Zack

by Nikolaos Thiwerspoon

Illustrated by Zaza

[This story first appeared in Forbidden Fruit]

.
“Jackson’s Creek College – Class of 1995 Reunion.” The banner stretched across the front of the Great Hall, where for six years we’d met each morning for an uplifting speech, an inspirational reading and all the other things schools think are necessary for the development of character and intellect in their charges.

For a moment, I felt sick with terror. My stomach churned and twisted. I wanted to vomit. It had been twelve years, years when I’d changed a lot, when I’d come to terms with what I am. And now I was going to meet people who hadn’t seen me since that awful day.

****

Debbie had phoned a few weeks before. “Gabie, they’re having a reunion at the madhouse. The inmates are invited…”

“…No!” I knew that I had to interrupt her before she got into full swing. Debbie has always managed to persuade me to do things I don’t want to. Sometimes they turned out all right. But sometimes they were… unfortunate. This would be one of the latter. I knew it in my bones.

“Gabe…” Debbie put on her special voice. “I’ll be with you, darling. I’ll protect you from him.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of!” I had a terrifying vision of Debbie bashing Zack with her handbag. Or her shoe. Or her flute case.

“It’s time you faced up to him, Gabie-babe. Time to get over it, put it behind you.”

“Bleh.”

“Look, you won’t have to even talk to him. There are all the others too. Mick, Angela, Jerro, Bert – all of them would like to see you again.”

“I came out. They don’t fucking want to know me. I’m gay, Debs.”

“I know that, you dill. But they do want to see you again.” Which meant she’d been talking to them. Great. “Ah, c’mon, Angel. Please?”

The Angel Gabriel – our old joke. I don’t think gay angels exist – never mind go to heaven. My parents had made that abundantly clear. I knew she was using her personal nickname for me deliberately, to show again that it was all right to be me, to be gay. She detested my parents. But then I hadn’t spoken to them for twelve years, either. It still stings, being cut off like that, even though you know it’s pointless, that they will never listen, that they are impervious to reason and sense. I felt a little warmth unfold in me at Debbie’s words. All the same, I had no intention of going. Some things are best left in the past.

She was still talking.

“Aw, Gabie. They’ll be glad to see you.”

“Debbie…” I put a bit of backbone into my voice. “No!

****

So here I was. I wondered if I’d be sick or have diarrhoea. Debbie would probably come and find me in the bogs, if I did. Anyway, she was right. I couldn’t hide forever. Fuck them. I was proud and out and it was time they all accepted it. The sentiment didn’t cheer me up at all.

“Gabe!” It was Debbie, looking glamorous. She was wearing a little black dress and black high-heel shoes, and didn’t look at all like the mother of three children. I had seen her with baby greps on her shoulder and all down her back; I’d seen her with black bags under her eyes big enough to pack the clothes for a Paris trip, dressed in trackie dakkies and trainers with untied laces. Tonight she looked lovely, svelte and sexy and gorgeous. She flung her arms round me.

“You came!”

“Yeah?” I made it sound as if of course I’d come.

Debbie gave me a look. “Come on.” She clasped my hand in hers and dragged me up the steps into the Great Hall.

“Where’s Brad?”

“At the bar, probably,” replied Debbie, dryly. She led me over to a table in one corner of the room. The school band was playing jazz, something quiet. I listened for a moment. The pianist was pretty good. The girl on double bass was superb. Jackson’s Creek High was renowned for its music programs.

Around the table were the people who’d once been my friends, good friends, whom I hadn’t seen since that night twelve years ago. Mick, who’d married Angela, the girl he’d been going out with at school. Jeremiah, also with a woman. I took a quick look at their ring fingers. Yep, married, a supposition which was confirmed when Jeremiah introduced her. On the other side of the table, Angus and his childhood sweetheart, Grace; and Debbie and Brad. Brad had become a good friend too. We weren’t soul mates like Debbie and I were, but we were close. He was a top bloke. I’d grown to like him immensely since Debbie had first started going out with him. I sometimes wondered whether he was jealous of our relationship, though he gave no sign of it, perhaps because Debbie was an only child. I think he saw me as more her brother than anything.

At the next table, there were Bert and Sean and Hugh, good friends once, with their partners and two other couples I didn’t know well. The three men came over to shake my hand and introduce their wives.

