This one is tough. I’d forgotten just how tough, in fact, until just now. And I am once again reminded what I always tell people: the blessing is that we become accustomed to our grief. Lots of growth, though.—rpj
Frank Jones, 40, is a (gay) widower, recently out of the landscaping business and taking on a new career as a personal trainer. He’s delighted with his new neighbors, a divorcee and her 14-year-old son. The relationship that develops among the three of them is not one any of them would have expected! Just FYI: This one has a lot of muscle growth but is (unlike the author’s usual fare) a sad one.
This one is tough. I’d forgotten just how tough, in fact, until just now. And I am once again reminded what I always tell people: the blessing is that we become accustomed to our grief. Lots of growth, though.—rpj
That same night the phone rang and uncharacteristically Frank picked it up without looking to see who was calling.
“Frank?” the vaguely familiar voice asked. “Sally Hunter here, your new next door neighbor.”
Bingo, Frank thought. “Hey, Sally, good to hear from you. What can I do for you?”
Sally sighed. “Well, first of all, I really wanted to say ‘thanks’ for taking Brian under your wing like that yesterday,” she said, much to Frank’s surprise. “He’s been pretty lonely since we left Colorado, for one thing, and he hasn’t had much adult male companionship since his step-dad left.”
Frank winced silently. Not like I couldn’t guess that, huh? “My pleasure, Sally,” Frank said aloud. “He’s obviously a great kid.”
Sally chuckled. “Yeah, he is that,” she said. “A bit of a dreamer, I’m afraid, but that tends to run in the family. My brother was like that.” I bet there’s a point somewhere in all of this, Frank told himself. “The thing is, since you left he’s been bugging me non-stop to, uh, get him, uh, a weight set,” Sally said, not bothering to hide her exasperation.
Frank laughed out loud. “I guess I had an impact, huh?”
It was Sally’s turn to laugh. “Oh, no doubt about that, Mister Muscles,” she said, giggling.
Wow, Frank thought. That’s fresh!
“And, as you might have guessed, I don’t know a damn thing about weight lifting, especially when it comes to 14-year-old boys,” Sally added. “Do you think you can help me out?”
Frank paused. “Uh, Sally, well…”
Before he could answer, she interrupted. “Frank, it’s okay,” she said. “Mrs. Phipps doesn’t have a clue but… ya know that dreamy brother I mentioned?” Frank was nodding, as if Sally were standing there in the room with him. “I was just 19 when he died,” Sally continued. “Of AIDS. He always did say I had the best gaydar of any straight girl he’d ever met.”
Unexpectedly, Frank found himself heaving a big sigh of relief. “In that case…” he began. And again with the interruptions.
“In that case,” Sally finished for him. “I can understand why you’d be skittish about the idea of hanging out with a teenage boy. But you know what? I trust you! And he needs a grown up guy in his life.”
Frank stood there with his mouth hanging open. “I don’t know what to say,” he said. “Other than: Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Sally Hunter, you’re a helluva smart woman!”
She snorted. “Believe me,” she said. “I know plenty of dopes with J.D.’s from Harvard Law—but I’m not one of ’em!”
Holy moly, Frank thought. Harvard Law? In Pensacola? “Sally, it would be a pleasure to help you and Brian figure out a suitable workout program for a 14-year-old boy,” Frank said, finally able to string more than two thoughts together in a coherent sentence. “For that matter, if he needs a summer job, I’ve got a few things he could help me out with.”
You could hear the beaming expression on Sally’s face. “Frank, that is sooo cool,” she said. “I feel very lucky that we wound up with you as a neighbor!”
Frank felt himself blushing.
“Come over for breakfast tomorrow and we’ll talk about it then?” Sally asked.
This time there was no hesitation on Frank’s part. “I’d be delighted,” he said. “What can I bring?”
Sally chuckled. “Just your hunky self,” she said. “And a big appetite. I wind up cooking a lot because the kid is absolutely a bottomless pit!”
Frank smiled, thinking:
This is going to be fun!
“Mom, look!” Brian exclaimed the next morning. “Frank brought blueberry muffins!”
Sally gave Frank a glance.
“You’re hot, you’re handsome, and you bake?!” she said to him privately while Brian was clattering around the kitchen. “I know why you don’t have a wife—why don’t you have a boyfriend?”
