On Bridges and Ash  |  Ronnie K. Stephens

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             Craig eased the car to a stop in front of his parents’ house. His dad had invited him home for dinner and to catch up on Craig’s life at college. As he opened the door, he could smell his favorite meal. The aroma of meatloaf, mashed sweet potatoes, and green bean casserole filled every room. His dad was setting the table, as his mom carefully sliced the meatloaf into thick strips. Craig took the plate onto which his mom had just placed a strip of beef, and he made his way around, taking generous portions of the potatoes and casserole. At first, the conversation was light and relatively pointless. Craig answered their questions about teachers, class, and the latest events being held on campus. His father told him about a new contract, and his mother pointed out the newly upholstered sofa in the living room.
             “Are there any girls you’ve had your eye on?” his mom finally asked.
             “No, Mom, not lately. There’s this guy, Anthony. We’ve been hanging out a lot lately.”
             “A guy?”
             “Yes … a guy. He’s in one of my classes—”
             “I don’t want to hear about it,” she interrupted.
             “Beth, let him spea—” his father started.
             “Jack, you two know how I feel about that,” she retorted.
             “Mom, I’m tired of acting like it’s not there.”
             “You know the rules. You don’t talk about it, and I won’t comment on it.”
             “But wh—”
             “Craig, you remember my brother, Ian?” Beth asked.
             “Yes, but I’m not—”
             “Ian was—”
             “Beth, leave it alone,” Jack cut in. “So, Craig, have you decided on a major yet?”
             “Um … no, not yet.”


             Craig walked slowly to class, barely mustering the strength to lift his feet from the pavement as he thought about the night before. He looked up and saw Anthony waiting for him in front of their next class. Anthony was of average height with black hair and green eyes. He was thin, but not skinny, and his lips seemed to curl naturally into a smile. He waved at Craig, noticing the clouds in his usually bright brown eyes.
             Craig had never been in a real relationship with a man, so he and Anthony were taking things very slow. It wasn’t that Craig hadn’t wanted to be with other guys, but being around his mother had always made it too hard. As Craig made his way to Anthony, his composure gave way and tears trickled down his cheek. She’d never cared for him the way his father had. She constantly told him that he wasn’t “normal” and that real men played football like his father. Despite being very muscular and fit, Craig had never enjoyed sports, although racquetball was growing on him. In fact, he and Anthony were supposed to play that night.
             Craig sighed and told Anthony how it had gone. Anthony hugged him tightly and glared at the students gawking as they walked by. It was rough being different in the Bible Belt. They climbed a flight of steps and entered the oldest building on campus. It didn’t have air conditioning, but teachers usually opened the windows in the fall, and the breeze felt good as the two strolled through the hall and into the classroom.
             When it was time for class to begin, the teacher called attention to the front. She told the students that she had to leave early for a doctor’s appointment. They cheered and jumped from their seats. As Craig was putting his binder back into his bag, Anthony leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. Craig pulled back, scared that some classmates might take offense. Anthony sighed. He knew how hard it was for Craig, and though it wasn’t going to be easy, he was prepared to help Craig get comfortable with prying eyes and hateful jeers.
             They parted ways and planned to meet for racquetball just after dinner. As Craig ambled to his dorm to change before dinner, he thought about his father and wondered how he’d ever put up with Mother. He remembered a time when his father, Jack, had explained to him that Beth’s brother, Ian, had been gay. I wonder if Mom knows he told me, Craig thought, recalling his father’s interjection the previous night.
             Beth’s father had not accepted it and had banned Ian from the house. Beth did not speak to Ian again for five years. One day, Ian called her crying and said that he was near her apartment and wanted to stop by, so she told him to come over whenever he liked. When Ian arrived, he explained to Beth that he had been diagnosed with AIDS about four months prior. His lover, Brian, had recently died of the disease. Beth was devastated. Ian admitted that his apartment, leased in Brian’s name, was too expensive for him and that he had nowhere to go. Beth offered him their extra room and promised to help him in whatever way he needed.
             Soon, Ian began to show signs of slowing down. His skin got paler. He started to lose weight. His naps went from hours to days. It had crushed Beth to watch him deteriorate that way. Jack and Beth had only been dating for a few months when Ian took a turn for the worse. Craig remembered his father’s eyes watering as he told him about Ian’s voice growing so soft they could barely hear him speaking. One day, as Beth sat with Ian reading, she glanced over at him sleeping. She smiled for a moment, and then stared in horror at the chest that was no longer moving. She screamed for Jack to come into the room and feel for a pulse. There was none. Beth was so heartbroken that she had refused to attend the funeral, Craig’s father had said.