I was the only one by myself.

Everyone seemed glad to see me again, and no one said a word about the fact that I hadn’t been in touch, or that I was alone, or mentioned the drama and scandal of twelve years ago. The elephant in the room was ignored.

Unclean! Unclean! I felt I was wearing a flashing sign.

I sat down and poured myself a glass of champagne from the bottle on the table. The quicker I got drunk the better. I knew I shouldn’t have listened to Debbie. I shouldn’t have come. I’d get through it and go home.

There was one place empty next to me. I thought nothing of it – there were an even number of chairs round each table, and because I’d come without a partner, an odd number of guests. I looked surreptitiously round the room, hoping both that Zack was there, and, with equal fervor, that he wasn’t. I couldn’t see him. I relaxed a little. I’d get drunk. Debbie and Brad were used to me sleeping over. There was a spare bed in their guest room made up for me. I could fetch my car from the school car park tomorrow.

I was seated facing in, toward the dance floor and the band. So I only knew something was up when I saw all the faces at my table turn toward the door. I turned, too, and saw him.

Zack looked as handsome as ever in his dinner jacket, better perhaps, the boyish slimness and softness transformed into the muscularity of a man, his curly blond hair as rich and glossy as it had been at school, his shoulders broad and his stomach flat. Only the lines cut into his face showed his age – and they made him look distinguished and manly. He scanned the room and made his way towards my table. When he started to sit down at the empty place next to me, I was filled with fury. I stared across the table at Debbie, so angry I wanted to hit her. I knew she’d planned the whole thing. She had her puppy-dog look on. Her eyes pleaded with me. I glared at her, refusing to be mollified.

Once again there were introductions. Except that Debbie didn’t introduce Brad to Zack, which I only remembered later, when it was too late to matter. Zack and I, though, needed no introduction. Just as well. I couldn’t speak. Not without giving away how I felt. I stared down at my plate.

Zack sat down next to me. “Hey.” That was what he had said the very first time he saw me, on the first day of high school. My throat locked up. For a moment I was quite unable to utter a single word.

When I could, I replied, “Zack,” trying to give nothing away. I turned to look at him. I couldn’t read the expression in his eyes. My heart plummeted into my guts the way it always had. I felt myself begin to color, which made me even angrier. I looked away, my jaw set, my throat tight.

****

The three musketeers – Zack, Gabe and Debbie. We’d met on the first day of high school. We all sat at the same table during home group. You meet people who come to mean the world to you, quite by chance. If I’d sat at another table, been assigned to another home group… Would it have happened with Mick? With Angus?

“Hey,” Zack had said to me as he sat down, that first day. He told me afterwards that he’d watched as the color rushed into my face. He thought my shyness was endearing, that I needed protecting, which I did, though he can’t have known how much and what from.

“Hello,” said Debbie coolly, inspecting him. “I’m Debbie.” She waited, staring at Zack with a calm assumption of natural superiority. Later her self-possession used to amuse me, then I simply envied her. How I wished I was like that.

“I’m Zack.”

They both turned to look at me.

“Gabe,” I muttered, turning even redder, and hating myself.

“Hey!” Zack said again. “What specials are you doin’ here?”

“Flute and saxophone. And you?” Debbie was prompt.

“Nothin’ really. Footy.” Zack grinned. I could see he was embarrassed not to be studying any music. That was J.C.H.’s forte.

“Cool. Me too.” I smiled at Zack, feeling better already. I’d been dreading going to footy practice alone.

“Are you doin’ music, too?” Zack looked into my face. One couldn’t help noticing Zack’s eyes. They were extraordinarily beautiful. The thick dark lashes set off a glorious turquoise – somewhere between blue and green, sparkling like glass in the sun. The light sprinkling of freckles on his nose filled me with a feeling I was to identify only much later. He was so handsome. I, on the other hand, was – am – plain. My hair is thick and dark brown, with only a slight wave in it. It least it hangs well after it’s been cut. My eyes are a soft brown. They’re sort of triangular, with my eyebrows sloping down a little. Zack’s eyebrows curled up, like angels’ wings, straw and gold against his lightly tanned skin. His hair had a natural internal shine to it. It never seemed greasy or mousy. Even after a hard night’s drinking he looked gorgeous.

