After that day in the locker room with Jimmy, Toby kept to himself more than ever. It wasn’t because of the assault, it was because Toby now knew Jimmy’s secret. He no longer lost sleep over why Jimmy was so adamant in dismantling him piece by piece, because now there was something he could use against his tormentor.
Throughout all of this, Peggy had been amazing in her persistence. Toby originally tried to rebuff any sort of olive branch the girl extended his way because he only saw pity and concern. That look was worse than the hate-filled glares thrown his way at swim practice.
Peggy, however, refused to accept his disinterest and retaliated by waiting for him on the front stairs to his house after school.
“What are you doing here?”
“You wouldn’t answer my calls,” she shrugged.
“Most people would take the hint.”
“I’m not most people.”
“I’m getting that.”
He stood on his front lawn glaring at her and considered jumping over her to get to the front door as a viable option.
“Toby, this is ridiculous. Why can’t you see that all I want to do is be your friend?”
“Because things are never that simple.”
“And some things are never that complicated.”
Toby gave in to her whims.
After that day they were nearly inseparable. Peggy never brought up that day in the locker room, or the afternoon where she left him and Mr. Roberts to talk by the pool. Toby didn’t know if he was grateful or annoyed. The only other person he allowed himself to be honest with, besides himself, was Mr. Roberts and while that was fine, he desperately wanted to talk things out with someone he trusted. He didn’t know when he started trusting Peggy, but he decided it would be for the best if he didn’t question himself. He had quite enough of that over the last few years.
Both he and Peggy were studying at her house. Her parents were still at work, so the house was theirs until after five. Finals were just around the corner and if they could make it through the next few weeks, college would be that must closer.
He snapped out of his thoughts at the sound of his name. “Sorry, what?”
“You’ve been distracted all day. Are you all right?”
“Why haven’t you asked me about that day in the locker room, or Mr. Roberts?”
Peggy blinked and said:
“I figured you would bring it up if you wanted me to know.”
“I’m sorry, that was rude of me to say.”
“If you want to talk about it, I’ll listen.”
She put her hand over his and squeezed his knuckles reassuringly.
“How can you even want to be around me? You must have gotten shit from everyone about it.”
“Who’s everyone? I don’t have many friends, but the ones I do have, don’t care.”
“Luck has nothing to do with it. I’m friends with who I want. Whoever has an issue with that isn’t worth my time.”
Toby smiled in spite of himself.
“Do you want to tell me about what happened? I would never tell.”
She didn’t need to promise him secrecy.
“Nothing good came out of that locker room, but I did learn that everyone is afraid.”
“Themselves, mostly. They’re afraid of their feelings and of what others think, and that fear is covered with hate.”
“Why do you think that is?”
“Hatred is easy. Understanding is hard.”
“Doesn’t make that kind of behavior any less acceptable.”
“Not saying it does. But there are people who show their hand to the rest of the players when fear is in the game.”
Peggy regarded him thoughtfully, “I don’t know what that means, Toby, but if I didn’t know any better, I would say you figured something out.”
“Something good?” she rose her eyebrows at him.
Peggy never really expected Toby to tell her his secrets.
The day of the French final, everyone noticed the absence of Mr. Roberts, but no one said anything. Jimmy and the rest of the swim team hunkered down in their usual seats, while the sub administered the final.
Toby sat in the back in his usual seat and was glad for the privacy of the back row. He wasn’t entirely certain he would be able to keep the smirk off his face if Jimmy looked his way.
He was the first one done with his exam and as he headed up his row he heard Jimmy mutter, “Fag,” under his breath.
Jimmy gave up with the French final not long after Toby exited the room. Nothing could have prepared him for the sight of Toby leaning casually against his car like it was something that happened every day.
“Get away from my car, you fag!”
It came out of his mouth before he could think about it. There was no reason for Toby to be around him or anything he owned. Hadn’t he given Toby every reason to fear him?
They stood facing each other, Toby with a blank expression and Jimmy with what could only assume was a scowl, on his. Neither moved, almost daring the other to flinch first.
Jimmy was completely taken aback when Toby laughed at his statement. Toby had never laughed at anything he threw in his face, let alone the word Jimmy knew ripped Toby apart.
Toby’s eyes met Jimmy’s, and he flinched at the icy glint he saw.
“What’s so funny?’’
Toby’s unyielding smirk was making him nervous.
“You would be incredibly familiar with that word, wouldn’t you Jimmy.”
His words were a simple statement.
Toby said the word like an accusation, and his conviction sent a cold shiver down Jimmy’s spine.
“Do you want to get hit?” Jimmy took a step forward trying to cow Toby into backing down. He could feel his palms sweat as he clenched his fists. Toby wasn’t giving in.
