“Why’d those two run off like that?” Steve asked as he approached with a plate full of food. “What’s up with that?”
“It’s a bit complicated,” I replied. “The short version is that it was a classic case of two best friends afraid to say how they felt about each other. When I told them about what happened to me, Darren made a comment about thinking things like that only happened in the stories he’d read on the internet, and then he had a full-blown panic attack and ran off.”
“Ah, well if maybe Darren’s gay, that certainly explains it,” Steve replied.
“What was that about?” Rob asked as he approached us. I explained what had happened and he replied, “Don’t worry. They’ll be back. Just give them time.”
After finishing my first plate of food, I headed back to the kitchen, grabbed a burger with lettuce, tomato and ketchup, and grabbed a hot dog with chili and shredded cheese, too. I added a serving of the baked beans and some macaroni salad to the plate, and mingled with the girls as I ate, getting to know them as well. They included Lindsey, who was ten and in the fifth grade; Hillary, who was thirteen and in the eighth grade; Camilla, who was sixteen and a sophomore; and Celia, who was a seventeen-year-old senior. Whereas Rob had his own car, which he needed to get to and from work, Camilla and Celia shared a car between them. I was gonna hafta get my learner’s permit and sign up for driving school, but it would probably be a long time before I could afford a car.
Walking up to Jerry and Fran, who were talking to Juan and his wife, I exclaimed, “La comida estuvo increíble. Todo estuvo delicioso.”
“Muchas gracias por decir eso, J.J.,” Fran replied.
Rob was standing within earshot and asked of no one in particular, “What did they say?”
“You don’t know Spanish?” I asked Rob, incredulous that a Latino wouldn’t know it.
“I never learned it,” he replied. “None of us did. I studied German and French.”
“But it’s part of your heritage,” I responded. “How can you study Latin literature and your proud traditions unless you know Spanish?” I asked.
Shrugging his shoulders, he responded, “Even if I had learned it, I don’t really have any opportunity to speak it.”
“But you could speak it at home with your parents and sibs,” I pointed out.
“It’s a little late for that now,” Rob replied.
Sighing, I responded, “Qué triste es que no puedas hablar tu propia lengua materna.”
Laughing, Rob added, “If you say so.”
Steve joined us and agreed, “Tenemos una herencia cultural tan rica. Qué pena no poder estudiarlo en español.”
“Okay, my family’s a failure when it comes to our Hispanic heritage,” Rob countered, “but we’re a military family. We moved around a lot when we were younger, and I’m fluent in German and French. “Ich bin mehrsprachig,” he said in German, and then switching to French, “Mais pas en Espagnole.”
“In diesem Fall entschuldige ich mich,” I replied in German, and then switching to French, “C'est toujours bon de parler plusieurs langues.”
“Although your pronunciations leave a lot to be desired,” Rob responded, “Spanish, German and French? I’m impressed.”
“The biggest problem is that I learned all three from reading the literature in each language, so I’m entirely self-taught,” I explained. “I’ve never had the opportunity to speak foreign languages before. In high school I took Latin, which really comes in handy, and you can imagine all the opportunities I had to speak foreign languages in southern Indiana,” I added sarcastically.
Just then, Henry and Darren walked back in the front door. Coming right up to me, Henry said, “We really do have a lot to talk about, my boyfriend and me, but this is not the time and the place to do it. Suffice to say, we were both afraid of the other finding out we were gay and in love with each other. Talk about clichéd, gay internet fiction! Anyway, thanks for helping us to come out to each other.” Then Henry whistled loudly enough to puncture my eardrums, I think, and shouted, “Everybody, Darren and I have an important announcement to make. We’re boyfriends!”
When everyone just went about eating their food as if nothing had been said, Darren responded, “I’m glad that no one said anything negative, but I was expecting at least some kind of reaction.”
Camilla, who was seated nearby, responded, “Tell us something we didn’t already know. I think we all just assumed you guys were a couple and had been for the past couple of years. I mean, the way you make eyes at each other, it’s pretty obvious how you two feel about each other.”
“It is?” Henry asked of no one in particular. “Then, why didn’t I see it?”
“At least, we know it now,” Darren replied, and then he leaned forward, and they kissed each other deeply. After coming up for air, he added, “Let’s go get some food. I’m starved!”