“Yes,” I answered. “Violin. And piano.” I didn’t want to boast. This was a new school. Maybe I’d be happy here. I didn’t tell the others till much later that I’d won a scholarship to J.C.H. because of my musical ability, that without that I’d never have gone there. My parents would never have paid for a private school if it had been up to them. There was a bitter time when I thought that maybe it would have been better for all concerned if I hadn’t won the scholarship.

Sometimes you connect instantly. It hasn’t happened before or since to me. The three of us became best friends, without any intervening period when we were mere acquaintances. At least, that’s how it seems to me now. I don’t recall any slow development of friendship, any gradual growth in mutual affection and love. In my memories, it appears from nowhere, full grown and perfect.

We lived in each others’ pockets. We had sleep-overs at each others’ homes. Not at mine, naturally, but my parents were always glad enough to get me off their hands. I wonder if you ever get over the gap that your parents’ hatred leaves in you. Maybe I filled that opening in my heart, in my soul, with Debbie and Zack – and with their parents. They took me in. I don’t know what the rumors were around town, but Dorothea, Zack’s mother, and Jack and Helene, Debbie’s parents, made me feel as welcome as if their homes were mine.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI wasn’t much good at footy, but the school insisted we all do some sport. The rules had been laid down by the eccentric millionaire who left his mansion for use as a school for the promotion of arts and classics. Being a Victorian, he’d also believed in the old dictum, mens sana in corpore sano, so sport was compulsory. But I was really hopeless at footy. No matter how hard I worked out, how far I ran, my body remained as thin and scrawny as ever. And I was wholly uncoordinated. Zack, though, was a whiz at footy – quick and aggressive. He had a jock’s body, with broad shoulders and long lean muscles. He used to cover for me on the field, and coached and encouraged me off it. I helped him with Greek and French. All three of us did Maths together, because we all sucked at it. We’d lie on the floor or the bed in one or other of our bedrooms, listening to a pop station on the radio, sucking pencils and talking and gossiping and complaining about our homework burden. I think those were the happiest times I ever had.

There were unhappy times too. Like when I was about sixteen, the day my father lost his temper and beat me senseless. When I didn’t come to school the next day, Zack and Debbie both phoned to find out why. I couldn’t tell them. I was ashamed of my family. I was ashamed of being beaten up. I felt that if I’d been stronger, manlier, I’d’ve fought back. My father is a big man, powerful. When I was a small boy, I’d been proud of him in church, where his bass would soar over the rest of the congregation. At that age, I thought what he did to me happened in every family, and that in some dim way I deserved it. Zack came round, and saw me: bruises, black eyes, and broken nose. I begged him not to say anything. I was terrified of being taken away from my parents, of being put in a home. But most of all I was ashamed.

Zack was white with anger. I felt he was angry with me, and when he saw that, for the first time since we’d become friends, I saw tears in his eyes. He threw his arms around me and hugged me. He rubbed his cheek against mine. “Not angry with you, mate. Never with you.” Of course, that wasn’t true, either.

I didn’t go back to school for a few days. I didn’t go visiting either. When I did go see Zack at his place, his mum Dorothea, quite casually, but with the lack of emphasis that made her words the more real, said, “If you ever need a place to stay, Gabriel, you know where to come.” Obviously Zack had told her, and had also told her that I didn’t want anything done about it. I’d told him how I planned to escape. My music would take me out of there. Thinking about it later, when I had to do my own budgets and earn my own living, I realised just how generous her offer had been. She was a widow, and worked long hours at Coles supermarket to pay for Zack’s school fees. The last thing she needed was another starving teenager in her home. I suppose it’s just as well – and supremely ironic – that when I did need her help, I couldn’t stay in her house. It was Debbie’s parents who took me in.

****

“I have all your discs.” It was Zack.

I took a large swallow from my flute of champagne before I turned to look at him. “Oh.”

“I like the Chopin #1, the one you did with the L.S.O.”

