Baby Steps

Boy walking through a field


Cole Parker

Alexander Francis Bickley was walking, alone with himself in a vast field of green and gold. He loved walking alone, just dreaming. Alone, he could imagine anything he wanted, not distracted by the reality of a world of people and expectations. Alone, he could ponder the things he had yet to figure out.

He was a slim boy with medium brown hair and a body not yet filled out into the broader shoulders and thicker arms of later adolescence. He spent much of his life with other people, and he got along fine there, but he so often felt phony, like he was acting in someone else’s play. Playing a part. One not written with him in mind.

Out on his own, almost hidden in the wild field he’d discovered and now frequently visited when he was feeling the need to be apart from what he normally was a part of, he was free of what pressures accompanied him elsewhere.

Often he didn’t even notice all the green and gold surrounding him as he walked at his own pace. He thought about school and imagined triumphs there instead of the boring rituals, the rules, the petty annoyances, the need to do as expected, to fit in. Living in his imagination was most always better than experiencing reality.

He thought about his one true friend, Baker. He knew he should tell him. Baker was empathetic and compassionate. He wouldn’t be bothered that Alex was gay. Would he? Or would his own mother? That was another thing to think about.

He imagined telling Baker and Baker saying, “So what?” Or maybe laughing and saying, “Took you long enough to tell me. I’ve known for ages.”

What Baker wouldn’t do was say, “Hey, that’s perfect. I am, too.” No, Baker wasn’t gay. He spent a lot of time talking about girls, talking about whom he was crushing on this week. But he didn’t ask Alex about his crushes much any longer. He was a sensitive kid and had seen how being asked made Alex uncomfortable. But that empathy didn’t stop him from talking about the girls he himself liked.

And his mother? He was pretty sure of her. They were a family, the two of them, and they were closer than most sons and mothers. He knew that by listening to the boys at school complain about their mothers. Those mothers all seemed to want to know details about what their sons were doing, even what they were thinking. Boys in their teens didn’t want their mothers knowing what they were up to, and certainly not what they thought about!

Alex didn’t feel that way himself. He told his mother more about his life than most boys did. They’d talked to each other all the time since he could say his first words. Very little embarrassed him around her. She knew he masturbated. He knew she knew. And she was very straightforward about it; she’d told him even before he’d first tried it that when boys reach the age of 11 or 12, they find their penis of special interest, even more so than before, and they begin a lifelong habit of stroking it. She told him that he’d come to that point soon if he hadn’t already. She said not to be embarrassed about it, that all boys sooner or later do it and it was nothing to be ashamed of.

He wondered if all boys were told this, and if so, in most families did the dad tell the son this? Maybe that was why she was as candid as she was; it was just the two of them. Whether or not that was the reason, it was the way she was, and why they were as close as they were.

Then, only two months later when she found a crispy sock under his bed, she repeated her speech, telling him there was no need to hide evidence of what he was doing. It was private, sure, and she didn’t want to see it, but she’d seen porn, she knew what it looked like when a boy did that, and she had always known this was something he’d do. The only thing she hoped for was that he was getting enjoyment from it. And no guilt at all.

How many mothers say that? Not many, he thought. Maybe only his. But it was emblematic of their relationship. They could tell each other anything.

Anything other than he was pretty sure he was gay.

Early on, he’d tried not to be, or at least tried to be interested in girls. He thought being gay might be one reason he only had one friend, that maybe even though he was sure he didn’t act gay or give it away at all, maybe somehow he gave off a vibe that he was different, and so other boys stayed away. Well, they didn’t stay away in fact. He was one of the guys at school and interacted with them all just like they did with him. But somehow, he didn’t really make friends with them. They were simply acquaintances. Except for Baker.

But trying hadn’t worked. He was thirteen and a half now. He no longer had ambivalent feelings. He was certainly gay.

