Journey to Love
Chapter Eight - New Friend, Best Friend
Edited by Cole, Peter and Scott
Dad's funeral was a week after he died. Mom was pretty conservative when it came to the funeral, unlike many who would have felt guilty and spent money they didn't have. The preachers—there were four—painted Dad as a terrible man or a saint, neither to my mind a very accurate picture. He was an angry man who never got his anger channeled into something constructive. DeAngelo and I had talked about that between the two of us. When we talked to Sam and Brad they agreed.
The day after the funeral, DeAngelo and I sat around the table with Brad and Sam to discuss what the two of us should do. As much as we disliked the idea, we all agreed we should move back to Mom's since she was alone. Sam drove us over so we could let her know we would be moving back. We were all surprised when Granny Lotz was there and Mom was packing clothes. They had discussed the situation too, and Granny Lotz told us, “I can't live alone any longer, and I told Mae, she either lives with me or I'll have to go to a home. Mae and I have talked about it and we have decided.” I guess Grandma had done most of the deciding, but the decision was made and cast in concrete. A young couple had already approached Mom about renting her house, so she would have additional income now that there would be no more coming from Dad, not that she had seen any of his for 'most a year. She also collected on a small insurance policy.
While we were talking with Granny Lotz, Mom was talking to Sam and Brad. I wondered how they liked the idea of being stuck with two teenagers, but they satisfied Mom that it would have been their choice had they known she would not be alone.
R. E. Lee had only two more basketball games before the playoffs and for the first time in many, many years, had a fair chance of at least getting in, but DeAngelo was sure they wouldn't make it. The social split in the community had never been overcome by team spirit. Sure enough, the social classes stuck together and as a result, played against each other as well as or better than they played against the opposing team. They lost out on making the playoffs.
Graduation finally rolled around. We were all very proud of DeAngelo. He had goofed off for two years before Sam and Brad came into our lives so he did not graduate with honors, but the faculty had voted him the most improved in the class for which we were all very proud as he was himself. His senior year, in spite of all that had gone on and prevalent senioritis, which causes most seniors to slack off, DeAngelo finished with straight Bs; he didn't have PE.
He had found a job working in a baseball camp for two weeks which paid enough for him to pay his own way to basketball camp for two more weeks. He had a week between the two and during that time, Sam and Brad took us to New York where we saw a couple of plays, visited museums and explored the city.
Too soon, DeAngelo started training at Monroe and when he left, he followed Sam and Brad's advice to go and stay until the break before he had freshmen orientation. When he did come back home, he told us he had a girlfriend and liked campus life. “But I haven't had any classes yet.” When he left for freshman orientation, he told us he'd likely stay in Harrisonville until he came home for Thanksgiving.
DeAngelo and I had been together and in the same room since we could remember until we went to live with Sam and Brad. There we not only had separate rooms, but also attended separate schools. Until then we had been so close, neither of us had a best friend, but that would change when DeAngelo went to Monroe and I started my second and senior year at Fort Defiance. By then I knew my way around, of course, and knew a lot of the students, but had no really close friends.
I was the 'new boy' last year, but not this year, so I needed no help finding my senior homeroom. I was in for a big surprise when I walked in; Mr. Manning was up front. “Ah, a face I know. Come in, Derek.”
“You are here now?” I asked, laughed and said, “how's that for a foolish question, since you are standing there.”
“Not for broadcast, but I had a new department chair at R. E. Lee who told me at the end of last year she would take the AP classes and I would have ninth graders this year. When the department chair here retired and none of the teachers wanted the job, I was approached about coming to Fort Defiance. I'd be department chair and teaching AP and honors. I jumped at the chance. How do you like Fort Defiance?”
“Very much. Strange that a county school seems less prejudiced than the city one, but it's true.”
While we were talking a student walked up, waited until Mr. Manning saw him and asked, “Sir, am I in the right homeroom?” Mr. Manning looked at his schedule and said, “You are indeed. I assume you, as I, are new.”