             Craig had gotten so lost in thought that he didn’t notice the clock flashing six o’clock. He grabbed an apple from the mini fridge in the corner of his dorm room and sprinted to the gymnasium. He took the stairs two at a time, as he rushed to the fourth floor and began looking for Anthony. Anthony spotted him down at the other end of the hall and shouted for him. Craig turned and smiled.
             “Sorry I’m late,” he said.
             “It’s no problem. Just don’t do it again, or I won’t go so easy on ya,” Anthony chided.
             Craig laughed, and they headed into the court. As the game wore on and things began to get more intense, Craig couldn’t help but watch the way Anthony’s muscles flexed every time he’d stop before swinging. He’d lunge from side to side, calves bulging, and hit the ball as if it were everything wrong with the world all condensed and thrown to him. Lost in thought, Craig didn’t notice the ball flying at his chest. It smacked him back to reality with jarring force. As he tried to catch his breath, Anthony rushed over to make sure that he was all right. Craig said that he was fine, and he’d just need a minute to recuperate. Anthony walked over to the corner of the court and peeled off the shirt sticking to his own back. Craig had never seen Anthony with his shirt off and reveled in his near-hairless chest. It wasn’t as muscular as his own, but Anthony’s abdominal muscles were to die for. Craig found himself longing to trace the indentations and bury himself in Anthony’s neck.
             Anthony looked over at Craig and noticed him staring at the sweat running down his chest. He smiled, glided over to Craig and whispered into his ear, “Do you like what you see?”
             “Of course,” Craig said. “You have an amazing body. I never noticed it until now.”
             “Gee thanks,” Anthony replied, thick with sarcasm.
             “I didn’t … um … you’re … oh, you know what I meant,” Craig scowled.
             “I know, but I like to see you squirm,” Anthony said, moving a little closer. “Have you ever kissed a guy, Craig?”
             “Of course,” he replied, “but it never really meant anything. For me, it’s always been sexual. I was too afraid to try and have a relationship.”
             “I sensed that,” Anthony said. “I’m gonna help you through it, Craig. Things will work out just fine.”
             “Thanks,” Craig replied, smiling.
             When their time was up, the two headed back toward the dormitories. As it came time to part ways, the two embraced in a passionate kiss.
             “See ya in class tomorrow,” Anthony said, as he walked away. Craig couldn’t take his eyes off of Anthony until he had disappeared into his building. He walked to his own, slowly, indirectly. In fact, he walked so indirectly that he found himself on the other side of campus, near the amphitheater.
             Craig opened the door to his room and stood in shock. His bed was turned upside down, his drawers emptied all over the floor, his computer monitor was playing what looked to be a gay porn movie, and across the mirror in bright red letters someone had written “Faggots Will Burn In Hell!” Craig was furious. Who could have possibly gotten into my room and done this? He wanted to call the police, but his fingers dialed home subconsciously. When his mother picked up, Craig tried to hide the anger in his voice and asked for his father.
             “Hold on a second,” Beth said. Craig could hear her yelling to his father, “Jack! Craig is calling for you!”
             “Hello, son,” he heard his father say after a few seconds. “What’s up?”
             “Um … well … to tell you the truth, I didn’t mean to call.”
             “What do you mean?”
             “Well … someone broke into my room. Everything is a mess. I was trying to call the police.”
             “What for? Is anything broken?”
             “Well … no. It’s just that, they spray painted something on the wall.”
             “Faggots will burn in hell.”
             “Oh, God. All right, call the campus police. They probably won’t be able to find who did it, but at least they’ll be aware and keep a better eye on the dorm.”
             “You’re right. Is Mom still angry?”
             “Yeah, but she’ll come around. Give her time.”
             “Listen, I know it hurts to have your mother so upset, but I don’t want you to become what you think we want you to be. You’re following your heart, and I’m proud of you.”
             “Thanks, Dad,” Craig stammered. “I’ll call you this weekend, okay?”
             “Okay, son. Good luck with Anthony.”
             Craig smiled and hung up the phone. It took him nearly three hours to get his room back into the meticulous order it had previously been in. He sat at the computer, scanning emails and looking at his buddy list. He searched the screen names for “javagurl” and sent a message to her:
             cnfsd: “got any coffee?”
             javagurl: “would i ever be without?”
             cnfsd: “of course not … come over?”
             Lauren knocked on the door a few minutes later, and it swung open. Craig was standing in his boxers looking like a deer caught in the headlights.
             “Damn, that was quick,” he said.
             “Well, you said you were upset, did you want me to take my time?”
             “I guess not,” he said, trying to cover himself.
             Lauren walked over to him and slid her hand into his boxers. “Relax, sweetie, you’re gay, and I’m not in the mood,” she giggled. “So, where’s the coffee maker?” Craig pointed to the newly arranged counter. “I assume you want it strong?”
             “You assume correctly,” Craig said, as he pulled on a pair of pajama pants.
             While the coffee brewed, Lauren pulled off her coat and plopped herself onto the bed. Craig looked at her and sighed. Time’s like these would have been impossible before he’d met her. Lauren was, he imagined, what every guy would want in a girl. She had shoulder-length brown hair, dark green eyes, and milky white skin. He’d seen her naked plenty of times, and proportion was certainly not lost on her. Her small, firm breasts equalized nicely with an apple-shaped butt that bounced slightly when she walked.
             They sat on the floor and talked for hours. Craig told Lauren all about what had gone on at his parents’ house, the action he’d gotten on the racquetball court, and the conversation with his father after walking into his room. Lauren just sat back, taking it all in and sipping coffee. Sometimes, these nights could turn into mornings and then into nights again. Coffee was essential. The more Craig talked, the more obvious the tears fighting to the surface were. Lauren pulled him close and rested his head on her shoulder.
             “It’s okay, Craig. Things are going to be fine, I promise,” she said.
             “How do you know?” he asked.
             “Anthony is an amazing guy, and it’s obvious that he is going to help you get comfortable with the whole relationship thing. Plus, your dad understands and is always going to be there for you. Even if your mom doesn’t come around, you have me, right?” She smiled.
             “I guess you’re right,” he said, trailing off with a lost look in his eye. Eventually, he glanced at the clock; it was three in the morning. “So, you stayin’ or goin’?” he asked her.
             “Whatever you want me to do,” she said softly.
             “You can stay. It’d be nice to have someone to hold tonight.”
             “Your wish is my command,” Lauren replied. She stood up and pulled off her shirt. Craig’s eyes lingered on her bra; it was a camouflage print that looked great against her skin. She unbuttoned her jeans and wiggled, trying to get them off. Craig looked at her and laughed.
             “How anyone takes the time to get those off of you, I’ll never know,” he said.
             “Yeah, well, it’s been a while since a guy’s gotten these off,” she replied.
             He walked over and knelt down, putting his fingers inside the waist of the jeans. “Allow me, my lady,” he joked. He eased them off to reveal matching cotton string-bikini panties. He could smell her musk and realized he’d never been this close to her before. He looked up to see her blushing. Craig knew she had feelings for him, but they had never really discussed it. Lauren looked back at him, catching his eye.
             “Are you okay?” he asked.
             “Yeah …”
             “You know I love you, right?”
             “Of course I do. I love you, too.”
             “I’m sorry I don’t feel the way you do.”
             “Don’t be silly, Craig. I don’t want you to feel bad. Every girl wants her gay friend; they’re the best guys out there. Not to mention, you’re the hottest guy I know,” she giggled.
             “Okay,” he said, hugging her. “Let’s get some sleep.”