Zack hadn’t really cared for classical music at first. But he’d turned out to have a good voice, especially for popular songs. I used to accompany him. There’s a special skill to doing that well, and if you are connected, it’s even better. It’s marvellous, magical. It’s as if music is a language, a language of emotion that links you without words. It was when I was playing and he was leaning on the piano, singing, and looking down at me his eyes sparkling with affection and pleasure that I first knew in my heart what I felt for him, and what I was. We even started a jazz group, me on keyboard, Debbie on sax, Zack doing vocals, Angus electric bass guitar and Mick clarinet.

I looked at him. I identified the expression in his eyes. It was sorrow. And regret.

“Thank you.” I was polite. We had never been polite to each other. Politeness is a cover for real feelings, whatever they are, a social lubricant used with strangers. Once, if he’d said that, I’d have just shrugged it off, or smiled, or punched his shoulder gently. Praise from him had always embarrassed me, about as much as it pleased me. Now I was angry. Why did he have to make things so difficult? Why not just ignore me or be polite but distant? So much water under the bridge. I had been in love with him, and he hadn’t been in love with me. He hadn’t even been attracted to me. He was straight, and that was that.

I turned to Angela on my left. “Been a while, huh?” I’d learned the art of small talk sitting with rich and powerful donors in my dinner jacket, longing to be gone, my mind far away.

She gave me a little smile, wistful, filled with nostalgia. “Yeah. I’m glad you came, Gabe. It’s nice to see you again.” I tried to smile. After a minute she went on, “Things have changed, and yet, all the same, some things are just the same. Sounds weird, huh?” She looked down at her bread roll, and broke a piece off. “Mick and I still love each other.” As if she was afraid of where these thoughts would lead, she quickly added, “We’ve three kids. The eldest is just the spitting image of Mick.”

“That’s nice,” I said. “Excuse me for a second, I just want to get something from the bar.”

As I walked over to the trestle tables in the corner covered with thick linen cloths, I could feel the stares on my back. This was intolerable. I would go. But first…

I asked for a brandy. I became conscious of someone next to me. I took a swig from the glass before I turned to look at whoever it was.

“You OK?” Debbie’s expression was concerned.

I didn’t answer. I took another mouthful from the drink.

“Gabe. Do you want to go home, baby?”

I shook my head. Even though I did.

She stared at me for a moment longer.

“Oh, stop hanging over me, Deb, you know I hate it.” I was still angry with her.

Without a word, she turned on her heel and left.

When I’d finished the drink I went back to the table. I could survive now. I looked at my watch. Another two or three hours. They hadn’t even served the starters yet.

There was a brief welcoming speech by the head boy and head girl for 1995, and then one from the then headmaster. While they were speaking, the servers were giving up our first course. As usual, I had to remind them that I was vegetarian. To my intense surprise, I saw that Zack had been given the same as me.

Startled, I blurted, “I didn’t know you’d stopped eating meat.”

“I’ve changed a lot,” he replied, not meeting my eyes.

I didn’t say anything, regretting my outburst. I didn’t want small talk. The silence between us stretched. I had no intention of making it easy for him.

“I liked the Rachmaninoff too,” he said, at last. “That one when the piano starts in the first bar, the number two, I think.” He hummed the opening bars. “The New York Times’ critic described your live performance in New York as ‘passionate, masterly, sensitive’, ‘elegant and elegiac’.” He gave me a small smile. This was hurting me more than ending our friendship had, twelve years before. He’d followed my career. He read my reviews. Why was he doing this?

“What did you think?” I asked, despite myself, scarcely believing he’d bothered.

“I dunno. I don’t have the words. But I could hear you in the music.” There was a pause, a quiet one, not tense or difficult. “I came to hear you at the Arts Centre when you played with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. You look good on stage. I took Andrew.”

“Who’s he?”

“My son.” At my quick glance, he smiled wryly. “He’s eleven now. He’ll be startin’ school here in February. I hate old boys and all that stuff, but he’s good at music, and so I thought he ought to come here. After all, we were happy here.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. We had been. Until the end.

I heard he’d gotten married and had a child, but didn’t know the details. Debbie never discussed Zack with me.

“Couldn’t your wife come, tonight?” I asked.

“I’m divorced.” He looked down.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“We… she and I… It didn’t work out,” he said, so softly I almost couldn’t hear him over the music.

“Do you have anyone now?” I’d just told myself to stop asking questions.

