  I had always found her boring.  But I never really knew her, of course.

“When you get the chance, do come on over to the table, as Kirsty said, and sign the book.  I have to check on some others, but we’ll see you ’round.”  And he was gone.  I watched him also disappear into the crowd.  Gone forever.  Despite his parting promise, I doubt I would ever see James Coombs again.

I looked around the whole room.  All the beautiful people with their beautiful partners.  The room felt cold, the people seemed to be standing in the distance, as if in a haze.  I wanted to be home; in Brisbane.  It beckoned to me–    the warmth of sitting in the dim light of the lounge room of my flat, watching a DVD.  With Jeremy.

I put my glass down on the table and headed away from the crowd, toward the front of the hall.  No-one took any notice of me leaving.
In the morning I sat at the breakfast table with Dad.  He was reading the paper.  “How did the reunion go?” he said absently from behind the paper.

“Good.”  I ate my cereal in silence and he continued reading.

Mum came over with some coffee and sat down.  “You were home early.”  I had slipped into the house and gone quietly to my room, but Mum and Dad were still up.

“Oh well, there weren’t a lot of people there who I knew.  I mean, friends.”

She sipped her coffee.  “Gavin is still in New South Wales.”

I nodded.  The birds chirped outside and the cat, sitting on a nearby chair, twitched her ear at the sound.

“I hear he is getting married,” Dad said as he turned a page of his newspaper.  Mum frowned in his direction then looked at me and smiled.

“Plenty of time, Nick.”  She had always said this.

I politely excused myself and went to my room.  I lay down on my bed and stared at the painted weatherboard ceiling.  The image of all those opposite-sex pairs at the reunion kept replaying in my head.  Were there any girls from school that I liked? That I’d be happy to be with? There was a girl at school called Rhianna.  She spent a lot of time reading books, even during class.  She had a shock of frizzy, light-brown hair, and looked a bit like a hippie.  But was it her looks–    her body–    that I was interested in, or just her apparent indifference to the others?  She seemed to have chosen to be alone, rather than having been left alone.  I wondered if that were the case.  Of course she wasn’t at the reunion.

I rolled over and gazed at the window.  It looked out on the neighbours’ back yard, but they had such huge trees that all I could ever see were leaves.  I got off the bed and went over to the window, drawing the curtains.  The trees were gone and had been replaced with low bushes.  I could now see out to the rooftops of the whole neighbourhood.  I opened the window and took a long deep breath, sucking the spring air into my lungs.

I went out to a cafe for coffee and sat there alone, as usual.  I feared I would see someone from the reunion.  But I didn’t.  Maybe they were still sleeping off their hangovers.

I watched the people walking past.  A group of youths passed by in baggy pants hanging down to their knees, revealing their underjocks.  With them were girls wearing jeans too tight for their ample figures.  An old man shuffled along in slippers and a tattered cardigan that must have been forty years old.  A young mum pushed a pram, wearing old trackies and a milk stained t-shirt.  A fat, sweating family man taking his children down for a dough-nut, wheezing under the strain of so much physical activity.  A woman with bleached blonde straightened hair and thick makeup clattered along in dangerously high stiletto shoes.  A beer-gutted factory out-of-worker, headed for the pub.   A thirty-something tradesmen came past in his gardening shirt and shorts, with toned tanned legs ending in solid heavy boots.  His face was half-shaven, lean, with keen eyes that alighted on me and stopped for a brief second before moving on.
I stared down at my coffee.
I went home and packed my bag.

“I thought you were staying all week?” Mum asked.  I shook my head.  “Sorry.  I…  There were really none of my friends at the reunion.  I dunno Mum.”  She nodded as if she understood.  Maybe she did.  She hugged me and told me to come again for another weekend.  Dad shook my hand.

I headed back down the mountain to Brisbane.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to go there, but I didn’t want to stay in the empty shell of my youth either.

By the time I reached Taringa and turned into my street the sun was starting to set.  My flat was in darkness.  No surprise.  But I was disappointed.  Then I was disappointed at being disappointed.

I unlocked the door.  Inside was full of shadows.  I flicked lights on and headed to the kitchen.  I started preparing a snack, putting on toast and getting margarine from the fridge.  As I put it on the bench, I noticed Jeremy’s keys and wallet.  So with me gone he had returned to his old habits.  I looked about.  Where was he?  In the shower, no doubt, just getting ready to go out.  But I didn’t hear any running water.  A small panic gripped me–    again.  Was he OK?  I headed toward his bedroom to look for him.  I placed my hand on his door handle, about to turn it and peep in to see if he were just asleep, but as I did I heard a muffled sound coming from my own room.  Crying?  I started heading down there before I knew what I was doing.  Had he injured himself?  I was outside the door when I suddenly realised it might not be crying, that he was probably in there with his lover.  I backed away.  To think I might have walked in on that!  The image couldn’t help but pass through my head.  Penises being shoved into arseholes.  Jeremy’s into his, or worse still, his into Jeremy’s.  Jeremy lying on my bed with his legs waving in the air, and him holding his huge red throbbing dick, about to force it into Jeremy.