             The alarm clock screamed, and they both jolted awake. It was nine o’clock, time for Craig to head to class again. He brushed the hair from Lauren’s face and kissed her forehead. “Thank you so much, Lauren,” he said. “You’re the best friend I could ever wish for.”
             “You’re welcome,” she said groggily. “See you tonight at the coffee shop?”
             “You bet.”
             Craig walked to class, whistling as the rain pelted his face. The red leaves were matted to the sidewalks, and Craig thought the ground looked like a giant pool of blood. He had his earphones on and was listening to the latest Green Day CD. As he bounced his head up and down, playing imaginary drums, a small group of guys headed toward him. He noticed them, but not recognizing them, turned his attention to a paper sack floating around in the wind. A rock hit the side of his head, and he heard a piercing sound in his left ear. In a flash, the men were upon him.
             The first man punched him in the jaw, sending shockwaves of pain through his body. He dropped his books and ducked the next punch, coming up with a shot of his own. His fist landed on the guy to his right, sending him sprawling. He turned just in time to see knuckles meeting his eye socket. His eyes began to water, and he could see nothing. He lunged forward and felt his forearm slam into someone’s neck. He heard a thud and then kicked at the mass on the ground in front of him. He could hear people shouting in the distance. Somewhere far off, he heard somebody screaming for help. That was the last thing he heard before something hard landed on the back of his head, crushing the skull.
             Craig woke up three days later in the hospital. He looked around, trying to focus on his surroundings. He could see his father sitting in a chair, reading the newspaper. “What happened, Dad?” he asked.
             “Apparently, you were jumped by three guys,” Jack answered.
             “How do they look?” he joked.
             “Two of them rode in with you; the police are still looking for the third. It seems he grabbed a rock and swung it at your head. Someone called the police as soon as people saw you fighting them. The paramedics said that you lost almost a pint of blood.”
             “Goddamn, how?” Craig asked.
             “You had a massive skull fracture. The entire back half of your skull has been replaced with a metal plate.” Jack said, wincing at the thought.
             “Holy shit! Do the police know why they jumped me?”
             “No. They were hop—”
             “Hey! You’re awake!” Lauren exclaimed, bursting in with Anthony. “How do you feel?”
             “I’m all right, I think,” Craig mumbled, reaching for Anthony’s hand.
             Lauren leaned forward and whispered something into Craig’s ear that made him smile. He reached into her pants pocket and pulled out a bag of chocolate-covered coffee beans. Craig laughed. Lauren always knew just what he needed. Anthony leaned down and kissed his forehead. Craig smiled and pulled him down to kiss his cheek, then faded back into a dark sleep. The silence in the room was deafening.