“Boys!” Hillary exclaimed. “With boys, food always comes before love.”
“And what’s wrong with that?” Carlos, Juan’s thirteen-year-old son asked of no one in particular. Rather than say anything, Hillary, who was also thirteen, pulled Carlos to her and kissed him long and hard. It was evident to anyone who looked that Carlos was hard.”
“Maybe you have a point there,” Carlos admitted.
“Actually, you’re the one with the point,” Hillary responded. I couldn’t believe she said that and apparently, neither could Carlos as he turned beet red.
“You two do realize you’re first cousins, don’t you?” Camilla interjected.
Hillary and Carlos turned to look at each other and then exclaimed, “Gross!”
In the meantime, Henry and Darren returned with full plates of food and began chowing down, feeding each other as often as they fed themselves. Those two were so lucky to have found each other so early and to have the support of their parents, but then I wondered about Darren’s parents, and so I asked, “Darren, do your parents know about you and Henry?”
“Oh, yeah,” he responded. “That’s where we spent the last hour and a half. I came out to my parents and my sister, and they all said they knew and had assumed Henry and I were already a couple.”
With tears in his eyes, Henry added, “His parents actually said they loved me as if I was their own flesh and blood. Can you believe it? They accept us totally and hope we’ll always be together.”
“I wish we’d come out two years ago,” Darren responded. “Just think of all the fucking we could have done in that time.”
“I so didn’t need to hear that,” Hillary interjected.
“We did plenty, don’t you think?” Henry countered. “Your mouth should be certified as a lethal weapon.”
“I definitely didn’t need to hear that, either,” Hillary added.
Since I’d finished my second plate of food and knowing the Rodriguez family would have to head back to KC, I disposed of the remnants of my plate and was planning to find Mamá and Papi when I spotted a huge homemade sheet cake with a large Applazon smile across it and in a rainbow of colors, ‘Welcome to Omaha, JJ’. Wow, it was beautiful, but I was stuffed. Hopefully it would be a while before we cut the cake.
Realizing I needed to use the bathroom, I headed downstairs to use the bathroom I shared with the brothers. Afterwards, as I approached the stairs that led back up to the great room, I overheard Papi say, “He’s a good kid with a troubled past.” Stopping in my tracks, I stayed outta sight.
“Did he tell you anything about his past?” I heard Fran ask.
“I stopped him from telling me anything incriminating,” Papi replied. “If anything ever happens and the police become involved, it’s better for all of us if we don’t know the whole story. From what I do know, his mother died in childbirth and his father was abusive. He spent much more time talking to Esteban, so I asked my son, and he confirmed my suspicion that the abuse was sexual.”
“Jesus,” Jerry interrupted.
“I’m pretty sure that J.J. killed his father in self-defense,” Papi continued.
“Who could blame him?” Fran interjected.
“Wouldn’t it have been better for him to have turned himself in?” Jerry asked.
“I don’t think so,” Papi countered. “He once let it slip that he grew up in southern Indiana, and the politics there aren’t much different from rural Kentucky, Tennessee or Alabama. He would’ve been tried as an adult and probably given a life sentence, perhaps even without parole. They care more about closing the case than seeking justice in those small rural towns.”
“How could they do that to a kid?” Fran asked. “He isn’t really sixteen, is he?”
“He said he was from the start, but he now has a birth certificate that says he just turned sixteen in January, which means he would’ve been fifteen when he came to us. I’m pretty sure he was only thirteen back then.”
“He once mentioned that his birthday was in February,” Mamá interjected. “I’m sure that’s his real birthday, and I think he probably just turned fourteen.”
“He just got his GED,” Papi added, “but he sounds more like a college graduate. The boy’s a genius.”
“I’ll have to make sure he takes advantage of Applazon’s tuition benefit while he’s here,” Jerry suggested. “There’s no reason he shouldn’t get a college degree, at the least.”
“Yeah, he deserves that,” Papi agreed.
“What about his identity?” Jerry asked. “It’s pretty hard to fake an ID now.”