I guess tact isn’t high on the Harvard curriculum, Frank thought to himself. He cleared his throat. “His name was Kevin,” he said. “We were together 10 years. Drunk driver nailed him a year ago January.”
Sally looked embarrassed and horror stricken at the same time.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “Brian’s dad…” F
rank looked at her closely. “Which one?” So much for tact, he thought.
Sally colored slightly. “His real one,” she said, ruefully. “Not that louse who left us in Denver.”
Andrew Davis, Brian’s birth father and Sally’s first husband, had been a grad student at CU in Boulder, the kind that worked late nights in the lab, when his Corolla had gone off the road and into a snow fence one blizzardy January night.
“He was just 29,” she said. “We were together five years. Brian was only 2.”
Frank squeezed Sally’s shoulder while she poured them coffee.
“On that happy note…”
Brian burst into the room with a handful of printouts showing every conceivable form of workout equipment. He started talking excitedly about the pros and cons and prices of each piece. Frank’s eyes just bulged—there was no way he could keep up—while Sally just laughed. She was used to Brian’s occasional manic obsessions. He may have been dreamy but he was still a 14-year-old boy!
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Frank said, holding up his big, muscular hands. “We need to back up a minute.”
Brian looked crestfallen. “You mean you’re backing out?” Brian said, working hard to keep his lower lip from trembling.
Frank shook his head. “Not a bit, pardner,” he said. “But there are some other factors to consider.”
He turned to Sally. “You could spend 50 bucks on a starter weight set but you’d also need to get at least a basic bench, so another $50,” Frank pointed out. She raised an eyebrow. “But I don’t recommend it,” Frank added. “If Brian’s really serious about training, and I think he is, he’ll outgrow it quickly. Also, there’s the safety factor. Too easy to drop weights on yourself.”
Sally shook her head and made a chopping motion with her hand. “No weight-related accidents, that’s non-negotiable,” she said.
Frank nodded. “On the other hand, to get the right kind of stuff, well, you could spend a lot of money,” he continued. “But probably you’re looking at the neighborhood of a thousand bucks.”
Sally arched an eyebrow. She knows more about this than she’s let on, Frank realized. “What else?” she asked.
Frank blushed. “Well, probably your garage, too,” he added. “The equipment takes up space.”
Brian was looking progressively more perturbed. He just knew Sally was going to nix the whole project!
“Or you could buy him a gym membership,” Frank suggested.
Brian’s ears perked up.
“Really?” he said. “That would be soooo cool!’
Sally tapped the tabletop. “Will they take a 14-year-old?” she asked, somewhat skeptically.
Frank nodded. “You’d need to join, too, I think, to get a family deal,” he observed. “And you—or another designated adult—would need to be there when he trains.”
Sally’s eyes twinkled. “I don’t suppose…” she began.
Frank laughed. “In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m a successful former landscape contractor,” Frank pointed out. “I sold the business a year ago. Now I’m working on becoming a certified trainer. I’d be happy to do so!”
Brian’s eyes were bugging out. “You mean you and I could go to a real gym together and you would train me?” he asked, nearly bursting with excitement. Frank looked at Sally. “Well, we need to find out what your mom thinks, okay partner?”
Sally folded her hands.
“Well,” she said. “It’s not like I don’t need to spend some time in the gym myself!”
Sally took Brian’s right hand in her left one and stuck her right one out at Frank, who took it in his big meat hook.
“It’s a deal!”
Two days later, after Sally had taken him to the gym to get them both signed up and paid for, Brian showed up at Frank’s door wearing baggy gym shorts, an over-sized tank top, white sneakers, and socks, and carrying a white shopping bag.
“What’s in the bag?” Frank asked. Brian blushed. “A change of clothes and my toiletries,” he said. Frank chuckled. “C’mon in, kid, I think I’ve got a spare gym bag for you,” Frank said. Frank raided his closet and found a Brian-sized bag, one good for a change of clothes, a pair of shoes, and a towel, with plenty of pockets for soap, shampoo, and deodorant. When he returned to the living room, Frank found Brian checking out the photos and knick-knacks on the piano and the bookcases.
“You play?” Brian asked.