“You aren’t going to touch me. Not anymore.”
His voice was stronger than ever before.
“Oh really. And why is that?” he tried sneering, but knew he failed.
“Because I know, Jimmy.”
And with that statement, Toby took a step towards him. Jimmy forced himself to stand his ground. He felt all color drain from his face, and a bead of sweat trickle between his shoulder blades.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yes you do. I know your secret.”
Toby advanced another step forward.
“I don’t have any secrets.”
“You showed me what it was.”
Toby took another step toward him.
“I didn’t show you anything.”
“You showed me the day in the locker room.”
By the time Toby uttered those words, he was nearly toe-to-toe with Jimmy.
“You fucking liar,” he snarled, trying desperately not to give in to the panic that was starting to spread throughout his chest.
“Daring to call me a liar?” Toby’s eyebrows rose, his tone mocking. “I’ve always known who I am, but I don’t think you know who you are.”
Jimmy moved to take a threatening step forward, but Toby beat him to it. “If you lay one finger on me, I swear you will regret it.”
Toby stepped right up to him, and for once it was Jimmy who was scared.
“Whatever you think you know…”
“Toby…don’t,” he stuttered and hated himself for his weakness.
“Don’t what? Don’t tell anyone that you’re a homosexual? A faggot?”
The mocking lilt to Toby’s voice made him shudder.
Toby snorted derisively at his word choice.
“You’ve already done that. You do remember forcing me to my knees and shoving your cock in my mouth and how hard you were. I never knew how much you wanted me.”
Toby’s voice was soft yet threatening. At some point, Jimmy lowered his eyes to the ground and couldn’t make himself look up.
“You don’t know…”
“You selfish ass. Of course I know. I know all about it. And you’re the reason. I know about the fear. I wake up with it every morning and go to sleep with it every night. I know how it shreds your insides down to the bone. It feels like you’re bleeding from the inside out.”
Toby’s breath was hot against the side of Jimmy’s face.
“But then, under that fear, there’s something else, isn’t there. There’s desire. There’s want. But you’ve been taught it’s the worst kind of wrong there is. It’s funny though. Despite my own personal struggles, and you and your crew terrorizing me, the only thing that eats away at me is the loneliness.”
The hitch in Jimmy’s throat must have given him away. At some point while Toby was talking, hot guilty tears pooled in the corners of his eyes and revealed the harsh truths that he hadn’t been able to whisper, even to himself.
“I pity your ignorance and envy your anger.”
Toby sneered the words in his ear and Jimmy shivered involuntarily.
Without another word, Toby turned to walk away.
Jimmy knew he had to right to ask any favor or be shown any sort of courtesy. He did anyway. Deep down, Jimmy knew that Toby was a better person than he ever hoped to be.
“Don’t worry. I won’t tell. I’m not like you. I will keep this secret to protect myself. If any of you come near me again, I’ll bring you down.”
Toby left Jimmy for what he hoped would be the last time.
Toby didn’t see Jimmy again until his junior year in college, three years later. This was only the second time he actually came home for Christmas and only because his mother insisted. He needed some time away from his family and took a drive down to the pond. Peggy and him used to spend time there before parting ways. She wouldn’t be back in Homer until the next day.
He reclined on the hood of his car, looking up at the stars, enjoying the cold night and the crisp air. It was late and he smiled to himself at the notion he was the only one around.
He heard ice crack underfoot and turned his attention to it. He felt his heart slam in his chest when he saw Jimmy with his hands shoved deep in his pockets and a deer-caught-in-headlights expression on his face.
“I didn’t know anyone else was here.”
Jimmy’s voice sounded, frosting in the night air.
When Toby didn’t react to his words, Jimmy awkwardly shifted his weight from foot to foot. Toby would never figure out why he silently invited Jimmy to stay by way of extending a thermos of hot coffee, but he did.
Jimmy eyed him warily, debating with himself over the possible consequences of sticking around. He approached slowly and accepted the thermos from Toby’s outstretched hand. He took a tentative sip and nodded to Toby in thanks.
“Who would have thought it,” Toby muttered just loud enough for Jimmy to hear.
“You would share something with a fag.”
Toby hadn’t put any thought into the words, but the unmistakable flinch from Jimmy gave Toby pause.
A silent ten minutes later, Jimmy was leaning against the hood of the car next to Toby after he slid down the hood. They passed the thermos back and forth.
Toby couldn’t be sure he heard correctly.
“I’m sorry. For all of it. I hated who I was and what I did to you. It wasn’t fair.”
Even though the words came haltingly, once he started, Jimmy couldn’t seem to stop.
If someone told Toby years ago that he would someday get an apology from one of his tormentors, he would’ve called their bluff.