“No. Not really.” He was quiet for a moment. He took a sip from his glass. It held coke. That, too, was a change. He’d been a heavy drinker at school. You’d think it would have been me who drank or drugged. But I’d had other ways to escape – music, and the hope that music would allow me to get away. And I’d had them, Debbie and Zack, whenever things had got too bad.

“Have you?” His question was diffident. This too was new. Zack had never been shy. He’d always said what he thought.

I shook my head. For a while there’d been Toby. Toby had similar coloring to Zack, though his hair was straight and his eyes were a fraction bluer. And, in that last painful discussion, when Toby had told me he was leaving me, he accused me of having chosen him because of that. “He sleeps in the same fuckin’ bed as us,” he said. “I’ve had to share you with him from day one.” After that I stopped trying to find anyone. Toby had been right. I couldn’t give my heart fully, and it wasn’t fair on them.

Zack nodded, not in agreement, more as if it were information he was storing away.

I felt compelled to add, “It’s hard. I spend a lot of time travelling.”

“Yeah. Must make it hard.” Are you lonely? hung unsaid in the air between us.

I turned towards him. I looked away quickly. There was so much sorrow and loss in his eyes. All at once I couldn’t bear it any longer. Mumbling an excuse, I pushed my chair back. I fled through the waiters and waitresses serving the main course, trying not to run. I walked fast through the doors of the Great Hall, and out into the night. Behind me I heard someone calling my name. I ignored it and started running.

****

The great scandal. What can I say? It happened at the Debutantes’ Ball. We were all in our hired finery, the boys in dinner jackets and striped pants, the girls in elegant dark dresses, and we’d all been practising the waltz, the foxtrot, the cha-cha and the tango (which we danced very decorously) for months. Zack and Deb and I had wanted to go as a threesome, but Miss McVitie, who had run the Deb every year since pa fell off the bus, flatly refused.

“Nonsense! Poppycock! The boys come down in one line and the girls in another. How can there be an odd number?”

In the end, I went with Debbie and Zack went with Angela, Mick’s girlfriend. The Deb wasn’t supposed to be an occasion for romantic encounters, and it was OK to ask another bloke’s girlfriend.

There also wasn’t supposed to be any alcohol. Zack started drinking on the way to the Deb. He was already happy by the time the first dance began, and I could see, though perhaps no one else could, that he was a little unsteady on his feet. There were one or two sharp exchanges between him and Angie. But he didn’t stop. He had alcohol in his mother’s car, a couple of coke bottles that he’d half emptied and topped up with brandy. He kept on slipping out of the Great Hall to the car park to drink some more.

After the grand procession and the first few dances, etiquette allowed us to dance with people who weren’t our partners. I danced with Angie and Zack with Debbie. Then we had the parents’ dance. Boys danced with their mothers and girls with their fathers. My parents had come. They always did to public events. They made a big deal about being good parents when it showed. So I danced with my mother, and Zack with Dorothea, his mother. I could see my mother despising Dorothea’s cheap dress from Target, and I think it was at that precise moment that I realised I hated her. She must have felt something, because she looked at me for a moment, her eyes filled with hostility and dislike.

Immediately after the parents’ dance, Zack grabbed me and pulled me onto the dance floor. I was extremely embarrassed. In other circumstances, it would have been what I wanted more than anything, to be held close by Zack, to feel his body move against mine, to see him smiling at me as if he loved me. But Zack was well oiled by now, and it was in front of my parents and all the students doing the Deb and all the teachers. I was stiff in his arms, unable to relax. These days, I understand, same sex dancing at the Valedictory Dinner and the Deb Ball often happens, sometimes between two straight guys, for the world has changed a lot in twelve years, but then, it was only acceptable if it was burlesqued, if it was clearly a joke.

Zack held me as if he loved me. He held me close, and his cock kept on brushing against mine. I started to get hard, and, I’m positive – after years of thinking about it and considering it – I’m positive he did too. But there was no doubt about what happened next. At the end of the dance, he pulled me close and kissed me. Tongue and lips. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that feeling. Even though it felt all wrong, for so many reasons, yet somehow it was where I belonged. I tried to pull back, then yielded. He opened his eyes and looked at me and then revulsion and fear flamed in his face. He pushed me away fiercely, wiped his lips in disgust, and without a word turned and strode off to the doors.