So why didn’t he tell his mother? He really didn’t have a good answer. It just felt, felt—well, too momentous. That covered it. It was a very big thing. Every boy might jerk off. That just made them the same as all their peers. Being gay was the opposite. It made him different from most of his peers. And though his mother never spoke of wanting grandbabies to cuddle, he had seen her with mothers who had small babies, and she was always taken by them. He could see it in her eyes and body language. So maybe she wanted that. And he didn’t want to see the disappointment she might show when she knew that wasn’t something Alex would be doing for her.

Maybe that was part of it. Or maybe this was simply the first thing he felt he needed to and could keep private from her. Perhaps he couldn’t come up with a sound reason for that feeling, but it was what he felt.

He thought about this, walking through his private green and gold world. It was one of the things he thought about often. When could he tell her? When could he tell Baker? He didn’t know. He just knew he wasn’t ready.

His mom was fixing breakfast. Alexander Francis Brickley was in the family room, dancing. His arms and hips moved artistically, gracefully, to the heavy music blasting from the speakers. Sweat moistened his brow. His eyes were almost closed, so deeply was he into the music, unaware of anything else.

The anything else was his mother, who’d come into the family room from the kitchen to tell him breakfast was ready, but who’d paused to watch. Finally, when the music decrescendoed to silence and Alex had stopped moving, she told him to come eat, then said, “You’re really good, you know.”

He grinned at her. “Don’t think I have the nerve to do it in public,” he said.

“You look fine. There’s a dance coming up, isn’t there? Go! You don’t have to take anyone. Just go. Kids dance these days without a partner, doing just what you were doing out on the floor with everyone else doing the same. Many of the kids out there dancing won’t be partnered up. Just dancing for the joy of expressing themselves by the way they move to the music.”

He snorted. “Duh! Yeah, I know, Mom. Lots of kids my age are shy. Dancing touching a partner—actually it’s more like acknowledging to everyone that this is a person you like—that would be scary.” He dropped his eyes to his plate and ate some eggs.

She giggled. “Back in my day, we must have been braver, because we actually touched our partner. Can you just imagine, all those kids touching each other?” Alex ignored her sarcasm. She ignored being ignored but did become serious. “I think at your age, your way is better. Less embarrassing, and you don’t have to risk rejection. No asking someone to dance with you if that’s not your thing.”

“It’s maybe not just the embarrassment of being turned down.” Alex rejoined. “It’s also how you feel about yourself afterwards when the rejection has happened. That you’re not worth much. That you’re not attractive. That there’s something not right about you. I’ve never gone through any of that but I’ve thought about it. I’ve seen movies where a girl says no to a boy asking her to dance, and I can see what he’s feeling on his face. No, I’m not asking anyone. Might not even go.”

“Aw, Alex, you need to go. And you need to dance. You need to be part of it at school. Let people see you. You need to be out there. I’m sure there are boys you like, even if you’re too embarrassed to talk to them. But they need to see you there and see you dancing. Just like you’ll see boys you’re attracted to, there’ll be some who’ll be attracted to you. That won’t happen if you don’t go.”

She paused, watching his reaction. He was listening, she could see that. She’d never acknowledged what she was pretty sure was true about him before. Now he had heard her; she knew that by seeing the way he’d become frozen, by not reacting at all. But if he got defensive, if he denied what she was implying, she had an excuse all worked out. She’d say she didn’t mean she thought he was gay. She meant he was probably at the stage where boys get crushes on both genders, and maybe he had one on a specific boy now. Not gay. A crush.

But he didn’t say anything. He had a very flat look on his face. Perhaps she’d gone too far. So she used her excuse even if he hadn’t made it necessary. She used it while still leaving it ambiguous. “Crushes,” she said. “You have ’em, they have ’em. You miss the dance, maybe they’ll forget the crush they have on you and get one on someone else.”

“Moooom! No one has a crush on me.” He pushed his empty plate away from him.

“Like you’d know that? But I’m sure they do. You’re cute.”