Frank shook his head. “Kevin did,” he pointed out, glancing at the framed photos.
Brian sat on the bench and began playing Debussy effortlessly. “One of Kevin’s favorites,” Frank observed.
Brian nodded. “He was a very handsome guy,” Brian said. “He was so blond and you’re so dark!”
Frank chuckled. “Our friends had a lot of nicknames for us,” he said. “Salt n Peppa, Ebony and Ivory…”
Brian grinned. “Wolverine and…?”
Frank blushed slightly. “Well, yeah, I am a furry guy,” he agreed. “Kevin was furry, too, it was just blond it was hard to tell unless you got up close.”
Brian frowned, as if he were trying to figure something out. “Blonds run on both sides of my family, apparently,” he said. “But I don’t know any of the Davises. No idea whether I’ll be furry or smooth.”
Frank picked up the keys and pointed towards the door; Brian carefully closed the keyboard cover. “It’s good either way,” Frank noted. “Furry or smooth, it’s just the icing on the cake. A real man is one who takes care of his body.”
It was Brian’s turn to blush. “Let’s go do it, then!”
Pensaflex Gym (God what a stupid name, Frank thought for the thousandth time) was on the west side of Pensacola, at the intersection of Mobile Highway and New Warrington Road, on the spot that had long been occupied by Martine’s, once one of Pensacola’s fanciest restaurants. It was a big place, 30,000 square feet, and catered to everyone and every interest, whether it was the alterkockers wanting a shvitz, the powerlifters wanting to get messy with the chalk, or the tennis wives wanting to work on their cardio.
Frank got Brian signed in and then gave him a tour of the whole place before steering his new charge to the locker room. “Okay,” Frank said. “First things first. We’re gonna weigh and measure you.”
Brian blushed but he stepped on the scale and stood straight while Frank adjusted the height measure.
“Exactly 5 feet 6 inches tall,” Frank said. “And exactly 120 pounds. You’re exactly the same size I was at your age!”
A quick grin flashed across Brian’s face but then he asked, somewhat nervously: “What about my other measurements?”
Frank grinned. “Height and weight is plenty at this point, don’t you think?”
Brian looked tremendously relieved.
“We’ll measure when you’ve got some results, how does that sound?”
Brian nodded quickly, then said: “How about you, Frank? Don’t we need to measure you?”
Frank arched an eyebrow. “Well, I can already tell ya I’m 5’11,” he said. “I haven’t grown taller since I was 15.”
Brian pointed to the scale. Frank rolled his eyes and stepped on.
“Wow, 220 pounds,” Brian said. “Gee, Frank, you’re huge! You outweigh me by exactly 100 pounds!”
Why does that sound so incredibly cool when he says it? Frank asked himself.
“Let’s get to work!”
Frank spent an hour putting Brian through his paces. It was about what he expected. Brian was wiry and lean but he’d never touched a weight or spent much time doing calisthenics, so he was average at best when he came to amount of weight he could handle (not that Frank could really recall what it was like when he started training at 14), On the other hand, for a kid who wasn’t into sports, Brian had much better coordination and control than Frank would have expected and his tempo was perfect. He didn’t try to race through it the way most kids would do.
Must be that piano practice, Frank thought to himself. He’s got rhythm.
Brian also seemed to have that extra oomph that separated the guys really into weight training from those who just do it because they think they should. Whenever Frank would tell Brian 10 reps, Brian would do 11. If Brian felt like an exercise was too easy, he’d ask Frank for more weight. By the time they were done, it was clear that Brian had exerted himself far more than he was accustomed to doing. He didn’t look like he was going to barf (as Frank had done so many times over the years) but his legs had that rubber band quality that shouted, feed this kid NOW!
“Let’s hit the showers,” Frank said. “And then we’ll go put some protein into you.” Frank was a bit surprised that Brian didn’t bat an eye at the old-fashioned gang shower.
Brian must have caught sight of Frank’s arched eyebrow. “Band camp,” Brian observed. “Compared to band camp, this is luxurious!”
Frank chuckled and soaped himself up. He was highly conscious that Brian was checking out every inch of Frank’s hairy, muscled body on the order of oh, about, every 5 seconds.