             Craig was released from the hospital two days later. He was ordered to be under constant supervision for one week. His mom had refused to let him stay at home as long as he and Anthony were seeing each other. Jack fought hard for Craig, but in the end, Beth just wouldn’t budge. Lauren offered to stay with Craig at the dormitory, and Anthony would walk him from class to class during the day. As Anthony tried to hold Craig up and help him into the room, Lauren smoothed the sheets and moved the comforter out of Craig’s way. Craig lay down and said thanks to Anthony, who leaned in and kissed him. Lauren looked at them glassy-eyed. They broke the kiss and said their goodbyes.
             The next few days were boring for Craig. Lauren did what little cooking she could with the microwave and a sandwich maker, and Anthony helped him to class, where Craig sat in a daze. His mind was in a constant fog, which he supposed was the reason for the constant supervision. At night, Craig and Lauren would sit and talk for hours, laughing about various memories. Craig remembered the first time he and Lauren had met. He was stepping off the bus, when he tripped and sent all of his books and paper flying. Lauren had knelt down to help him pick up the books. Craig looked at her and flashed a half-smile, saying thanks. They introduced themselves and spent the next few hours talking. At some point, each realized they had missed their classes, but decided they weren’t important, anyhow. Lauren and Craig shared coffee, childhood stories, and random problems with society. They laughed as they thought back to that day and how inseparable they had been since.
             A few nights later, Craig stared through Lauren, wide-eyed and desperate, like he was running from something.
             “What is it, Craig?” Lauren asked softly.
             “Oh, it’s nothing. I’m just … just thinking about my mother,” he replied.
             “She’ll come around, babe; it’s just gonna take some time.”
             “I know. I’m not thinking about that. I’m thinking about the day she met you. It’s the only time I can remember her being proud of me. She was so … so excited to see me bring a girl home,” Craig mumbled, lost in thought. “Do you think she’ll ever forgive me, Lauren?”
             “Of course. She’s your mother, Craig. Eventually, she’ll realize that you won’t change, and that you’re still a great guy.”
             “Maybe. Should I call her or something? Just to let her know I’m doing all right?”
             “She might like that.”
             “I hope so,” Craig replied.
             He picked up the phone and dialed home. Beth answered the phone cheerily, but her voiced fell soft when she realized it was Craig. “What is it, honey?”
             “I want to talk to you, Mom.”
             “About what?”
             “Why didn’t you come visit me in the hospital?”
             “Well, your dad said everything was under control, that you were fine. And—”
             “And what, Mom?”
             “The truth is I couldn’t bear to see you so beat up.”
             “So you just ignored it?”
             “Craig, it’s not that … it’s just, things like that happened to Ian—”
             “I’m not Ian, Mom! Things are different now. I don’t have AIDS. I’m not going to die. I’m your son! Why can’t you just be there for me?”
             “I am … well, I will be. You just … you have to give me time. You … you know I love you, right?”
             Craig didn’t know. He didn’t know because he hadn’t heard her. He’d already handed the phone to Lauren while he tried to fight tears. Lauren told Craig what Beth had said; it only made him cry harder.


