Jake Is Trying To Understand
Jake Nielsen wearily transferred his right foot from the accelerator of his midnight blue Ford Ranger pick-up to the brake pedal as he nudged off the I-5 freeway at the Avenida Vista Hermosa exit in San Clemente. At three o’clock on a late-May afternoon, the freeway was typically jam-packed so he was surprised nobody followed him down the ramp. He took advantage of the quiet stretch to remove his sunglasses at the stop and run the back of his wrist across his darkly-fringed, jade eyes, mopping sweat and grit away in one slow swipe. He was beyond grateful to have nearly arrived at his destination, seeing as it was the farthest he’d ever driven alone. But desperation made you do crazy, inexplicable things.
Although Jake had not been on this connecting road since visiting the area two years before, he immediately recognized his surroundings. He knew the ocean was to his right. A small shopping center with the expected fast food shops was in the opposite direction. It had been a grueling seven-hour drive south without stopping once except for gas, and after the drama of the past twenty-four he was hungry and dog-tired.
The elation and relief of being near journey’s end rushed through him like a cooling wind and spurred him on to ignore the temptation of a quick burger stop. Thank god he only a few miles of city streets to travel before he reached the security of his aunt and uncle’s house. While the journey wasn’t any longer than normal in the scope of real distance, Jake had spent most of the first fifty miles of the trip nervously peering into his rearview mirror. At least at this point he didn’t have to worry about being followed, and his body nearly went limp at knowing he’d made a successful escape.
Jake could hardly believe that just the day before he had left his southern California university- Cal State Long Beach, an hour northwest of here, to be exact- to fly to San Francisco and catch a Continental flight into the Fresno Air Terminal only to immediately turn around and drive back in the opposite direction. Damn his father, that homophobic…
Jake still wasn’t sure how the man found out about Miguel, his college boyfriend, from 275 miles away. Okay, make that ex-boyfriend. It wasn’t only because of that one ugly, drunken incident when he was in 12th grade that he wasn’t out in his hometown. No, he’d always feared the worst from his parents due to his mother’s passivity and the comments George Nielsen had made about gays over Jake’s entire adolescence, and they certainly hadn’t proven him wrong in his perceptions. He had waited until he was safely away from home during his freshman year at the university before sticking a toe out of the proverbial closet, and even that was a cautious toe.
Miguel was a sexy enough guy, a sensual ball of dancing, brown-skinned energy. He was also a great kisser, but the physical attraction was all they had between them. They never really clicked, not in the way that would eventually equal long-term. Had it not been so close to the end of the term, maybe the two of them might have found a way around the obstacles rather than mutually deciding to part company at the hugs and making-out stage of their relationship. They weighed the costs and decided it was better not to risk their friendship on what might never be and end up despising each other for it.
“Stop it,” Jake told himself out loud, easing into traffic going east towards the coastal hills. He shook his long bangs out of his eyes and sighed. It did no good to keep flooding his mind with images of events that were weeks past changing.
He spent the next forty minutes navigating according to memory and his GPS system, concentrating on pulling towards the right at the wide ‘V’ turn and following the signs toward Aleppo Park, his aunt and uncle’s community. Typical of upper-class Orange County, the small downtown was a conglomeration of civic buildings and upscale shops in a cookie-cutter hacienda theme that all but screamed of the city council’s power to enforce conformity. The Macy’s shopping center was framed by an upscale bowling alley at one end and a multiplex theater on the other, and strip malls were strung between irrigated greenbelts. He passed his old high school, recently renovated and now painted a rosy bisque, and an occasional well-maintained playground near residential areas with lot sizes considerably larger than the average So-Cal postage stamp size.
He easily found Avenida Vista al Mar, his destination at the top of the hill in its scenic cul de sac, and smiled to himself to notice that the familiar Mediterranean style two-story had not changed at all. Large and lived in, full of laughter, it was swirls of terra cotta stucco and slump stone around leaded windows, a formal entry with its tall front door and elegant living in four bedrooms and three baths. To Jake, this was home, his real home, a reassuring sight after moving to the city of Madera in central California with his family when he was fifteen.
