I set up a couple meetings for rental places the next morning over toast and cereal. Justin called a little after that, but I was already in the Shower. I called him back while I was picking out what to wear, and we made plans to meet once I was done checking on a few potential places to stay.
One of the properties was a furnished apartment in a large complex. It was too big for what I needed, and out of my price range anyway. Another was an expanded basement turned apartment. It wasn’t bad, but the family was clearly very religious, and while I was dressed somewhat business-like that day, and thus didn’t disturb them, my preferred ensembles would.
I visited a couple other places that might work out, but my favorite among them was a detached guest house that was a half-step up from a studio apartment. The kitchen was small and more basic than an apartment, and the counter doubled as a dining table, which suited me just fine. The room was furnished with a full-size bed and a large recliner, a basic television (the owner had upgraded theirs, so placing their old one in the guest house didn’t cost them anything), and a narrow coffee table. The dresser was low and wide, like many hotels had, and it doubled as a night stand. The bathroom had a basic shower-tub combo, and the linen closet (with the only rod for hanging clothes) was accessed through there.
It was great for a guest house, though the layout wouldn’t work for someone wanting an actual apartment. It had paperwork to show that it was up to code, plus space outside for my trailer. It would work great for the five months max that I’d need it. The owner was really laid back– possibly a former hippie. He wouldn’t mind if I had a guest over sometimes; if I paid rent on time and didn’t do anything illegal, I was good. Plus he was open to taking care of paperwork electronically.
Justin looked beyond relieved to see me when I finally arrived at his aunt’s house. He didn’t even have me come in, but hopped into my car.
“Did something happen?” I asked as I drove down the street.
“Huh?” Justin replied. He’d been looking out the window, but he turned back towards me. “Oh, right. Nothing happened; I just wanted to get away from my cousins. They won’t stop showing me every little crayon mark they’ve made, and every stupid way they can turn their body.”
“That annoying, huh?” His scoff confirmed my suspicions. “I don’t remember you complaining this much about Killian’s brothers and sisters.”
“Yeah, well I wasn’t expected to entertain them. Killian took care of it all, or Mrs. Riordan would find something else for them to do. Aunt Julia won’t let me stay in my room alone for that long, and my mom says I have to do what she asks me to.”
“Is it really that bad?”
“They’re little kids, Blackthorne!” he hissed. Then he took a breath and lowered his tone. “They were nice at dinner because their parents were there, but when I have to hang out with them, they have a million questions. ‘How do you spell this?’ ‘What color should I make this?’ ‘Can I have a piggy-back ride?’ God, they can’t even play video games for more than ten minutes without wanting to change things up.”
“You would not have done well with siblings,” I pointed out.
“Thank goodness my mom only had me!”
“I dunno,” I said, “I kind of liked growing up with you around.”
He and I were both only-children, but ever since we’d met, it felt like we were brothers as much as friends. He knew things about me that I hadn’t told anyone else. He’d been there for some of the things that happened in my life– things I didn’t talk about with most of my friends. A lot of them didn’t understand my perspective on life, how I was deep into goth culture, but different when it came to things like pessimism, depression, and counter-culture. He knew that the people I called my parents weren’t so by blood.
That’s not to say that I was given up for adoption at birth, or even that I wished I had been. The mother I was born to treasured me. She devoted herself to my care, researched everything she could about caring for a child, attended all the parenting classes, everything. From what I was able to glean from other members of my family, my father was excited, too. They’d been trying to conceive for years after getting married, so when my mother finally got a positive pregnancy test, they were over the moon with joy. He didn’t participate as much in going to classes or reading, but he seemed so in love, and he’d held my mother’s hand as she gave birth without an epidural. For a while, he was a doting and loving father.
Nobody knows when he changed; if it was sudden or slow, if he kept it hidden at first before doing things that others could see. He couldn’t even keep his story straight about what broke in him; for all the scars he left behind, that would have been nice to know. Or maybe my mother was right that it was better not to try to understand or explain it. Ultimately, my father was taken away for hurting both me and her. I am forever grateful that my mother’s family provided so much support, not the least of which was access to professional counseling.
We moved on. My uncle– my mother’s brother– introduced my mother to the nicest man he knew; a true humanitarian and philanthropist, not the kind that show off outwardly but hide a toxic interior. He was the proverbial white knight my mother needed, and he understood why her family scrutinized his background so closely and even got to know his family before they were allowed to marry. My mother used to want a large family, but my step-father couldn’t have children; after the trauma she’d been through, her priorities had changed, and she was content having only me and him.