But he’s discreet about it, Frank thought. Good job! For his part, Frank thought about glaciers and Antarctic expeditions and hippopotami, anything to prevent his usual post workout reaction. It was bad enough knowing Brian was checking him out; he hated to think what the kid would do if he got a gander of Frank’s big hunk o’ salami with a full on stiffy.
From the gym they went to the Coffee Cup on East Cervantes and Frank watched Brian scarf down enough food for two grown men. “You might wanna ease up a bit there, partner,” Frank said at one point. “It’s actually okay to chew, ya know.”
Brian just laughed. “That’s what Mom is always telling me,” he said, around a mouthful of blueberry pancakes.
Frank drank his coffee and looked at the kid. He was having a hard time sorting out his feelings, or even identifying them. Looking at Brian was like looking at Kevin but it was also like looking at himself. He felt pride and admiration and amusement.
Paternal, Frank said to himself, finally. I think I’m feeling paternal.
And that was their routine, day in and day out, except for Sundays, for the rest of the summer.
Brian would knock on Frank’s door, Frank would drive them to the gym, he’d oversee Brian’s training, and then they’d head back. Most days they skipped the showers since Frank had stuff he wanted Brian to help him with in the yard. They’d have lunch together, sweaty and stinky in Frank’s kitchen, then spend a couple more hours doing chores, and then Brain would be free for the day while Frank would go do his workout, and then veg out for the rest of evening.
It seemed to work, for both of them. Brian grew like a weed, threatening to eat Sally (and Frank) out of house and home. Every week he was a little bit taller, every week he was a little bit bigger. For his part, Frank found Brian’s youthful exuberance both challenging and stimulating. He was lifting better and eating better than he’d ever done before. By the end of summer, Brian was two inches taller and 30 pounds heavier than he had been the first day he showed up on Frank’s carport. The extra weight was all bone and muscle. When they had first started Brian struggled to bench the 45-pound bar by itself, no plates. The weekend before school started he benched 185 pounds—the bar plus two 45s and two 25s—for reps!
“He looks like a completely different kid,” Sally pointed out. She and Frank were having sangria while Brian splashed happily about in Sally’s new pool Frank put his big hands behind his head and unconsciously flexed his bis—they’d hit just hit 20 inches, thanks to the extra 10 pounds of muscle he’d put on over the summer.
“Hell, Sally, he looked like a kid,” Frank observed. “Now he looks like a man.”
Sally cleared her throat and gave Frank a glance. “Oh, okay,” he agreed. “A very young man. But he doesn’t look like a baby anymore.”
Sally nodded. “I know I’m supposed to be all mushy and say what happened to my baby? But the truth is I’m really glad,” she said, refilling Frank’s glass. “High school is tough enough on kids without…” She paused, unsure of the words.
“Without being a pencil-necked geek?” Frank asked, chuckling. “He’s still a dreamy kid and an artist but he looks like an athlete. And, you’re right, that’ll help.”
He and Sally clinked glasses. “Job well done,” she said.
Frank snorted. “The kid’s the one who did all the work,” he pointed out. “I just did the coaching.”
Sally thwocked Frank upside the head. “You’re not fooling me, Mr. Man,” she said. “I know how much work you’ve done. It shows on you, too.” Frank had the decency to blush.
“And what now?” she asked. “Are you still going to train him during the school year?”
Frank blinked. “I hadn’t even thought about it,” Frank replied. “I’m his for as long as he wants me.”
Sally smiled. That’s what I wanted to hear, she said to herself. Aloud: “Thank the Lord,” she said. “I don’t think I could pull him off of you with a crowbar.”
Maybe it was the sangria, maybe it was the August humidity, but Frank felt an inner warmth hearing Sally’s words. “I guess…” he began, then stopped, suddenly at a loss for words. “He needs a man in his life,” Sally said.
Frank nodded. “I guess I’ll do,” he said, sighing a bit. “I think I’ll hit the pool.”
Sally tilted her head, looking after him.
“I can think of none finer,” she said softly.
“You went out for football?!” Frank exclaimed.
Brian shrugged his shoulders in that no biggie move only 14-year-old boys can pull off. “Yeah,” he said. “And I’m on the JV squad. I’m not the smallest guy on it either.” Frank just shook his head. “Uh, well, okay…” Brian smirked. “I bet you didn’t play football, did you?”