Aunt Pat was bustling down the sidewalk before Jake had even turned off the ignition. He had a definite soft spot for the woman who was like a second mother to him. All kindness and warmth in a slightly pudgy body, her dark hair was only a little bit gray at the temples and held up in a high ponytail by a neon green tie. She liked bright colors and today was wearing bulky knee-length shorts in lime and a green and yellow t-shirt in an all-over design of peace signs. She was free-spirited and demonstrative in everything she did.
“Jacobaby”, she shouted out in her strident guffaw of a voice that was so different from his mother’s meek near-whisper. Alighting from the truck, he squirmed inwardly before turning to her with a smile.
“I’m going to be twenty in eight months,” he lovingly scolded, reaching around to hug her. “Don’t you think it’s time to stop calling me that ridiculous nickname?”
She tsked at him, her eyes snapping in fun. “I don’t care if you’re nineteen or forty-nine, mister. You’ll always be ‘Jacobaby’ to me. Unless you prefer Jakey.”
He smiled softly and shook his head, knowing that Patricia Walker had the power to embarrass him faster than almost any human on earth and would enjoy it immensely.
Pat held him back from her and scrutinized him carefully. Jake’s band t-shirt and blue jeans were in good enough condition. His streaked, unruly brown hair curled to his shoulders in a relaxed style that framed his oval face, accented his high cheekbones and smoothed out his pointed chin. She noticed in the two years since his last visit that he’d shot up a couple inches to just short of six feet, his shoulders had broadened and there was no trace of the child left in his hard, sculpted torso and lean limbs. His father had never invested in orthodontics to close the slight gap between his front teeth, but no matter. As his aunt she might be unambiguously prejudiced, but it was clear that Jacob Nielsen had grown into his body with striking good fortune in the looks department.
He blushed slightly under her intense stare and all of a sudden was glad that the tender spot on his jaw hadn’t darkened into a noticeable bruise. He heard the screen door slam up the yard and a rebel yell.
“Jake, my man!”
Jake swiveled in Pat’s grasp and looked over at his cousin, grinning at the taller counterpart. Marcus was a year older and at least twenty pounds heavier but no one could miss the kinship. Passed down from their mothers who were siblings, the boys shared their thick-lashed green eyes, full lips in a Cupid’s bow mouth and an identical dimple in each right cheek.
Marcus bounded towards him in bare feet that didn’t seem to mind the hot concrete, slapping fingers and bumping fists before pulling him into a one-armed man hug. “Hey, Cuz, it’s good to see ya.”
Jake at once noticed the new set of gauges in Marcus’ ears, now at a half-inch. “Stellar,” he pronounced. “Are they new?”
Aunt Pat rolled her eyes. “Maybe he’ll show off his tribal tattoo on his back later. All the kids around here are into body mods.”
“Are you here for the summer, Jake?” Marcus was trying for a none-too-subtle change of subject. “Sweet!”
For a moment a cloud passed over Jake’s eyes that nobody else could see behind the shades, and then he blinked it away and grinned gamely. “Sucks to be you, Marc. We’ll see how sweet it is in mid-August when I’m borrowing your clothes and you’re sick of me killing at video games.”
“Or trying to steal my girlfriend?” Marcus nudged him softly in the gut with an elbow.
Jake gulped silently, pinned a smile on his face and hoped his voice didn’t quiver too much. “Yeah, that too.”
Pat snickered and rolled her eyes again. “What girlfriend?”
Half an hour later, Pat had shooed the offers of assistance with dinner away and suggested that Jake grab a short nap since he looked as if he was on his last leg. Marcus helped unload his truck of everything that Jake had dragged home from college and showed him to the recently aired out spare bedroom down the hall from his own. Truly exhausted from only six hours of sleep the night before and looking forward to stretching out for awhile, Jake asked for a raincheck when Marcus volunteered help in unpacking.
“I’ll be back to get your lazy ass up in time for dinner,” he said as he closed the bedroom door.
Jake sank into the comfortably firm double bed and stared moodily out the window, watching the branches of the shamal ash tree in the front yard shift in the light breeze. He tried to relax but he was so keyed up he could only lay there as the events of the past seven days rolled through him. For only being Wednesday, it had certainly been one fucked up week.