Toby couldn’t think of anything in response that wouldn’t sound like it was laced with skepticism, so he opted for a simple, “Thank you.”
Jimmy nodded in acknowledgment and Toby lost himself in his thoughts before Jimmy spoke again.
“I thought a lot about what you said to me that day…after the French final.”
Toby remembered that conversation, too. He barely remembered what he said, it was so long ago, but he remembered the distinct sense of accomplishment and triumph he felt at finally confronting the one person who almost got the better of him.
Toby had no idea how to respond, but Jimmy saved him the trouble.
“You were right about a lot of things…about me.” His words were soft, like he had never admitted them out loud before, and knowing Jimmy, Toby wasn’t surprised. “I hate everything I did to you. Mostly, I hate that you were right. Especially about the loneliness and fear,” he said the last part like an afterthought. He said all of this to the clear expanse of ice covering the lake.
Toby was still at a loss for words. He never expected this conversation, or that it would be Jimmy he would be having it with. He was still trying to form words when Jimmy continued:
“Why didn’t you ever tell?” it was the first instance where Jimmy finally turned to face him. There was no animosity in his voice, only curiosity.
Toby looked over at him and said, “Because no one should have their sexuality used against them.”
Jimmy nodded and blinked a few times in quick succession.
“Once I figured it out, I couldn’t be mad at you anymore. I just wanted you to stay away from me so I could enjoy some peace before college.”
“I’m sorry you had to use that to get me to stop.”
“I’m not saying what you did, what any of you did, was right; but I understand why you acted that way,” Toby cast Jimmy a side glance.
“Can I ask you something?”
“What’s it like being with a man?”
Toby was instantly transported back to his senior year of high school and the conversation he had with Mr. Roberts by the school pool. He remembered how desperate he had been for an honest response and knew in this moment, he needed to give that to Jimmy regardless of the past they shared. He could only begin to imagine the courage Jimmy had to muster just to ask him that question.
“It feels like coming home. It’s…everything good in this world.”
“And it’s not…”
Toby could have finished that sentence in his sleep.
“No. It’s not wrong. It’s just love.”
There was so much sincerity in Jimmy’s voice he couldn’t help but feel humbled at the reactions his words had. He took the time to study Jimmy’s face in the near-dark. He noticed the worry lines that etched their way into the skin around his mouth and eyes. What was even more devastating was the haunted look in Jimmy’s eyes. Toby knew that look well. He had seen it staring back at him every time he looked in the mirror before he finally reconciled his sexuality with himself and taught himself how to accept it.
No one deserved to have that look in their eyes—not even Jimmy.
“Do you have someone?” the question was so faint, Toby almost missed it.
“Mmmhmmm…Marcus. Do you…?”
“No,” there was no other explanation offered. Toby should have known better than to ask something like that. This was Homer, Connecticut, not Boston or New York City.
“When…when you’re with Marcus…do you…is there…” Jimmy tripped over his words, unable to ask and perhaps a little afraid to know what the responses would be.
Toby empathized with Jimmy. He knew what Jimmy was feeling because he had been there himself. Considering both of their positions, Toby couldn’t believe his own self-realization and how, as he started to believe there was nothing wrong with loving other men, quickly he learned to be comfortable in his own skin.
Jimmy was visibly embarrassed and, not wanting to prolong this particular conversation said, “There’s no pain, no fear, no awkwardness. Everything feels natural and, just so good, and so right. I love him. And there is no shame or guilt between us.”
Toby noticed the glassy look in Jimmy’s eyes, though he tried his best to hide it by ducking his head and nodding.
“Have you ever…”
“No.” there was a longing in Jimmy’s tone, although his body language suggested fear.
“Don’t you want to see if what you’re feeling is real?”
“Yes, but I can’t.”
He seemed so ashamed, and in that moment it no longer mattered what happened in their past. It no longer mattered that Jimmy was the reason Toby was afraid to leave his house in high school, or why he couldn’t enjoy school, or find the courage to love himself. This was a young man who couldn’t even look at himself for fear of what he would find.
Toby was drastically different from the shy boy he once was. Now, he would be going against everything he had fought to believe in if he turned Jimmy away now.
“Have you ever been touched by a man?”
Jimmy’s eyes snapped up to meet his, and he glanced around trying to determine if anyone else besides them had heard.
Jimmy shook his head “no” in response.
“Would you like to be?”
“Toby… I don’t…please,” Jimmy stuttered and took a step back, like he was getting ready to run.
“I’ve been where you are. I know what you’re feeling and none of it is fair. All I wanted when I was in your position was a little compassion.”
Jimmy looked torn between wanting to give in to what Toby was saying and walking away and never looking back. Knowing this was a decision that he had to make for himself, Toby left Jimmy and went to sit in the backseat of his family’s station wagon. Jimmy followed a few minutes later, head and eyes down, and picking at a hangnail.