I didn’t know it until a few years after the fact, but my biological father died in prison. I don’t want to talk about how it happened, but it helped my mother move on. He had refused to voluntarily terminate his parental rights, and the legal proceedings to force the issue were time-consuming. I don’t know whether he thought he could be rehabilitated, but the thought of having him back in my life was terrifying, and I didn’t want to go through more therapy just to be able to see him.
I was happy with my mother’s new husband, and the day the paperwork was signed and we went to court for him to officially adopt me and become my father was more cause for celebration than anything else in my life. It was like having two birthdays, because we celebrated both my birth and my adoption every year after that. All of those events were before Justin came to my school. We were friends, but sometimes it was like having a little brother– in all the best ways, not the annoying ones. For a time, life was grand, and I felt self with the family I had.
Things with my birth-father’s family weren’t so straightforward. I was told that my paternal grandmother adored me, but I really don’t remember her; she’d died of cancer when I was about two years old. Her husband– my father’s father– was something of an enigma. When I was little, he seemed like a nobleman from centuries past; he always carried himself with an air of nobility. He came to family visits now and then, but after his wife died they dwindled. I was told that he liked holding me and playing with me when he did come by, though I remember him more as being– well, it’s hard to describe, but the closest words I could think of were ‘wistful’ or ‘concerned.’ Looking back, I sometimes wondered how much he knew about what his only son was doing to us.
I was four years old when my father was taken away. The preschool had seen the bruises; at first, they’d accepted that little boys can be rough-and-tumble. But eventually, the bruises got worse, and then there were scratches, and I was always too sore to play. I stopped being cooperative, partly because I was scared and in pain, and partly because I wasn’t sleeping well. When Child and Family Services came to our house– again, this is what I was told later on– my father tried to explain everything away, but once she was alone with the agents, my mother finally found the strength to confess what had been going on.
My memories from that time are mostly a blur. With my father in prison, I started to heal, and life for a while was mostly visits to the pediatrician and child psychologist. Life started to get a lot better, and as I felt safer and happier, I started making new memories. My grandfather wasn’t in many of them, but I did get to see him now and then. His smile sometimes seemed… sad, not because of me, but I remember that whenever I got to see him, I would ask him at least once what was wrong. He usually just said that he was remembering someone he missed or some other watered-down version of what he really felt. Then he’d re-focus on whatever we’d been doing together.
I found out later that he knew my father was not being good to my mother. He knew they were fighting, though he explained it to me that they seemed to only be arguing, that he didn’t know how bad it was until it was too terrible to hide anymore. He felt so guilty for not seeing it sooner that he accepted my mother’s wish that he not visit for a while. Eventually, he came around a few times a year, but that was rare compared to how often I got to see my mother’s parents.
I was in middle school when I lost my mother. She’d been on a train, traveling for work, and it derailed. They say she went quickly, not having to suffer in pain waiting for the rescue teams. Justin went to her funeral with me. His mother let him stay with me so I’d have a shoulder to cry on. My father (I’d been calling him that since before I was legally adopted) took extra time off from work to help me through the grief– and to make sure he got the support he needed, too.
My paternal grandfather came to see me more often after that. I don’t know how much my mother had told my adoptive father, but he never held a grudge against my grandfather. I think he somehow knew that he would never harm me, and that he would have taken action sooner if he’d known the truth of what was happening. When I was in high school, I learned things about my grandfather that nobody else in the family knew. I was angry with him for burdening me with his secrets– especially the things that made me believe he shouldn’t have been so blind as to what his son was doing. Like my mother had, I told him that I needed to see less of him; at the very least until I could process it all.
My adoptive father didn’t rush to remarry, so for a few years it was mostly just him and me in the house. He looked after me like he always had: like I was his own flesh and blood. We still visited Mother’s family for holidays and special weekends; we couldn’t turn our back on them. He did meet someone eventually, though, and she was welcomed into the family once everyone was certain that she would take good care of me. She could never take the place of the woman who gave birth to me, but she’s very nurturing; most importantly, she’s accepting of my aesthetic and my sexuality.
She, too, legally adopted me. Some people might say that it wasn’t necessary, that I was two and a half years from being an adult myself, but a lot can happen in that time. Besides, being loved and wanted is way better than having to act strong. If you have it, embrace it; if you don’t, find the strength and support you need. Justin was there with me when my father remarried, and again when we went to court for the adoption proceedings. Those were the parents who were there for me when I graduated high school, and who gave me the freedom to explore how I wanted to handle the next stage of my life.
And although Justin was dating Killian at the time, he never stopped spending time with me or sharing in major events in our lives.