Finals at the university, which he’d been dreading, turned out to be the least of his worries. Nor was packing out his dorm room and hastily renting space in a storage facility all that bad, even considering he had no transportation and had to beg help from his roommate’s brother. The shocker had come when he flew home to the confusing greetings by his parents, or lack thereof, once he exited the plane.
No enthusiastic hugs of welcome home after the four long months since he returned to Long Beach in January. He’d worked diligently to make the Dean’s List and expected something, a smile, a pat on the back or word of praise. Instead, George was distant and colder than usual and his mother, Carolyn, looked anxious, her mouth pursed up as if she was going to burst into tears. The half-hour trip from the airport was nerve-wracking as his parents sat silently in the front seat and gave him no clue as to what they were so angry over. He gave up after three “What’s wrong?”s, but he knew it had to be bad.
Even so, Jake was totally unprepared for the cyclone of rage he walked into once he passed the threshold of the front door, and his father whirled on him with a punch to the torso that sent him tumbling to the floor hunched over in pain.
“What was that for?” he demanded, his abs trying to absorb the strike. He refused to break down and cry even though it felt like fire going through his gut and he was winded. His father was a tall, beefy man, and he was almost afraid to get to his feet, sensing that maybe he was safer sprawled on the foyer tile.
“I didn’t send you to college to become a cocksucker,” George roared at him, spit flying and his face bulging red with rage. Carolyn, his mother, stood shaking and crying next to the dining room door, her head turned away in shame.
Jake felt like telling his father that he hadn’t sent him to college, his baseball scholarship did, but knew it would only make matters worse. At the same time a million unsettling notions were flying through his head and he frantically grasped at memories of his latest email or telephone call home which might have given him away. Nothing came immediately to mind.
George took his silence for defiance and dragged him roughly up by his elbow.
“What’s his name?”
“Whose name?” Jake gasped, trying to twist out of the iron grip.
“The faggot you’ve been fucking at Long Beach that turned you queer.”
Turned him queer? Jake’s mouth dropped open in shock. “That’s not how it… I haven’t slept with anyone.”
That earned him a solid punch in the jaw and he fell back. The blow wasn’t really bruising; just enough to show his father meant business. His mother’s mild protest was instantly silenced by George’s bellow. “I want the truth. Who is he?”
Jake tried again. “I don’t know who you’re talking about.”
“You’re not only a sissy boy, you’re a liar.”
“I don’t have a boyfriend,” he shouted, standing tall despite his fear.
“Watch him,” his father snarled at Carolyn, and he disappeared into his downstairs office under the stairs. When he returned seconds later it was with two sheets of paper in his hands. He shoved them at Jake.
“If you’re so innocent, boy, explain these.”
For the second time in less than a minute, Jake’s mouth hung loose. The pages showed photographs of him and Miguel in front of the social studies building at the university. Hugging, kissing, laughing- each of the eight pictures showed intimacy between the boys that was hard to dismiss. The light blazing in Jake’s eyes had been captured in remarkable detail and made it obvious that the lithe dancer in his arms was special to him. But they couldn’t be any more recent than early April; he and Miguel had broken up right after Spring Break.
Jake’s blood froze in his veins, and he thought his heart would stop, his chest hurt so badly. He was afraid to look at his dad.
“I will ask you one more time,” George spat. “Who is this fairy you’re fagging around with?”
“I’m not…” It was a weak protest considering the photos, but how to explain that all he and Miguel had ever done was kiss, and they weren’t even together anymore? Not that it would make all that much difference to his father. He noticed out of the corner of his eye how he was balling up his fist and drawing his arm back for another punch, and he quickly raised his own hands in defense. “Stop hitting me, Dad.”
“Leave Jake alone,” Carolyn managed to squeak out. “Surely we can handle this in a civilized way.”
The next thing he knew, he was being propelled into the formal living room and thrown hard into the loveseat. His head bounced painfully against the gray and plum floral-papered wall.
Drawing himself up with the authority of the hard-nosed factory supervisor he was, George pointed at him. “You are going to tell me the truth, and you’re not leaving this room until you do.”