Mr. Manning continued looking at his schedule as he asked for mine. “I see you are taking AP English and calculus this year as well as honors in everything else. Way to go.” He compared the two schedules and said, “Derek, this is Jeremy Willoughby. You have English, calculus, physics and computer science together. Would you take him under your wing until he knows his way around?”
“Sure,” I replied, extended my hand and said, “Derek Wilson.”
“Of the famous birthplace Wilsons?” he grinned.
“The darker side of the family,” I laughed.
So far as actual friends were concerned, I may as well have been a new kid myself. I didn't play a sport at school, so I didn't have teammates. I’d just started last year, so didn’t have a history with any of these kids, and that made it harder to fit in, too. Nevertheless, Mr. Manning was my homeroom teacher and had been since I started high school until last year, so I wasn't surprised when he asked me to take Jeremy under my wing. He told us just to find a seat. I knew unless the class misbehaved, he'd never assign seats.
When we were seated, I asked to see Jeremy's schedule and found out in addition to the classes we had together, the one in which we weren’t together was on the same hall. By the time lunch came, we knew a little about each other.
The Shenandoah Valley was saturated with ex-military types, so it was no surprise that Jeremy was an army brat. His dad had thirty years in the army, retired with the rank of Command Sergeant Major and was thoroughly military but, aside from that, a nice guy. Since Jeremy was the baby—his next younger sibling was ten years older—I suspect he got by with a lot more than his four brothers did when they were seventeen. Nevertheless, he knew the limits and carefully observed them.
I told him that associating with an African-American was pretty much not done by whites and if he wanted to associate with someone else I'd understand. “You have a huge step up the social ladder here since you're a military brat and your dad held the rank he did. You might think about that since you probably can pretty easily become part of the ‘in crowd’.”
“From what I have seen since I've been here, no, thank you. I hate snobs and cliques. I had enough of that bullshit when we were in the army.”
He had art and I had photography the period before lunch. The two classes were several doors apart, but along the same hall, so when we reached the hall, I just pointed him in the right direction and watched as he headed down the hall. Jeremy was not quite as tall as I was, probably an even six feet, and had a slender body and a real cute butt. Even though we hadn't talked about sports—which was kinda strange as it's usually the first thing two guys talk about—he obviously wasn't a football type. When we met for lunch, I asked him if he played any sports. “Not really,” he said. “I have a rainbow of belts in martial arts. I went as far as I could go in several and Dad has continued my training. I dived on a team when there was one on the base or at my school, but there wasn't one available at our last station. You play anything?”
“Not at school. I swim and dive on the Center team.”
I started telling him about the Center when a real jerk, Jim Brown—He was at Fort Defiance because he had pulled some stunt at R. E. Lee and got expelled, so his parents paid tuition for him to come here—overheard me and said, “You don't want to get involved with those queers.” I was really pissed off, but had learned to try to ignore the assholes when I was in middle school.
“We'll talk later,” I said.
At lunch, Jeremy asked me about the Center and I told him all about it including the fact that use of the facility for a swim team had first been offered to R. E. Lee, but they had rejected it. “As a result, the aquatics team has members from all the high schools and most of the middle schools.” I realized I had some explaining to do when he asked why they the school had turned down the offer. I decided honesty was the best policy and told him why and also that I lived with Sam and Brad.
We had gym together the last period, but I was excused from gym since I swam and did personal training at the Center under certified teachers. It was nine miles from Fort Defiance High School to the Center and I biked it. It was ten miles from the Center to Grace House and I had offered to bike home, but my dads—after Dad died, DeAngelo and I had asked Sam and Brad if we could call them Dad and they said they would be honored—wouldn't hear of it. “You have biked nine miles, had swim team practice and worked out. That is enough.”