“Zack! Zack!” I called him desperately. I caught up with him at the doors. I grabbed his sleeve. He turned and shoved me away hard.

“Fuck off!”

“I love you,” I said. Ah, the blind folly of youth! If only we could explain, it would make everything all right.

He stared at me in fury, and then pushed me away again. “You fuckin’ queer. I’m no queer.”

All around us everybody was drinking this in. Zack was shouting at the top of his voice. Almost in tears, I said, “But, Zack, it was you who… ”

“Like I couldn’t see the way you looked at me, you fuckin’ wanker.”

Debbie pushed herself between us. “Stop it! Stop it!” she screamed. She was weeping, the tears making her make-up run. Zack glared at her. “Keep out of this, Deb. This is between me and this fuckin’ poofter here.”

With devastating quiet dignity, Debbie said, “I thought we were friends, Zack.” She stared at him and her face was so sorrowful that Zack’s face changed. He seemed about to start speaking, but Debbie turned to me, and said, “Come on, Angel, let’s go home.”

We went back to our table. My parents had gone. Only then did I realise what the reaction at home would be. The same knowledge was in Debbie’s face when I turned to her.

“My dad’ll take you home, Gabie. He’ll see you’re OK.” She was still crying. She looked a mess. “C’mon.” She took my arm in hers and, head high, she led me out of the Hall behind her parents. I never felt more proud of her than I did then. As we went out through the doors I could hear the buzz begin.

Debbie’s dad, Jack, walked up to my front door with me. My father opened the door and stared at me with loathing and disdain.

“Abomination unto the Lord!” he spat. His hatred and disgust flowed from him like a dark cloud. His eyes glittered in the porch light.

Jack put his arm round my shoulders. “C’mon, Gabe, you’re going to stay with us.”

I was in no state to refuse. I had spoken only in monosyllables, staring out the window at a world which looked the same even though everything had changed beyond redemption. Mutely, dumb with misery, I turned and left. As I walked up the driveway, I could feel my father’s burning gaze on my back.

I was put to bed in the spare room with some aspirins and brandy and a hot water bottle. The last thing I remember as I fell asleep was Debbie sitting in a chair next to the bed, holding my hand.

****

I ran until I was puffed. Without thinking about it, I’d made my way to the edge of the valley. Below me, the town’s lights twinkled, and I could see the pewter gleam of the river in the moonlight. I sat down on the first of the steps leading down the slope to the rowing shed and the swimming pool. I hugged my knees for comfort.

I heard a footstep beside me. Zack lowered himself onto the step next to me.

“Hey,” he said.

I didn’t answer.

For a long time we sat in the summer evening coolness, in silence.

“Yeah, I know,” he said at last. “I’m a dill. And a mongrel.”

I didn’t say anything. A dill? Oh no, Zack, much worse than that. How ’bout some truth for a change? I shifted on the stone steps. I’m too thin to sit for long without some cushioning.

“Here,” said Zack, giving me his folded up dinner jacket. He’d always known when I was uncomfortable.

“You can’t… I can’t. It’ll cost you to have it cleaned.”

“Fuck that.” Zack was amazingly calm. My heart was a drumbeat singing in my ears.

I sat on his jacket.

“Gabe…” He stopped.

I turned to look at him. His eyes were fixed on me, glimmering in the moonlight. I looked away. I tried to beat down the treacherous hope that flourished unbidden in my heart.

“Gabe,” he began again, and again stopped. This time I didn’t look at him.

He sighed. “You know that bit in the final movement of the first Brahms symphony, the theme, almost?” He hummed it. Of course I knew it. Still I didn’t speak or look at him. I couldn’t. “And you know how it sort of keeps on trying to escape from the music that goes before, like it’s embedded in it?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “And then, there’s the horn fanfare, and then it comes in, and you wanna cry, because it’s so right?” Still I didn’t speak. “That’s the way I feel about you.”

My bouncing jostling heart was making me feel sick. And I couldn’t look at him, because everything I felt would have been naked there on my face. Where had he learned so much feeling for music? When had that happened? What road had he travelled over the last twelve years?

“It took me a long time to know what I really felt.” He sighed again.

I swallowed hard. “About…”

“About you. About me. About us.”