“It’s a solid ID,” Papi explained. “Nothing’s foolproof, but he has exceptional computer skills. He needed my help to find a notary to certify his name, so he had to tell me everything. He did an extensive search and found a boy who, along with his parents and sister, was killed in a car accident a few years back. The boy was born in Wyoming and lived in Iowa, and the only living relative is a grandmother with Alzheimer’s in a nursing home in Wyoming. J.J. requested a duplicate birth certificate from the county where the boy was born and then used it to get a duplicate Social Security card and to apply for the GED. He just needs a photo ID now, and he decided to move to Nebraska because they don’t require an existing photo ID to obtain a driver’s license, whereas Kansas does.”
“I didn’t realize that,” Fran interjected.
“Neither did we,” Mamá concurred.
“The local high school has a state-certified course, and there’s still time to sign up for the summer session,” Fran suggested. “He’d have to take it in the evening after work, but he’d get his fifty hours of on-road instruction along with his nighttime driving that way, and the high school’s only a mile and a half away, which is easy walking distance. I’ll have to tell him about it while there’s still time to sign up.”
“You realize he’ll still only be fourteen when he gets his license,” Mamá said.
“In parts of Nebraska, you can get a learner’s permit at fourteen,” Jerry pointed out, “as I’m pretty sure you can in Kansas. Farm kids can get a permit that lets them drive farm vehicles on public roads as young as thirteen. You have to remember that Bellevue’s a self-contained town of sorts, and even Omaha’s pretty small for a city, especially compared to Kansas City. Highway 370 practically goes right to Applazon, so he won’t be going far, anyway. Besides, there’s not much traffic here.”
“What is the population of Omaha?” Papá asked.
“Our metro population’s said to be just under a million,” Jerry answered. “I’m pretty sure KC is more than double that.”
“Indianapolis and Cincinnati are close to where he grew up and also over two million metro,” Papá added, “same as KC, but you have to remember that J.J. grew up in a very small rural town – maybe even less than ten thousand. We only exposed him to a tiny part of KC. To him, Omaha will seem motherfucking huge.”
Oh, my god. I’d never heard Papi swear, ever. I didn’t know he even knew words like that! Did all adults talk differently to other adults than when children were around? That thought was a real eye-opener. I decided I’d been eavesdropping long enough and headed up the stairs, as if I were heading to the kitchen. “Oh, hey,” I said as I passed by the table where they were seated. The fridge was filled with different things to drink, and I selected a bottle of what was labeled as peach iced tea, which sounded really good. It was from a brand I’d never heard of before, called Snapple. There were also at least three brands of beer – Coors, Budweiser and something called Heineken – but I doubted any of that was for the kids.
Heading out to the table with the ’rents, I prepared to open my bottle of peach iced tea when Jerry asked, “Have you ever drunk beer, J.J.?”
“Are you kidding?” I replied. “The minimum drinking age is 21, even in Nebraska, I’m sure. I’m sure it’s the same in all fifty states.”
“The law applies only to the purchase of alcohol or consumption in a public place,” Jerry explained. “The law doesn’t apply to consumption in your own home in the presence of your parents or guardian. We’d rather our children learn to drink responsibly than to go out and party and drive drunk. Now that you’re sixteen, you’re free to drink beer so long as you only drink at home and responsibly.”
That was unexpected. Of course, I wasn’t really sixteen, but then I shouldn’t be driving, either. “I’m not sure I should,” I replied.
I guess Jerry saw the uncertainty in my eyes, because he added, “You should do what you feel is right for you, J.J. No one is going to have a better or worse opinion of you if you decide to drink a beer. This being a military town, as I’m sure you can imagine, a lot of people drink when they’re off-duty. Nothing is more refreshing at a barbecue or with pizza and wings than an ice-cold beer, but it’s definitely an acquired taste. I’m sure you’re curious like most teenagers and you’re welcome to try it, and if you don’t like it, that’s fine, too.”
The thing was, I really did want to try it, but I felt I was deceiving them since I was really only fourteen. However, just moments before, they’d actually acknowledged that I was probably only fourteen, so didn’t that mean they already knew it?
As if he were reading my mind, Papi added, “You’re very mature for your age, J.J., so I know that whatever your age or whatever you decide, it’ll be the right decision.”
“Okay,” I agreed. “I’ll be right back. Oh, do you have a suggestion of which beer I should try?”