He began to shoot questions at Jake, one after the other in a rapid-fire interrogation, demanding to know everything about his time at the university. “Who is this faggot?”
“Using that word makes you sound ignorant,” Jake countered. “And why is his identity so important?”
Another cuff, this one to the side of his head, and Jake saw stars for a minute. “Your mom and me didn’t raise you this way,” his father answered in a low voice that was almost more frightening than his screech. “That means someone taught you this unnatural attraction to men.”
Jake almost replied that there was nothing unnatural about it but decided it was seriously time to shut up before his father drew blood or broke something. “Nobody taught me. I’ve been this way since I was fifteen.”
He saw his father’s face tighten. “So does that mean…”
“It means, Dad, that I’ve never done anything with anybody.” Jake pointed at the pictures. “It was just a couple kisses in fun. That’s all. We’re friends.”
“Friends, huh? You look like a lot more than friends,” George replied, narrowing his eyes. “It’s the intent that matters. You’re an outrage- an abomination before God. Having sexual relations with other men will send you to hell.”
No more so than slapping your wife and kids around, Jake thought to himself, or lying on your income taxes or palming the occasional pack of gum at the grocery store. In fact, much less than any of them. And since when had his dad become such a religious zealot? The hypocrite hadn’t darkened the door of a church in years.
The celebratory dinner Carolyn prepared for Jake was soon forgotten. His mother left the room to dispose of the food and refused to look at either of them, and there went the only barrier between him and his father's rage. He felt a little of himself die inside.
The sun set at 8:07 and night fell quickly thereafter. Jake shivered in his thin t-shirt and cargo shorts, either from fear or the cold, and perched in miserable discomfort when nobody moved to close up the house. His father continued to grill and harangue him on the immorality of his lifestyle and where it would lead him. “Dad, I need to use the bathroom,” Jake pleaded. The urge to pee had been creeping up on him for awhile but he was almost afraid to ask.
“Then tell me what I want to know.” George cursed the legions of faggots and cocksuckers who had “gotten to Jake” and refused to listen to Jake’s protests that he was not on intimate terms with Miguel, his dorm-mate or anyone else at the college. Instead he spoke of making choices and turning his life around or his parents would find someone to do it for him. Maybe one of those gay conversion camps…
While desperate to remain calm on the outside, Jake cringed inwardly and began to wonder how badly his father would beat him if he made a break for the door. Gay conversion camp? His father would do it; of that he had no doubt. For over eight hours without letup he ranted about the pictures and Miguel’s identity. Once, Jake almost succumbed to the pressure and revealed details before pulling back into himself. George continued to slap at him and taunt him with cruel nicknames until it became a blur in Jake’s mind.
But despite threats, he refused to budge. The interrogation had been going around in circles for what felt like forever, and he was exhausted. Maybe he was getting punch-drunk. His latest request to know who had sent the photos was met with another numbing slug to the chest that came out of nowhere and sent him flying off his seat, followed by a hard kick to his kidney area. With a moan, his bladder let go and he lay sobbing in humiliation on the floor, drenched in his own urine.
“You’re pathetic and weak and no son of mine,” his father growled harshly. It was midnight and George deliberately stepped over his recumbent form. “Clean up. Go to bed. I’ll talk to you tomorrow night after work. This isn’t over by any means.”
Jake waited until he knew his father wouldn’t return before stumbling into the shower and stripping down. He soaped himself twice, feeling thoroughly soiled. Dumping his urine-soaked shorts, t-shirt and briefs in the washing machine with the towels he’d used to clean the living room carpet he started a wash-load. Only then did he go to bed.
Feeling like a trapped animal, Jake tried to discern a way to protect himself from his father’s wrath and knew it was useless. He’d seen the same behavior before, directed at his two older brothers, albeit for very different reasons. But it didn’t change the fact that David and Adam would never return home, not even to visit their mom. There would be no let-up in the abuse until Jake was completely broken. Tears fell like rain onto his pillow, and he stuffed his fist in his mouth to muffle his sobs. Crying, as he’d been taught from an early age, was for sissy boys. He finally dropped off into an uneasy sleep.
(To be continued...)