I explained to Jeremy why I would be leaving gym class and he asked if the option was open to anyone. “I'm not sure,” I told him. “Have your dad check it out. You bike?”
“Not since we moved here since I don't know my way around, but I used to.”
“Up to a ten mile ride instead a leisurely walk to the gym?”
“Sure,” he said.
“I'll talk to Brad and you have your dad check on your getting gym credit for aquatics team and if it’s all okay, you can bike over with me.”
The next morning in homeroom, I told him he needed try out for the aquatics team, but even if he didn't make the team, he could buy a membership to the Center and get credit for a personal fitness program. He told me his dad had made an appointment with the principal and his counselor to see if he could get excused from gym and earn credit for whatever he did at the Center.
He got a call before gym to come to the counselors’ office and when he came back—I had to check into gym before taking off for the Center—he told me he was all set. His dad had brought his bike, workout outfit and Speedos, so he was ready to get with the program.
We rode side by side most of the way to the Center and it took twenty minutes longer than my usual ride as we talked, getting to know each other. Jeremy had lived all over the world and certainly had a broader view than I did, but in spite of that and the fact that he was white and I was black, we certainly seemed to like the same things and pretty much had the same dreams. I did kinda hedge when he asked about girlfriends. I told him I dated occasionally, but not often and had never had a regular girlfriend. “With school, work, swim team and all, I don't have a lot of time and from watching my brother DeAngelo, it seems to me girls take up a lot of time.” Jeremy agreed, but said he thought they were generally worth the effort.
At the Center, I found Brad and introduced the two, got Jeremy started on the process of getting his membership profile done and started my work for the Center. I had forty-five minutes before swim practice began and I wanted to get as much done before that as I could.
When Ms. Bianchi arrived, Brad brought Jeremy to her and she had him demonstrate his ability as a diver. I managed to catch part of that. He wasn't bad, not bad at all, but he was far from the best of the divers on the team. My spot as number one was definitely safe, but he would give some others a run for their money. When Mr. Malik had him try out as a swimmer, I saw that several swimmers would now be lower on the totem pole, yours truly included. The man was a fish in a Speedo—which, in passing, I noticed he filled very, very well.
That evening at dinner, Brad told us about meeting Sergeant Major Willoughby. “He asked about martial arts at the Center and when he learned there was no one to teach it, offered his services. I was delighted. He did give me a fright when he said, 'By the way, Bradford, I know about you and your living arrangements,' then quickly added, 'and that is no problem, absolutely no problem, not for me, and not for Jeremy. I had a struggle with the gay issue when James, my number two son, came out and then again when he brought Keith, his significant other, home to meet the family, but that's in the past. I just wish Jimeson, my number three son, had been as happy with his wife. Those two finally divorced, but it was a very drawn out, messy, nasty divorce and she disappeared with the children for a year. Jimeson sees them a few weeks a year now. Well, I'm running on, but I wanted to clear the air on that matter.'
“'Thanks, sir,' I said. ‘I appreciate you being upfront. No doubt you have been here long enough to have heard the whole sordid—and distorted—story, but for what it's worth, I am very happily married to a wonderful man and we have two great sons—well, we share them with their mom. You've met Derek. DeAngelo is a freshman at Monroe. We are very proud of our family.'
“I was really pleased when he said, 'From what I have seen of you and Sam—I met Sam right after we moved here when my wife got sick—and Derek, you have a right to be. Well, where can I set up shop?'
“I showed him an exercise room, explaining that I didn't know whether it was large enough or not and asked for a list of any materials or equipment he needed so we could get it ordered. 'The room is perfect and all I will need is a mat,' he said as soon as he saw it. He told me the size he needed and I said you and I would get one moved in before swim practice started.”
“'What about uniforms?' I asked him. 'We provide uniforms for kids who can't really afford them, based on the same sliding scale as the membership, but never charge more than cost. We also need to discuss your salary.'”
