It was, in retrospect, a sign of ill omen that his last bag of popcorn ended up starting to burn with about 200 kernels left to pop. A terrible waste of natural resources, he was pretty sure, so he sucked off the salt and fake butter from all of the remaining kernels and spit them into the trash can one by one like watermelon seeds.
Watermelon; now that’s something he hadn’t had in years.
The toilet started running again, some kind of slow leak that had been a problem for months (years?) but as long as it was flushing when it was supposed to he didn’t feel like fucking with it. He’d probably just break it anyway.
Overall, his life was feeling pretty dull and meaningless, and then he got the phone call and that all changed. Well, that was what was supposed to happen next, but it wasn’t. It didn’t change from dull and meaningless to happy and rainbows, but instead to fucking scary and precipitous. Because that’s how his real life karma rolls – like a bitch.
The call was from his father. The first words gave him flashbacks to white and red and gleaming blood on a metal blade. The second words were tempered, assuring, and all the kid needed was a place away from it all. They were saying “he’s depressed,” or something, but he knew the kid was just burned out. And that … well, that might be worse.
A moth repeatedly flew itself into the window by his computer in a vain attempt to fry itself on the LCD screen and he figured that yep, there was just not much else he could do about it.
So Apolo said yes.
The first week passed without much fanfare. Though he wouldn’t admit it, he was content to have another warm body in the large, cold house he’d bought when everything started to settle down. (“Settle down” is what he thinks to himself instead of “slow down” because the latter makes his insides twist and he can’t stand feeling so disappointed in himself.) He’d moved back home, within spitting distance of everything at once intimately familiar and completely alien for all the years he’d spent away and all the years he’d spent on a one-way track of left turns.
They watched a lot of TV. The kid – he’s calling himself John these days in an attempt to make himself seem older – pressed close on the couch and Apolo realized he was asking for comfort, for warmth. He was like those goddamned moths flying into his illuminated windows. Apolo didn’t like where his metaphors were headed, so he just slid an arm around the kid’s shoulders and let him sink into his side.
“You know, whenever you’re ready, I’m here.”
The kid mumbled a got it and turned his face into Apolo’s shoulder, one deep breath and then he was out like a light.
Apolo was in way over his head.
He didn’t get an instruction manual for this. He was starting to feel his father’s pain, even though his charge was in his twenties and as far as Apolo could tell, he ran with a good crowd of youths. He was also starting to feel old, and out of his depths.
“He’s not talking, Dad.”
And his dad told him that the kid would talk when he was ready, which would happen eventually, and his job was to just be there when the dam broke.
Apolo didn’t question what Yuki meant by dam.
It was a Tuesday night and they were doing the dishes, as usual, and not speaking, also as usual. He didn’t think he could wait however long it was going to take for JR to figure out that it was okay to talk. So he pushed, just a little, the right words having fit themselves into his brain in some semblance of English word order. “You’re a good kid,” he said, and stacked the dried glasses in their cabinet. “You’re a good kid and you’ll make the right decisions. You just have to let your mind clear out a little. That’s why you’re here.”
The kid surprised him by responding. “That’s all you’ve got?”
Apolo shrugged. “Maybe? Unless you need more, then I could probably come up with something else to say.” He cracked a smile. “Once upon a time I was the king of pep talks.”
“I think I need the most epic pep talk you have left in you.”
“Ah, well, you may be disappointed then. I left all my epic back in LA.”
JR shook his head. “Don’t say that, man. You — you’re still Apolo Anton Ohno. You keep cutting yourself down and I don’t know why.” He shrugged. “I don’t get it. You’re exactly the same.”
“Kid, I don’t need a pep talk. I’m okay with this. Or at least I’m more okay with this and me and what I am today that you are with yourself. So I’m just going to tell you again that I’m here. I’m ready for whatever it is that you think is so awful you can’t talk about it.” He raised an eyebrow at his friend. “Just so you know, short of murdering someone — and really, that should be qualified because if you’d killed a genocidal maniac that’d be okay — nothing you could have done or have been thinking about doing is enough for me to feel ashamed to know you. And I know that’s something you worry about.” He lifted the stack of plates to their cabinet. “This is why you’re here, specifically. In my house. Whatever it is, it’s okay.”