Alex winced. “You always say that. You shouldn’t have bought all the mirrors we have in the house if you wanted me to believe it!”

“Sure I should have. They’re for verification of my veracity.” She giggled. “Verisimilitude validation. Okay, enough. Anyway, I expect you to go to the dance Friday night!”

“I don’t know,” he said, wavering. “It’s scary!”

“Alexander Francis! You’re the bravest 13-year-old I know! You rescued Mrs. Thomkins’ cat from that tree even though you don’t like heights. You stopped that bully last year from beating up that younger kid you don’t even like. When you were learning to ice skate, you kept falling down and then getting up again; the next day you were covered with bruises and still put your skates back on! What’s scary about a dance compared to everything you’ve done?”

“That’s an entirely different kind of bravery. That just means I can take being physically hurt. This is much different.”

“And this kind of hurt you would recover from just like the other kind. You need to do this!”

“Well…” He knew he wanted to go. And he wasn’t a boy who let fear stop him when he wanted to do something. He nodded. “Okay, I’ll go. But I’m not asking anyone to dance.”

“Not even the boy you like?” Okay, she was pushing it. But he was old enough to tell her. Or avoid it.

Alex made a face but couldn’t stop himself from seeing the boy he liked, Brandon, in his mind’s eye. “Especially not him! He’s probably not even gay.”

Then he realized what he’d admitted, but, well, what the heck? She’d already more or less admitted she knew. She wouldn’t tease him about it. She had to be the most supportive mother in the world. He knew he was lucky to have her. But, if she did jump on it, he’d just tell her he was talking about crushes, and it was more likely a gay boy would have a crush on him than a straight one would.

He picked up his jacket and backpack and headed out. “Bye, Mom,” he called as he opened the front door.

“Bye, Alex. I love you.”

“Love you too.” And he was gone.

“You coming to the dance tonight?” Baker was eating lunch with Alex, as usual. So were Clint and John. The four of them always ate together. He wasn’t really good friends with either of the other two, but you don’t have to be to eat lunch together at school. And all boys looked for other boys to eat with. It was rare for 13-year-old boys to eat lunch with 13-year-old girls, even in this age of sexual enlightenment. Sex ed had lowered the walls between the two sexes, but lunch was still lunch, and boys were still boys. Girls were girls, too. The two groups didn’t talk about the same things because they had different interests.

Baker was Alex’s best friend. The two had been close since second grade. But Alex hadn’t told him he was gay or thought he was gay. No, that wasn’t right. He was gay and he knew it. He hadn’t been sure for a while, but now was. But he was still not ready to tell anyone. He may have tacitly acknowledged it to his mother, but even then, he hadn’t admitted it out loud. It wouldn’t be a fact until he did.

He knew Baker was straight because of all the girls he kept pointing out as pretty, and which one he had a current crush on. That changed almost weekly. Alex let him rant on about his raptures with the opposite sex without joining in on the topic. He did have crushes, of course, but they were almost exclusively on boys. There were some girls he did find more fascinating than others. They were usually the tomboy type. Athletic, competitive personalities, that sort. But also the demure ones who still weren’t girlish but dressed like the boys did in jeans and tee shirts. He didn’t mind shy in a girl, and shy along with something that was difficult to describe interested him as well; maybe it was the shy ones he found looking at him a lot that he remembered. Girlish girls didn’t attract him at all.

But when forced to, he did point out to Baker the ones he thought were attractive. He didn’t really have crushes on them any more. So he didn’t say he did. At 13, he hadn’t succumbed to lying unless it was really necessary. That would come when he was older.

“I probably will,” Alex said, answering Baker’s question about coming to the dance. “You going to ask Amy to dance?” Amy was the one Baker had been going on about quite a bit lately.

“I think so. Why not? The worst that can happen is her saying no. How about you? Who’re you going to ask to dance?”