I shuffled back quickly, wanting to get out of there.  Of course I made too much noise.  The sound from the bedroom stopped.  I stopped.  All I could hear was my heart.

“Nick?”

Jeremy’s voice.  It sounded raspy.  Was he sick?  Or in the middle of an orgasm?  I didn’t answer.  I tried moving back to the lounge room again.

“Nick?  Are you home?”  Definitely raspy.  No whispers.  No bending of mattress springs.

“Yeah.  Sorry to… disturb you.”  I went into the lounge room and shut the door to the hallway, switched on the TV and tried to pretend all was right with the world.

I had sat through two minutes of the Channel Nine sports report and five minutes of mind-numbing ads when the door opened.  Jeremy came out, alone.  I tried to peer down the hallway, but he closed the door.  I turned back to the news.  There was no back door down that part of the flat, so loverboy would have to hide in a closet.

Jeremy stood in the room, looking at me.  I kept staring at the TV, not taking anything in.

“You’re home early.”

I didn’t take my gaze off the TV.

“I’m sorry I was sleeping in your room,” he said.  I shrugged, pretending I didn’t care, my ears pricked for the sound of any other bodies in the house.  But all was silence.

Jeremy stood there for a while longer, then he finally shuffled over and sat on the lounge near me.  He was sniffling.

“You OK?”  I asked.  Before he could answer I asked again, “You got a cold?”

He shook his head.  “You’re home early.”  Then the tears came back.  He couldn’t control his crying.  “I’m so glad to see you.”  And the tears poured out.

Oh, my God.  What should I do?  I stared at him, his shoulders heaving.  I wanted to reach out and touch him.  My body urged me to move, but my stubborn brain stopped me.

“Are…?  Did you…?  Boyfriend troubles?”

That made his tears flow more.  I was about to turn back to the TV when he said.  “No.  That’s not the matter.  I don’t care about the ‘boyfriend’.  He’s just a fuck buddy.  I don’t care.”

We sat there, him crying and me staring.  I turned off the TV.  Silence replaced it.  His crying steadied to a gentle sob.  Light sounds of traffic could be heard.  The room was growing in darkness as the sun set.  Only the kitchen light lit the room, casting strong shadows.  The smell of my toast filled the air.

His crying had almost stopped and become a gentle sniffle.  “I missed you.” he said.

I stared at his bowed head.  “You missed me?”

He looked up at me.  “Yes.  I don’t mean it in any sort of creepy sexually perverse way.  But yes, I admit it.  I like you–    as a guy.  I think you are cute, and really bloody sweet, and for a while I had hoped you were gay too, but you’re not and that’s ok with me.  I could cope if we could be just friends again like we were, but you won’t allow that, so…”

“I won’t allow it?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh, Jeremy!  I don’t have a problem with you being gay.”

He stared out into nothing, just frozen, his face lit by the strong light of the kitchen cutting into the darkness of the lounge room.  His slightly tipped-up nose, his lips, pink from the crying, and his red-brown hair ruffled from the bed.  Then he started crying again.

My body won out.  I reached over and hugged him before my mind could stop me.  I circled my arms around him, pulling him against me. My hands slipped along his back, feeling the gentle play of muscle and bone.  He rested his head on my shoulder and I felt the warm tears against my shirt, soaking in, the moisture against my skin.

 

“The way you stared at me at the club in The Valley,” he said.  “The way you couldn’t talk to me anymore.”

I kept holding him, pulling him closer, tighter.  I felt his breath against my neck, the warmth coming and going.  “When I saw you at the club I thought you didn’t want to be friends anymore,” I said.

He looked up at me in surprise.  His face was inches from me, the tears glistening in his eyes.  “I didn’t want you?  Why did you think that?”

“’Cause of the way you…  All your tidying up.  You changed.  You kept going out.”

“I did that so I wouldn’t annoy you, you know, get in your way.”

I looked into his eyes, so close.  I wanted to reach out and touch his face.  “Jeremy.  You don’t get in my way.  I want you around.  I thought you were bored with me.  You started going out.  I thought you didn’t want to be with me.  Why would you?  I’m a nothing.  A little nerdy nothing.”

“You’re not a nothing!”  He stared at me.  “Why do you think that?”  Then he slowly smiled, that enchanting elvish grin.  It invaded his eyes; it lit up his face.  It invaded my face.  I couldn’t stop myself from smiling back.

“Nick.  Do you… do you want to be with me?”

My stomach was dancing madly.  That familiar temptation to run threatened to take me over, but I took a deep, deep breath, and nodded.  “I’m not sure just how, or how much or…  But, yes, I want you, Jeremy.”

He hesitated.  “And it’s all right for me to touch you?”

I nodded.

He slipped his arms around my waist.  The feel of his warm arm, circling me, holding me close, was delicious.  My body relaxed against him.  “Nick,” I heard him whisper into my neck.

****

(c) Alex Hogan 2009

****

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