I wanted to say, “What about us? What?” I was quite unable to speak. I felt anger begin to build in me. He’d let me suffer for all these years. Let me live alone, and bitter. He’d known my heart so well. He’d known me, to my core. How could he have let me go through so much pain, when he’d known all that?

He didn’t speak for a bit. At last he said, so quiet that I almost couldn’t hear, “Susan said that you were always the person I really loved.”

I just shook my head. Anger and grief stopped me from speaking.

Zack chuckled, quite without humor. “Oh yeah. You, Gabe.”

“Was that why she… why you separated?” I found I had to speak.

“That and drink.” There was another silence, but this one was charged with his pain.

“Why, Zack?”

Now it was his turn to shake his head. “Fuck, I dunno, love.”

Love? Love?

“Love?” Now I was furious.

“Shit! I didn’t mean to say that. It just slipped out.”

I almost laughed. That was so Zack. Love.

“It took you long enough.” I tried and failed to keep the bitterness out of my tone.

“You know, Gabe, I’m such a coward. Straight after I… right after the Deb Ball, I realized what I’d done. I was so fuckin’ ashamed. But I was afraid, too.” He shifted sideways on the steps. “You know what it is. I didn’t want to be gay.”

“Are you?” Strangled, almost incomprehensible.

“Fuck knows. I loved Susan. But I loved you too. After Susan left me, I tried to see if I was. I went to a bar, and picked up a bloke. It wasn’t… right.”

That hurt, a deep stab into my heart. For me, it had always seemed exactly right. I wanted to get up and go away. I wanted to cry. I just sat there, paralysed. Then Zack leaned his head against my shoulder. “You are right, Gabe. You and me. I know that, absolutely.”

I pushed him away and stood up. I dusted off my pants, for something to do with my hands. Trembling, incoherent, I began to speak. “You… you walk out on me. You leave…” My voice cracked. “You let me suffer.” By now I was shaking, my mixed emotions pouring through me. I wanted to hurt him, like he’d hurt me. “Fuck you, Zack McGinty! Fuck you, you heartless, selfish, cowardly cunt!”

His face was a ruin of devastation and shock. Had he expected me to forgive him just like that? At last, his voiced strained, so low I struggled to hear, he said, “I did you wrong, Gabe. I’m so fuckin’ sorry.” He turned his face away and stared bleakly at the jewelled lights of the town below. I knew he was crying.

“Stay out of my life.” Cool, firm, hard. As if I wasn’t bleeding inside. Oh, Zack, hold me in your arms. Love me. I started to stride back towards the hall, quickly, before I changed my mind and turned round and went back. I didn’t bother going back inside to say goodbye to the others. They’d all been in on it. Fuck them too. When I got back into the car, I sat for a moment pulling myself together. I was going to be driving a tonne of steel. I couldn’t see. Dammit. I hunched over the steering wheel, weeping.

It was a long, lonely drive back to Melbourne. I had plenty of time to think and regret and hurt.

****

Next morning early, when my mobile rang, I knew it would be Debbie. I let it ring out. There were the chimes announcing a voicemail. I ignored them. I showered and went down to Brunswick St to have breakfast. My phone rang again. I looked to see who it was. Unknown.

“G’day.”

It was Angus. I suppose, if I’d not been in love with Zack, it wouldhave been Angus. He’d been so handsome. We’d been good friends. We’d played music together.

“You OK?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“Long time no see, and then you don’t say goodbye?”

“Sorry. Something came up.” I waited for him to go away.

He snorted. He’d always been able to do that so well, like a horse. It made me remember what fun we’d had.

“Where are you?” His tone dared me not to tell him.

“At the Café Nova on Brunswick.”

“Yeah, I know it. See you there soon.”

I felt I couldn’t leave. And anyway, my breakfast hadn’t arrived yet.

Angus was there in fifteen minutes. My eggs and toast and a perfect caffè latte had just arrived. He sat down and stared at me in silence.

“That was quick,” I said, to fill the silence.

“I live close, on Rathdowne.” He looked me over, his eyes warm. “You haven’t changed.” He paused for a beat, and then with a quirk of his lips, he added, “Much.”

I just looked at him.

“He loves you, you know.”