Alex frowned. “Actually, I’m going to dance and watch other kids. I don’t think I’ll ask anyone to dance. Mom says most kids our age just dance alone. If there are a lot of kids out there doing that, I’ll do it, too.”

“Scared to ask someone?” Baker grinned at him. Yeah, it was teasing, but the kind with no acid in it, the kind best friends could do because they both knew it was without rancor.

“No one I really want to ask.”

Baker gave him a funny look, and then John said something about one of the girls and everyone started commenting on that. The moment wasn’t lost on Alex, though. He wondered what Baker’s look meant.

The school gym was decorated with banners and streamers and slowly-moving colored spotlights. Their random movements made the room feel like it was in motion with floating, colored walls, like the dance was being held in the ballroom of an ocean liner. The gym no longer felt like a place designed for athletic competition; it was now a party palace. It was crowded with young teens, 6th through 8th graders, most bouncing around to the music of a youth band, some on the sidelines talking and recovering their breaths. Some stayed out on the floor all the time, growing ever more sweaty, boisterous and happy, swept away by the music and noise

Alex was at the refreshment table, drinking a cup of punch, then, before walking away, getting another to drink after spotting a place to sit. He’d been on the dance floor most of the night. He loved to dance, and he was good at it. Some of the boys, even some of the girls, looked awkward, as if they had no idea how to coordinate their arms and legs to move rhythmically or in any discernible pattern. Alex had been one of the better ones on the floor. He’d also been part of the majority of dancers who didn’t have partners.

He took his second cup of punch and sat down in the section of bleachers that hadn’t been pushed back and folded up against the wall. Catching his breath. Wanting to go back out, he was waiting for his heart to slow down a little. There was still a lot of time left.

Alex glanced around the room, looking for Baker. He was proud of his friend who’d danced twice with Amy! What courage, Alex thought. But Baker didn’t seem to be on the floor at the moment. Checking the bleachers around him, Alex couldn’t locate Baker there, either. And where was Amy? That sly dog, Alex thought. He must have taken Amy outside. Were they, uh, um—no, Baker might be brave, but not that brave. Sneaking a tentative kiss where people couldn’t see him do it would be about as far as he’d go. And he’d blush when doing it.

But then he saw Amy. She was with a bunch of her friends. They were giggling. Why did girls giggle so much? It was annoying.

He drank his second cup of punch and thought about getting back onto the floor. They were playing a slow number now, and a lot of the kids had left the floor. Alex liked loud, up-tempo numbers. He guessed those were what the majority of the kids liked, based on the number left on the floor. It was difficult to dance without a partner to a slow song without becoming very self-conscious.

And then he saw him. Baker. He was talking to a boy whose back was turned to Alex. Alex could see Baker full face; the other kid was a mystery. Baker was talking quite animatedly, and the boy he was talking to was doing a whole lot more listening than talking.

Then Baker got a slight frown on his face. He was looking around the room, but his eyes never got to Alex. He looked back at the boy he was talking to and pointed at the refreshment table. They both started to walk toward it. Finally, Alex was able to see who Baker was hobnobbing with. He took a deep breath. It was Brandon.

What in the world was Baker saying to him? Alex had never told Baker that he’d been crushing on Brandon since the school year had started. No way Baker knew that. Baker and Alex spent lots of time together at school and after it, and Alex was pretty sure Baker didn’t know Brandon at all. So why were they talking? And if in some completely unimaginable way Baker thought Alex was interested in Brandon, that still didn’t explain why he’d be talking to him. One thing was for sure. If he was talking about Alex to Brandon, Baker was dead meat. Painfully dead meat.

Alex didn’t know what to do. He really didn’t think Baker would sell him out like that, even with good intentions. He just wouldn’t. No more than before the dance would Alex have told Amy that Baker had a crush on her. You just didn’t do things like that in 8th grade. Not if you wanted to have any friends.

So what had they been talking about? He’d have to be careful asking Baker that. Too curious and the cat would be out of the bag. But he needed to know, and not next week sometime. Now.