“Heineken is one of the best,” Jerry replied, “but it’s a bit rich and probably not the best for your first experience with beer. It’s also better if you don’t acquire a taste for it, because it’s expensive. Rob likes it, and I make him pay for his own, but I know he wouldn’t mind if you want to try some. Bud is a very good overall beer, but Coors Lite is a bit more delicate for a first-time experience.”
“Thanks,” I responded, “I’ll give the Coors a try.”
Heading back into the kitchen, I exchanged the iced tea for a bottle of Coors Lite. I hoped I wasn’t making a mistake, but with the adults’ encouragement, why not?
Returning to the table, I sat down only to realize I needed a bottle opener to open the beer. Shit. Just as I started to get up, Fran handed me the bottle opener that had been on the table all along. Popping the top off the bottle, I put it up to my lips and slowly tilted it back, taking my first-ever sip of beer. At least, I knew better than to chug away. I’d read enough stories in which a teen tried to drink their first beer the way they would a soda and ended up spewing it all over the place. I swallowed my first sip and although there was a bitter aftertaste I hadn’t been expecting, the overall taste wasn’t unpleasant. I took a bit of a larger sip for my second time and found I actually quite liked it, so I took a third swallow that was definitely not just a sip. The aftertaste was completely gone now, and the taste was indeed refreshing.
With a smile on my face, I said, “Well, it’s not quite what I was expecting, but it pretty damn good. Is it okay to say damn?” I asked as an afterthought. Did that slip out because of the effects of the alcohol?
“This is the adult table and you’re sixteen,” Jerry answered. “You can say whatever shit you damn well please as long as you don’t use the ‘f’ word. Just don’t let the alcohol go to your head,” he added as I took another gulp of my beer. “The alcohol content’s a little over a third of that in wine and most mixed drinks, but you usually drink more of it. Drinking a couple of beers or a mug of it is like drinking a glass of wine.”
I really had a good time, talking with the adults as an adult. We got to talking about politics and everyone had an opinion regarding President Trump. Papi liked the man and thought his border policy was a long overdue reaction to free migration across the border. I was surprised that a Latino would feel that way, but then he was born in the U.S. Jerry noted how most of the military liked the way Trump was putting more emphasis on building up the military, although he had misgivings about his cozying up to Russia and his seemingly adversarial relationship with our longtime allies in NATO. Both of the women at the table thought that Trump’s behavior was deplorable and had voted for Hillary.
“My dad didn’t even bother to vote in the last election,” I noted, “but he really liked Trump. He even wore a MAGA hat a lot of the time while working. No one ever said anything, and southern Indiana is heavily Republican, but I always wondered if he was antagonizing the roughly one third of our clients who were probably Democrats.”
“What do you think, J.J.,” Fran asked.
Taking a deep breath, I began, “I think Trump is the greatest threat this nation has ever faced, including the threats from Stalin and Hitler. The thing is, he’s no friend of the working class, even though he portrays himself as a populist, and he’s weakening the very foundations of our democracy. In the short time he’s been in office, he’s managed to turn the public against the free press, which is essential to open debate, and he’s antagonized our allies, dismantled our treaties and imperiled the world’s trust in our leadership. He’s undermined the safeguards meant to limit the power of the presidency and corrupted the Republican Party, leaving the Democrats unable to mount an effective opposition. If he manages to win another term, it will probably be the last free election this country ever has.”
“Wow!” Papi exclaimed. “You certainly don’t mince words.”
“There’s a hell of a lot more I coulda said,” I replied. “For example, his border policy is completely ineffective, and in reality, he’s managed to add only a few miles of new fence to the border wall with Mexico. Mostly, he’s replaced existing fencing with what’s supposed to be a stronger wall, but a standard DeWalt reciprocating saw from Home Depot cuts right through it. It’s all cosmetic. It’s all for show. And don’t get me started on all his lies.”
“In all the time I’ve known you, J.J.,” Papi interjected, “I’ve never heard you express yourself so forcefully. I didn’t even know you had political opinions before.”