JR was silent, placing the flatware in the drawer organizer one piece at time. “I keep hearing that, but I don’t believe it.”
“Who’s the most honest person you know?”
“Your dad. And you.”
“I know you’ve heard it from me, and I’m pretty sure he had to tell you something along those lines to get you on that plane. Right?” JR nodded. “So get over yourself and just believe it. Because in about three days I’m going to reach my patience limit and the kid gloves are coming off. You are too big of a person to be acting like a doormat.”
“I’m not a doormat!”
“You do a very good imitation of one.” Apolo realized that he could push a little harder, so he did. “I don’t what it is. I don’t know what happened that made you shift from that shy, humble kid who just wanted to do something good with his newfound fame to this … shell of a person who’s hiding from something even though everyone in his life is right there, supporting him. We never left, JR. We’ve always been right here.”
“You say that, but —”
“I don’t say anything I don’t believe.”
“You don’t know the whole situation, so how could you possibly—”
“So tell me.”
“Maybe you believe you won’t, but you can’t speak for everyone in my life.”
“I’m the only one here, JR. I’m the only one you have to tell.” Apolo realized as he said it that it was not exactly true. He was going to have to tell his family, whatever it was, so he corrected himself. “I’m the only one you have to tell to start. However long it takes you — us — to work through, it only has to start with me.”
“Where was this Apolo last year? Where — why did it take you so long to get involved in this?”
“I was … working through my own problems. My own issues. By myself. And I realize now that I should have sought help. Somehow. Not done it by myself.” He caught the disbelieving look on JR’s face and scoffed. “You have to start believing me, kid.” He nodded to the living room. “Go sit on the couch. I’m going to finish up here. I’m going against direct orders from Yuki right now, but I’m not waiting anymore. You’re going to tell me what’s wrong and you’re going to do it as soon as the dishes are put away. Get your last wallow in right now.”
JR looked like he was going to protest, but the tone of Apolo’s voice brooked no argument and he knew that.
Apolo knew that turning off the light was the fastest way to get the moths from beating themselves senseless. And for moths, the only way. But he had no idea what the kid’s light was, how to turn it off, or if that would even fix the problem.
So he steeled himself for the worst — drugs, cutting — and hoped for the least bad of all options — failing school, burned out — and put the last of the knives away before following JR into the living room. He was prepared to make another speech, but as soon as he sat down next to JR the kid spoke.
And Apolo was speechless.
“I’m gay and … everyone asks if I have a girlfriend, like all the time, and I know Mom’s getting worried, and some of my friends say things that aren’t exactly nice and that’s weird because I’m at Cal of all places and I kind of thought that I’d be okay there. But it’s just … worse. Because I can’t just be. I have sponsors and I have fans, and I have all of these people who depend on me to be this person that I’m not.”
“Well, if your sponsors drop you, you can live here.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth he was appalled at himself. “What I mean is that … those concerns are legitimate, yeah, but it’s making you unhappy worrying about what other people will think instead of just living.”
“I’m sorry, Apolo, but did you hear what I said?”
Apolo shrugged. “Yeah, you’re gay.”
“What do you want me to say?”
“I don’t know, I just … expected more resistance.”
“Yeah, that’s because you’re an idiot.”
“That’s not fair.”
“What do you think of me to have this belief that I’m going to be … judgmental? Frankly, I’m a little offended.”
JR sneered and stood up. “Yeah, you would.”
Apolo grabbed his wrist and pulled him back down to the couch. “I would what?”
“You’d make this about you.”
“Hey, you made this about me when you got it in your head that for some reason, I’d disown you for something this … inconsequential.”
JR was incredulous. “Inconsequential?”
“You are who you are, not what you do. Or who you do.”