Frank frowned. “And just what makes you think that, Mr. Smartypants?”
Brian chuckled. “It’s okay, Big Man,” Brian said, reassuringly. “I’ve known you for three months and you haven’t said a single thing about football, or any other sport. You know how weird that is compared to my mom?!”
Now that you mention it, Frank said to himself. Sally was always going on about football. “Uh, I guess she gets into it?” Frank asked.
Brian snorted. “She was cheerleader, fer heaven’s sake,” he said. “In high school and college!”
Cheerleader and Harvard Law, Frank thought. Huh!
He pulled himself together. “Well, what is that going to mean for your training time?” Frank asked.
Brian grinned. “It means I have to train in the evenings when you do now,” Brian said. “And you’ve got to get me really big! You’re my secret weapon, Frank!”
Frank smiled. “Cool beans,” Frank said. “No reason I can’t work out in the morning while you’re in school.”
And that was how it went for Brian’s first semester at Booker T. Washington High School over on Airport Boulevard. Frank spent his mornings working out, puttering around the house, and catching up on his online training courses. When 5 o’clock rolled around, he’d schlep Brian to Pensaflex, train him, and then take him back to Sally’s where he cooked all three of them supper, concentrating on whole foods, lotsa protein, and lotsa veggies.
“Damn,” Sally said one evening, while she and Brian were cleaning up. “You two really know how to put it away, don’t you?” Brian just laughed. “Hey, Frank’s getting me big,” he said, and then flexed his 16 inch bicep.
Frank gulped. Look at that!
“You are getting big, Brian,” Sally said. “Good job, Frank.” Brian did an exaggerated most muscular before his mother whacked him with a dish towel. “All the way up to 165, Mom,” Brian said. “And the semester’s only half over!”
Sally winked at Frank. She knew he was eating all of it up! “I’m thinking you’ve still got a long way to go before you catch Frank, though,” she observed, innocently.
Brian snorted. “No, shit! The man’s a frickin’…” He ground to a halt when he saw the look the two adults were giving him. “Oops!” Brian said. “I bet I said that out loud, huh?”
Sally arched an eyebrow. Language! Frank mouthed silently. Then he winked and gave Brian a quick flex of his granite-hard, veiny, furry 18-inch forearm.
“I guess I should do penance, huh?” Brian asked. Sally and Frank both nodded. Brian dropped to ground and cranked out 50 perfect push-ups.
“Sal, you think maybe we need to come up with a new form of penance?” Frank asked, equally innocently.
The three of them laughed.
The last JV game of the season Brian carried the ball seven times, six times for touchdowns. At 5’10 and 180 pounds of solid muscle, he just ran right through the other 14-year-old boys. Even the ones who were his size or bigger couldn’t hold a candle to the kid who could bench 315 for reps.
Frank and the other dads took the whole gang out for pizza afterwards. Brian was the toast of the team and all his mates wanted to talk to Frank, asking him how he got so big and what all he and Brian did during their training sessions. At 5’11 and 240 pounds of rock solid muscle, Frank made the mostly balding, mostly out-of-shape straight dads look pathetic, especially when he wrapped his big, 21-inch arm around Brian’s strong muscular neck. Brian was just an inch shorter than Frank and aside from the difference in coloring and size they could have been brothers, with the same naturally broad shoulders, tight waists, narrow hips, and athletic legs.
Well, I guess they’re straight, Frank thought to himself. He’d seen one or two of the dads checking him out, not to mention one or two of Brian’s teammates. And then there were the ones checking out Brian…And the kid’s only 14, Frank thought. What the hell is he gonna be like at 16 or 17?
“You ready to head home?” Brian asked.
“I thought you were gonna hang out with your buddies,” Frank replied.
Brian’s eyes were nearly the same level as Frank’s now and he looked right into them. “You are my buddy,” Brian said, putting his hand on Frank’s.
“Home it is then!”
“No, no, no,” Brian yelled at Sally, then stormed out of the kitchen and into his bedroom, slamming the door.
Frank had just arrived with steaks and a homemade pineapple upside down cake—it was Brian’s 15th birthday and although the party wasn’t until Saturday they were having a family celebration in advance.