“'I'll get you information about karate gi, which is what most martial arts students wear—and which I like for mine to wear. Salary? How about free membership for Jeremy and myself? Too bad you don't have a therapy pool for water aerobics for older folks. If you did, I’d ask for a membership for the wife as well. She really needs that.'
“'We do have a therapy pool, but we don't have an instructor. I could do it, but I just don't have time with running the Center,’ I said. 'Let's talk about that,' Sergeant Major said. 'Maybe there's some of that I can do. I've been retired long enough to know there's only so many books you can read at once and so much TV you can watch before you become brain-dead.'
Before the week was over, Brad was doing a water aerobics class and Sergeant Major was handing the business end of the Center. He was also offering martial arts classes for all ages. He was a big boost to the Center and its program. His social standing didn’t detract from it either. Mrs. Willoughby was plagued by arthritis and her sessions in the therapy pool followed by the whirlpool were providing a lot of comfort to her. Because of all our association and work at the Center, the Willoughbys quickly became a part of our extended family. Jeremy and I had classes together, biked to the Center together, were on the aquatics team and worked out together. Spending so much time together, we became best friends and inseparable.
For Halloween, Sam and Brad planned a party for all the high school age members of the Center and their boy- and girlfriends and parents who were interested. It looked like there would be about seventy people coming. Jeremy talked me into double dating with him, then remembered we four couldn't be in the same car since we were not over eighteen.
Jeremy had a crush on a cheerleader, Pam, and invited her to go with him and she accepted. I finally asked a girl in my AP calculus and I'll admit, I was half hoping she'd say no, but she accepted. Her name was Janice and she was pretty and for a girl who was a math whiz, popular. I was surprised that she didn't have a date, but anyway, she accepted and Jeremy and I were to pick both girls up. His dad allowed him to drive their Jeep and Brad said I could drive the Spyder. We were complaining about the Virginia Graduated License Law and Brad heard us. “You guys aren't eighteen, but you both have had your licenses over a year and have a clean record. You could have three passengers with either of you driving. The Spyder will be cramped, but I suspect that won’t be a problem.”
The farm had a huge barn which was no longer used and Sam and Brad had had me and DeAngelo working on it over the summer. The downstairs had been cleaned and leveled and a concrete floor poured. After that was done, the four of us had put in vinyl tile. The upstairs was cleared of old hay and could be used as a storage area. Mom joined Sam in the kitchen, cooking food for the party and Brad, Jeremy, his dad and I took on decorating the barn. We were well into it when DeAngelo drove up with two women and another guy. We grabbed each other in a bear hug. When we turned loose, he said, “This is Joe, my roommate, and Alice, his girlfriend, and Charlotte, my girlfriend,” indicating the two women.
“Sergeant Major, Jeremy's dad, and Jeremy, my best friend,” I said.
“And this is my other dad, Brad,” DeAngelo said, as he gave Brad a bear hug as well.
“Glad you and your friends could come, son,” Brad said, hugging DeAngelo again. “Did you stop by the house to say hello to your mom and Sam?”
“I did. I just ran in and Mom told me we could visit later, but for now I should go to the barn. So it looks like decoration time. Guys, let’s pitch in. Glad you transferred the party from Thursday to Saturday since we could come, and too, we’ll have a full moon tonight. Hayrides, Brad?”
“Well, we first planned on a hayride, but it looks like we'll have about seventy people here, so it isn't practical. You staying over?”
“Alice and Charlotte have to be back, but Joe and I thought we'd come back and spend the weekend unless someone is using my room.”
“Jeremy will be here; mind sharing a bed, Jeremy?” I asked
“You guys have dates?”
“We do. Their curfew is 1:00, so we'll be back here by 1:30. What did you have in mind?”
“Great night for skinny dipping.”
“Sounds good to me. You up for skinny dipping, Jeremy?”
“Kinda chilly for that, seems to me.”
“Wait and see,” DeAngelo laughed. “We'll go after the party's over.”
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