“I know.” I looked away, unable to meet the affection in his dark grey eyes.

“So?”

“He hurt me.” I had wanted to say that it was none of his business.

“Yeah. I know. But…”

“He just waltzes back into my life and assumes I’ll fall into his arms! Fuck him!”

“He’s had a bad time.”

“And I haven’t?” The coffee was starting to curdle in my stomach.

“Didn’t say that.” Angus was pushing the little sugar packets around the table top with his index finger. He sighed. “Gabe. He loves you. You love him. You’ve always loved each other. There hasn’t really been anybody else.”

I shook my head, unable to speak.

“So you have someone?”

I looked directly at him. “You ask a fuckin’ lot of questions.”

He smiled. “Yeah. Well?”

I looked away. Waved the waitress over, and ordered some more coffee for both of us. When I looked back at him, his eyes were grave. He raised his eyebrows.

“No one,” I said reluctantly. “But you all knew that, anyway. From Debbie.”

He looked a bit disconcerted. “Well, we’re your friends. We care about you. You and Zack.” He was silent for a moment. “Look, Gabie, love is love. And being with someone is good. Good for the soul.”

“My parents didn’t think that. I suppose you want me to make up with them too.”

“No. Fucktards. Arseholes. But Gabe… you love him, right?” He sipped his coffee.

I wanted to cry. Yes. Yes, I love him. I stared resolutely at the tram caught in the morning traffic. Angus’s hand took mine and squeezed it. I was so shocked I jumped. My eyes met his, for a long deep gaze.

“He loves you, Gabie. Give it a try, huh?”

I nodded, wiping my eyes with the table napkin, speechless.

He stood up, and hugged me. “Keep in touch, Gabie. We’ve all missed you. I mean that.” He dropped some coins on the table and left, not looking back. A moment later my mobile chimed. A text message from Angus. ‘His number is 0407…’

I didn’t ring it.

****

Over the next week I refused to take any phone calls. Eventually, Debbie turned up at my Victorian terrace house. I don’t know why I’d thought she wouldn’t. She’s nothing if not persistent.

“So you are alive,” she said sourly as she came in.

“Deb…”

“Don’t ‘Deb’ me! You don’t answer your phone, you don’t get in touch! I was worried sick about you. Angel, how could you?”

“I wasn’t going… I wouldn’t ever do that, Deb! Not now! I’m over Zack, all right?”

“Of course you are! Who d’you think you’re fooling, Gabe?”

“I am.”

“Oh, please! I’ve watched you mope over him for 15 years. I’ve watched you turn to look at any man who was like him. I’ve watched your eyes. And your face. I’m not blind, you know.”

I gave her her cup of tea. “OK, so I was in love with him. Not any more.”

“Gabe, this is me you’re talking to. We’ve been friends for, what? 17… 18 years? Think I don’t know your heart?”

He knew my heart. And he let me suffer. He never tried to get in touch. He never said sorry.”

“He was ashamed. He didn’t know what to do. How to start over.”

“So how long have you been talking to him?”

“A while.” She avoided my gaze. “He contacted me about a year ago. Asked if we could meet. I told him to get fucked.” She sipped her tea and ran her fingers over the top of the grand piano.

“And then?”

“I said we could.” She looked at me. “What? He was my best friend too. I missed him. I was hoping he’d changed.”

“And?” I wasn’t going to make this any easier for her. I felt obscurely betrayed.

“He has.” She went and looked out the window at the quiet street outside. All we could hear was the distant roar of the traffic and the jerky clang of the trams in Brunswick St. Neither of us spoke. At last she said, “It’s your life, Gabe. Only you can decide.” Her voice was unusually solemn. “But he loves you and he needs you. And you love him.”

“What did he say after, when he came back to the Hall, the other night?” It seemed important.

“He hardly spoke. You know how he is.” Her tea cup clinked as she put it down on the window sill. “He was wrecked, Gabe.” She looked at me, her eyes big and round and sad. “Don’t screw up the rest of your life, Angel. He loves you so much. He’ll make a good husband, you know.” She came over and kissed me on the cheek.

I watched her get into her car and drive away. She wiggled her fingers at me without looking back, like Liza Minelli in Cabaret.

I took out my mobile, and began to dial.

“Hey,” Zack said.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s