“That is so cliché.”
“It’s a cliché because it’s true.” They sat in silence for awhile, JR looking at his hands and fidgeting, Apolo figuring out how he was going to drop this next piece of information on the kid. Instead of the hey kid, I like guys too, look at this, we have something in common still he was planning, Apolo opened his mouth and shocked himself yet again.
“I think I’m in love with you, kid.”
That’s when JR stood up and walked out of the house. And that’s where we are now.
Fucking scary and precipitous comes in here. Because the rest of it was doable. The rest of it was expected (even if he had no clue what he was doing, he knew he wouldn’t going in), but … he’d managed to scare the kid off into the Washington wilderness.
After an hour passes he goes into self-preservation mode and tries to come up with a way that this is not his fault. It must be something he did in a past life. He can’t think of any single thing he’s done worth this, and has a hard time pushing all of the little evils together into a package worth it. Because it’s not just having to keep an eye on the kid, or now having to go find him out in the woods, but the fact that he’s now unable to reconcile the emotions he’s felt in the kid’s presence for a number of years. It’s the fact that he’s now sure that the year in LA was a waste of time and it’d taken him a long time to convince himself otherwise.
Here it was the whole time. He didn’t have to figure himself out after all.
He finds the kid at the back edge of the property, kicking around a baseball-sized rock with his hands in his pockets. JR looks up when he hears Apolo’s shoes scuffing across the grass. “It’s taken you long enough.”
“I figure if you wanted to talk you wouldn’t have walked out.”
“Yeah well, I’m just a kid,” JR scoffs. “What do I know?”
“Don’t do that.”
JR shakes his head at the ground. JR shakes his head at the ground. “I have a boyfriend at school,” he admits.
Apolo blinks. “I thought you said —”
“It’s not like I’m celibate or something. I’m not a machine. It’s a secret. But he’s … it’s not healthy and I know it. “
“Then why are you —”
“Because I had convinced myself, while you were in LA, that it wasn’t going to happen. And that I may as well give up. That anything, anything was better than this numb feeling I got whenever you didn’t answer your phone, or e-mail, or whatever it was. How you were so in touch with the whole world and after the biggest events of my life — the season I’d trained my whole life for — you were … absent.” JR speaks quietly, still looking at the ground. “I’m not happy, but I’m not numb, either. And that was … that’s better. I was okay with not being happy because it was so much better than nothing.”
Apolo has always respected the kid’s strength, his ability to face down his worst fears and just do it. Even if it took some time, some false starts, he’d pulled through. But with his speech finished, he looks like all the words he was keeping inside had been holding him together and he falls apart now that they’re free in the air. Apolo makes a move for him but he’s waved off.
“But now, it’s almost worse because I came here as a test, to test myself. To see if I was still numb around you but I’m not, and now … now you say you’re in love with me? What a joke! You didn’t pick up the phone. That’s what I’m worth? That’s what you do when you love someone? You ignore him? You pretend he doesn’t exist? You go off and hang out with B-list celebrities instead of the only person who actually considered you a friend?
“That’s why I walked out, Apolo. I can’t stand the fact that I’m in a relationship with a guy who treats me like shit because I thought I couldn’t have a relationship with the love of my life and it turns out he treats me like shit, too. And calls it love. And the sick thing is that I’d convinced myself I wasn’t good enough for you, but now I have to throw all of that out the window and reconsider my entire worldview. Everything I knew was a lie.
“I am too good for you, Apolo.”
And, well. That pretty much says it all.
He’s given up the junk food again now that he has something to prove. I’m not an emotionally crippled loser is his new mantra. He hears through the grapevine (read: Twitter and thinly-veiled messages sent via indie hipster lyrics) that JR’s single again and he sends up a silent cheer to whatever power looking down on him at the moment. It’s not going to be easy making himself good enough for JR.
He hears the toilet start to run again. He pulls himself from the couch and shuffles over to the half-bath in the hallway.
May as well start here.