             Craig woke up in Lauren’s arms the next morning. He saw an email notification blinking on the screen. He eased Lauren’s arm from his neck and opened his inbox. There was an email from his mom. He opened the email and read:
             “Please come over for dinner Saturday, Craig.
             Your mom”
             He replied, saying simply: “ok.”
             It was Friday, and Lauren had told Craig about a date she had scheduled some time ago. She asked if he wanted her to cancel, but Craig had told her to go and have fun. He and Anthony were planning to go see a local jazz musician at the coffee shop, anyway. He was hoping to take his mind off of things for the night.
             The coffee shop was empty when Craig and Anthony arrived. It was only five o’clock, and the musician didn’t start for another couple of hours. They ordered lattes and talked about school and spring break plans.
             The jazz musician played for several hours. Craig and Anthony ordered café sandwiches and a couple more lattes. When they were done eating, Anthony asked Craig to dance. Craig hesitated for a second, then got up and headed for the dance floor. They danced for a long time, and Craig began to feel dizzy, so they sat down. They paid the bill and started to walk toward the door. As they walked outside, two men walked up to them.
             “Excuse me, sir, are you Craig Langstrom?”
             “Yes, that’s me,” Craig answered.
             “I’m Detective Mulvey, and this is Detective Williams. We’re investigating your assault.”
             “Oh? Did you find the guys?”
             “Well, we think so. We’d like you to come down to the station and identify them.”
             “All right. Can I have my dad come along?”
             “Of course. Just give him a call and have him meet us at the station.”
             “Okay.” The two detectives walked back to the curb and started to get into their cars. “Wait!” Craig yelled to them.
             “What is it, sir?”
             “How did you know I’d be here?”
             “A friend of yours,” the detective glanced at his notepad, “Lauren, answered your phone and told us where to find you.”
             “Oh, that was nice of her.” Craig and Anthony jogged to the parking lot and got into Craig’s car. “Remind me to buy a big cup of her favorite brew next time we go out.”
             “Like you don’t ever do that anyway,” Anthony joked.
             Craig dialed his parents’ number. When his dad answered, he relayed the conversation with the detectives and asked his father to meet them at the precinct. Twenty minutes later, Craig and Anthony pulled into a spot and entered the station. They saw the detectives at the far end of the hall and walked toward them. The men ushered Craig into a room. He was surprised to see his mother waiting for him.
             “Mom, what are you doing here? I thought Dad—”
             “I thought it was about time for me to be here for you. I hope that’s all right.”
             “Um … yeah, of course.”
             “Whenever you’re ready, sir,” one of the detectives said.
             “Go ahead.”
             Three sets of six men walked into the line-up room. In each set, Craig was certain of his selection.
             “That’ll do for now, son,” the other detective said, after the third line-up. “We’ll be in touch.”
             “Thank you.”
             Craig and his mother walked out of the room. Beth saw Anthony standing in the hall. Craig’s jaw tensed, as he braced himself for the worst.
             “Anthony, I’d really like it if you could join us for dinner tomorrow night.”
             Craig’s jaw dropped.
             Anthony looked at Craig, then back to Beth. “It would be my pleasure, ma’am.”

♥ End ♥

Ronnie K. Stephens writes poems on his refrigerator every morning. He wrangles teenagers for a living and sometimes convinces them to turn their poems into new pennies after school. The word victim is constantly challenged in his writing. The only math he knows is balance. If it’s not equal, it’s not finished. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Rattle, Paper Darts, Weave Magazine, DASH, and PANK, among others. [Author photo by and © Katelyn J. Stephens; used with permission, all rights reserved.]

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