Shrugging my shoulders, I responded, “Neither did I. I’d never really given it much thought before, but I read a lot, and I’ve read a lot on American and World history. Great powers have come and gone, but none of them has ever lasted more than a few hundred years. It’s really a shame. The whole world seemed to think we might be different. American exceptionalism, they called it. Look at what we accomplished with the Marshall Plan. Our motives weren’t pure, but for the first time in history since the Roman Empire, we rebuilt our enemies instead of vanquishing them. It was a brilliant strategy. Patton was probably right; we shoulda taken out Russia before they had the chance to get the bomb, but then there wouldn’t have been a Marshall Plan at all.”
“No, there wouldn’t have been,” Jerry agreed, “but more importantly, the country was worn out by four years of war, and we weren’t prepared for such an undertaking. It was hard enough to sell the public on Korea. Stalin was no pushover, either. Look at what he did with the Warsaw Pact.”
“We shoulda pushed back against it,” I countered.
“What would you have done, bombed Moscow?” Jerry asked.
Thinking about the ramifications of an American first strike, I replied, “It’s easy to realize in hindsight that a tactical nuclear strike in response to Stalin’s aggressive moves on the Warsaw Pact might have averted the Cold War entirely, but a single nuclear strike would have only been the beginning of a protracted war, and the risk of the Soviets developing their own nuclear weapon before we could vanquish them was too great. The cost in Russian lives of a quick end to the conflict with multiple nuclear strikes would’ve been more than most Americans could’ve stomached. Furthermore, there’s no way we could’ve rebuilt Europe and Japan at the same time while fighting a major war with the Soviet Union. We would have won, but the world would’ve been a much more dangerous place, not unlike it is today.”
“You have an excellent tactical mind,” Jerry responded. “You really ought to consider a career in the military. In another year or two, you should consider applying to the Air Force Academy.” Did I really want to be a career military officer? The thing was, I’d be risking everything. They’d need my fingerprints and with that, the relationship to my arrest in Hannibal would be exposed, along with my fraudulent identity. Then there was the risk of being tied to my father’s murder. Either way, I didn’t think the Air Force Academy would be interested in admitting a convicted felon.
Rather than stating the real reason, however, I replied, “It’s an interesting thought, but I’d rather not serve under the current Commander in Chief.”
“You might want to avoid discussing politics around here,” Jerry interjected. “This part of the country tends to be very conservative, and you are in a military community.”
“Point well taken,” I replied. Actually, talking politics was completely new to me. Perhaps at a basic level I realized how much I despised President Trump, but I’d never dared to articulate it before. Nebraska was actually one of only two states that splits its electoral votes by congressional district, the other being Maine, and although the second district, which includes Omaha, usually votes Republican, it voted for Barak Obama in 2008, but why did I remember that? Why couldn’t I turn my brain’s tendency to rationalize everything off except when I needed it? Perhaps I really would make a great leader someday, except that my past pretty much had conspired against it ever happening.
I had a great time with the adults that afternoon, talking about everything other than politics. Steve joined us after a while, followed by Juan Gonzalez, his wife, Carlotta, and their oldest daughter, Anita. Rob joined us and insisted I should enjoy a Heineken with him. Unfortunately, he was right; Heineken was way better than Coors. Even so, Coors was good enough, much as a Cadillac is great, but a Chevy is good enough.
Later, we all enjoyed the sheet cake together. It turned out to be a Kahlua-flavored cake with vanilla frosting. I’d never had Kahlua-flavored anything before. It turned out that Fran made the cake with real Kahlua, which is a coffee liqueur, and she served the cake with homemade coffee-flavored ice cream. I guess Mamá had leaked it to Fran that I love coffee. Fuck, the cake and ice cream were incredible.
It was a tearful goodbye when it came time for Mamá, Papi, Steve and Juan Gonzalez’s family to return to Kansas City. At least we would not be so far apart that we couldn’t see each other from time to time. Ultimately for their own safety, I’d have to cut my ties altogether with the Rodriguez family, but not for now.
Disclaimer: This story is purely fictional and any resemblance of characters to real individuals is unintentional. Although it takes place in actual locations, in no way are any official policies, opinions or events inferred. Some characters may be underage and at times engage in homosexual acts. Anyone uncomfortable with this should not be reading the story, and the reader assumes responsibility for the legality of reading this type of material where they live. The author retains full copyright and permission must be obtained prior to duplication in any form.