He watched as Baker and Brandon got cups of punch and a cookie. At that point, Baker touched Brandon’s arm—why is he touching my potential boyfriend, Alex wondered with a suppressed growl—and walked away from him. Brandon stepped away from the table, then just stood by himself watching the dancers. Alex looked away from him, trying to find Baker, but he didn’t see him. Then suddenly, there he was, already on the bleachers and making his way over. He sat down next to Alex.

“What was that all about?” Alex asked, suddenly more interested in the answer than the loose cat.

“What? Oh, you mean my talking to Brandon?” Baker was trying very hard not to smirk, but not succeeding.

“Yeah. Do you know him?”

“I do now.” Baker paused. Alex seethed—Baker was enjoying this, the bastard! Alex was ready to pound him, except he’d never hit anyone in his life.

Baker relented, seeing the anxiety on Alex’s face. “I saw him standing alone and told him my name and said he didn’t look very happy, it being a fun dance and all. I asked him why he wasn’t out on the floor, having a good time. Didn’t he like to dance?

“He said he did, but hated to be out there on his own. So I said I knew someone just like that—my best friend in fact—and he was just sitting in the bleachers, maybe moping, and he’d love to have someone to dance with, but the only problem was, and it wasn’t really a problem, my best friend was a boy, but there was no reason two boys couldn’t dance together. There were a couple of them out on the floor already. It didn’t mean anything other than they were two boys who loved to dance.

“He just looked at me for a moment and said he’d probably just go home, that my friend probably wouldn’t want to dance with a boy, and in any event it would be embarrassing, and he hated to be embarrassed.

“I told him my friend was shy, and he’d be embarrassed, too, but it was worth a little embarrassment to be dancing if you love doing it, and that I hoped Brandon was good at it because my friend was always telling me he was the best dancer in the school. I said I wanted to see him in action, see if that were true.

“Well, that got his competitive juices flowing, because he gave me a look and said there was no way my friend was better than he was, and he’d wait while I went to ask you, and then we went and got punch, and that was when he said I had five minutes; then he was out of here. So, here we are. The ball’s in your court.”

Alex looked at him hard, hoping the glare would register, but all Baker did was grin. Finally, Alex asked, “Why Brandon?”

Baker did have the decency to look a little guilty for a moment. But then his natural confidence returned. “Because you think I don’t know, but I’m with you all the time. And every time Brandon’s anywhere around, that’s where your eyes go. You moon over him. If I didn’t notice, I’d be the world’s most unobservant person, and if I didn’t try to help, also a bad friend. I’m neither. I set you up with him and neither of you have to admit to being gay. I’m not doing that for you. That part is up to you.”

Alex didn’t know what to say. He was relieved that Baker was okay thinking he was gay. He was excited at the prospect of getting to know Brandon. But he didn’t think he had the courage to go meet him.

Baker saw that indecision in his eyes and scoffed. “He’s not going to wait forever. He said he’d give you five minutes. He’s got a pretty confident personality, surprisingly. Well, it surprised me. I thought he was kind of soft. He isn’t. It’s been four and a half minutes now. He saw me come over here. He saw who I was talking to. He saw that and he’s still there, waiting. He didn’t leave; he’s looking this way. Up to you.”

He looked at his watch and shook his head and then returned his gaze to Alex.

Alex returned the look, then suddenly stood up. His head was spinning, his stomach was churning, but he stepped out of the bleachers and onto the gym floor, then started walking toward where Brandon had been standing. He couldn’t see him now because of the crowd he had to navigate his way through, but he thought that was good. If he had his eyes on Brandon and Brandon had his on him, he might have chickened out.

He came out of the dancing horde right in front of Brandon. Brandon saw him. He didn’t smile. He simply watched Alex with a straight face and no expression at all.

Alex stepped up to him. “Hi,” he said.

“Hi,” Brandon echoed.