“Look at me.”
Toby’s command was gentle but sounded harsh in the silence of the car. Jimmy dragged his eyes to meet Toby’s, looking incredibly insecure. Toby scooted closer and reached out with his hand. Jimmy froze and looked like he was forcing himself to not shy away from his touch. Toby’s knuckles barely grazed the skin of Jimmy’s cheek. Jimmy sucked in a breath, and slightly turned his face into Toby’s hand.
Encouraged that he wanted this but was too afraid and confused to ask, Toby splayed his palm, cradling Jimmy’s cheek and burying his fingers in his hair. His other hand made its way up Jimmy’s arm and shoulder to rest on his neck, the skin warming to his touch. One of Toby’s thumbs gently stroked the skin of Jimmy’s cheekbone and he was surprised to see his eyes flutter as he leaned further into Toby’s touch.
“Toby…Marcus?” as if realized what was happening, Jimmy tried to push away, but Toby stopped him.
“This is not about Marcus, or me, or cheating. This is about you.” And to emphasize his point, he dragged his fingers through Jimmy's hair and moved closer so that their thighs were pressed together.
When he leaned in, Jimmy hesitated and resisted. Toby watched the sudden shift in Jimmy’s eyes from being relaxed to panicked.
“Do you think about this? Not with me, but this: kissing? And not just kissing, but kissing another man?”
“All the time.”
“Then stop thinking and let yourself feel.”
Toby inched closer, and even though Jimmy looked terrified, he kept still. And when Toby’s lips brushed against Jimmy’s, he froze momentarily before sighing and giving in. Toby’s tongue brushed the seam of Jimmy’s lips, and Jimmy’s fingers dug into Toby’s arm in response.
Toby’s movements were coaxing and gentle; unhurried.
It wasn’t long before Jimmy’s tongue came to meet Toby’s. And when Toby licked his way in to Jimmy’s mouth, he was awarded a groan and fingers running through his hair in response. Something gave in Jimmy, the restraint disappearing, until he was kissing Toby with reckless abandon. In response, Toby gave Jimmy everything he could muster, wrapping one arm around his shoulders, the other around his lower back until they were pressed tightly together.
Toby allowed himself to get a bit carried away in letting his hands wander over Jimmy’s form. He trailed his hands over Jimmy’s shoulders and arms, ran fingers through his hair and down his sides, over his flanks until one hand found the hardness between his legs. Toby cupped Jimmy through his jeans and when Jimmy’s breath hitched and his legs spread wider to grant him better access, he squeezed gently.
The reaction was immediate. Jimmy broke away from Toby’s kiss, his hand over his face his body shifting away.
Jimmy shook his head and refused to meet Toby’s eyes. He was shaking and when Toby laid his hand on Jimmy’s shoulder, he shrank away and a heaving sob racked through him.
“Hey. Jimmy. It’s alright,” he put his hand lightly on Jimmy’s shoulder and another sob sounded throughout the car.
“I’m sorry…I can’t…I’m so sorry…” both of his hands were covering his face.
Toby reached out and threw and arm around Jimmy’s shoulders. Jimmy tried to shake Toby off, but he held on and eventually Jimmy gave in, allowing Toby to hold him against his chest as he sobbed.
“You have nothing to be sorry for. Nothing. Anyone who tells you otherwise has no idea what they’re talking about.”
He murmured the words to Jimmy, trying to calm him down. He let Jimmy cry; great wracking sobs that rattled through his body.
When his crying had subsided to nothing more than sniffles, Jimmy pulled away, awkwardly wiping at his face obviously mortified at his display of emotion.
Toby sat back silently; waiting.
When Jimmy had composed himself enough to talk, he said:
“Would you mind driving me home?”
“Sure,” Toby replied without hesitation.
The ride back to Jimmy’s was quiet. Toby knew from experience that platitudes were sometimes the worst route to take with someone in emotional upheaval, so he contented himself with staring out the windshield while Jimmy stared at his hands that had been folded and clenched in his lap since Toby started the car.
When Toby pulled up in front of Jimmy’s house, he put the car in park, letting it idle.
The two of them sat, both staring out the windshield, a silence of uneasy truths hanging over both of them.
Toby got the distinct impression that Jimmy was thanking him for more than the ride home.
Jimmy moved to get out of the car.
He turned before closing the door behind him.
“If you ever find yourself in Boston, look me up.”
Jimmy averted his eyes and nodded before closing the door.
Toby watched as Jimmy made his way up the front walk and opened the front door. With only the barest hint of a fleeting glance, Jimmy closed the door softly.
Toby sighed heavily, put the car in drive, and headed back to his parents’ house.