Alex was tongue-tied for a moment, desperately trying to think what to say next. And then it came to him, and he smiled. “Baker told me you think you can dance as well as I can. I couldn’t let a challenge like that pass.”

Alex gleefully congratulated himself. He’d found a way to ask Brandon to dance with him that didn’t give away anything he was trying to keep secret.

Brandon smiled, too. “Let’s do this,” he said, and walked out into the crowd. Alex was right behind him.

There was a moderate tempo piece of music being played, but then it changed to a fast number, just the kind of music that Alex loved. He began dancing to it, all rhythm and grace and creative moves. Brandon joined in, and then they were going at it together, watching each other and matching moves and then enhancing.

Little by little, space was opening up around them as others saw what the two were doing. The music went on and on, and so did the two boys.

Eventually, it stopped. Silence fell over the gym while the band took a short break. There was scattered applause, and then kids were again dancing as the band began again.

Brandon and Alex didn’t. In the midst of jumping and jiving teenagers, they just stood looking at each other. Then Alex put his hand on Brandon’s arm and began tugging him toward the bleachers. Baker was still there, watching, but Alex didn’t go near him. He sat in a vacant area with Brandon, a place where they were alone.

“I’ve been watching you for a long time,” Alex said. He knew where the courage came to say that. It was from the affinity he’d felt for Brandon while they’d danced. To Alex, it had seemed like they were a real couple then. It was a feeling Alex didn’t want to lose. It was worth the risk of being embarrassed if Brandon didn’t feel it, too. But he realized for the first time, he wanted to do this, no matter what came after it.

“You have?”

“Yeah. I’ve wanted to talk to you but didn’t have the courage. Now I do. What we just did, that was amazing. I hope you felt that, too. I hope that means we can be friends.”

Brandon didn’t answer. But, slowly, a smile began to form on his face. Then he said, “I’ve noticed you watching me. I wasn’t sure what it meant, so I never said anything, but yeah, I noticed.”

“You didn’t mind?”

“I liked it.”

Alex’s face lit up like the Fourth of July fireworks were exploding around him. They just looked at each other then, and Alex blushed, and Brandon did too. Then Alex led Brandon back to the dance floor, and they danced, and danced, and danced, and their eyes never left each other.

When the dance was over and kids were leaving, Alex said to Brandon, “You need to know. I’m gay. I hope we can still be friends.”

Brandon grinned. “Me too. And we’re going to be a lot more than friends.”

Alex grinned too and took Brandon’s hand. Now he had to tell his mother, but from what she’d said earlier, she’d probably already guessed. If not, she’d certainly know something had happened by the look on his face when he finally walked in the door. At that point, even if she didn’t ask, he’d tell her.

Alex had hold of Brandon’s hand. Or Brandon was holding Alex’s and it really didn’t matter because their hands were together. That was what mattered.

They were walking through a field of grasses and undergrowth that frequently reached as high as their waists, sometimes higher. It was like they’d been captured by a sea of green and gold.

“I come here to think. To be alone. I always loved walking alone here. Now, it feels even better, being here with you. I can talk to you about my dreams instead of keeping them all inside. This is so much better.”

Brandon’s eyes were wide open, and he was swiveling his head around. “This is wonderful,” he said softly, and the wonder, his awe, could be heard in his voice.

Alex squeezed his hand. “I was so happy when you said you liked to take long walks. I knew you’d like this. I just knew it.”

Brandon stopped, and Alex pulled him in close for a slow, soft kiss. It was their first. It wouldn’t be their last. Alex was slightly bigger. Brandon was slightly smaller. Brandon was slightly more extroverted. Alex was slightly more introverted.

They fit together perfectly.

The End

Thanks to my editing crew, as always. You guys make me look good!

Thanks, Mike, for the excellent site you run. It’s an honor to be posting here. Keeping the story quality high on AD for all these years is a mayor achievement.

And thank you readers, especially those of you who write to give me your opinions. I love hearing from you.