“Uh, what was that all about?” Frank inquired gingerly.
Sally frowned. “He doesn’t want to go to band camp,” she replied. Frank quirked an eyebrow. “Says he wants to stay home and train this summer,” Sally added. “As if he weren’t big enough already.”
Frank winced. In the five months since football season had ended, Brian had added grown another inch taller and packed on another 30 pounds of solid muscle. At 5’11, he was now exactly as tall as Frank and at 210 pounds he weighed only 40 pounds less—an amazing transformation for just one year!
“If you ask me…” Frank began.
“If you ask me,” Sally said. “Someone has gotten too big for his britches.”
Frank chuckled. “That’s exactly what I was going to say,” he pointed out.
Sally eyed him up and down. “Are you sure about that Mr. Bodybuilding Svengali?” she asked. “You are the one who stole my baby!” She put her hand to her forehead in mock horror.
Frank burst out laughing. “Well, truly,” he continued. “The boy has amazing genetics. My guess is that before long there won’t be a band uniform to fit him.” Sally arched her favorite eyebrow. “But he’s gonna grow, regardless,” Frank continued. “It certainly isn’t going to hurt for him to go to band camp. And he could stand to re-up his, uh, credentials with that crowd.”
It was Sally’s turn to laugh. “The geek crowd, you mean?”
Frank blushed. “I didn’t say that!”
Sally shook her head. “You didn’t have to,” she said, laughing. “It’s just that…”
Frank nodded. “I’m serious,” he said. “I think he needs it. You want me to talk to him?”
Frank knocked tentatively on Brian’s door.
“Yo, partner,” Frank said.
The door opened abruptly.
“Come in, please,” Brian said.
In the year he’d known Brian, it was the first time Frank had ever been in his bedroom. Typical, I guess, Frank thought to himself. There was a single bed, a desk, a laptop, a jillion LEGO models, some stuffed bears (well, Frank thought, that’s not so typical), football posters, and bodybuilding posters. And no bikini-clad swimsuit models, Frank observed.
“So what’s with the yelling at your mom?” Frank asked.
Brian sighed. “It’s just that I really don’t think my heart’s in it anymore,” Brian said.
Frank turned the desk chair around and sat facing Brian. “Are you sure about that? Or is something else bothering you?” Brian blushed.
“I don’t want to lose any ground,” he admitted.
Frank nodded. “I thought it might be something like that,” he said aloud. “You realize you could lose a whole state and still be twice as big as your classmates, right?”
Brian shrugged his shoulders. Damn, those things are big, Frank said. It occurred to him that Brian was only 10 pounds lighter than he’d been himself a year ago. “And they’ve got a gym there, surely?”
Brian nodded, reluctantly.
It’s a helluva thing to see a kid that big pout, Frank thought.
“But you won’t be there!” Brian blurted. “How can I train without you?!”
Frank chuckled. “You’re kidding me right, Brian? You could walk into any gym in the country and get hired as a personal trainer before you ever opened your mouth.”
Speaking of open mouths prompted Brian’s to fall open. “Really?” Frank rolled his eyes.
“Really,” he replied. “How many exercises have you learned to do in the last year?”
Brian thought about that for a moment.
“Well, for chest…”
He rattled on for a good 10 minutes, listing at least five exercises, and at least five variations on said exercises, for every major muscle group.
“And all this means you can’t train without me?” Frank said.
Brian opened his mouth again—and closed it. Then he blushed.
“Uh, well, ya know, Frank, it’s not…”
Frank slapped him on the knee. “It’s okay, kid,” Frank said. “I know exactly what you mean. But here’s the deal…” Brian gave him a questioning look. “You’ve done graduated,” Frank said. “I will be happy to train you for the rest of your life, if that’s what you want. But it’s because you want it, not because you need it, okay?”
Brian thought about that a moment, then grinned. “So you mean…?”
Frank stood up and stretched, then gave Brian a quick flex on his 22-inch biceps.
“Yep, that’s what I mean,” Frank said. “Knock ’em dead at band camp and see if you can catch up to these puppies while you’re gone!”
“Damn boy!” Frank said when he saw Brian again at the end of the summer. “You’ve outgrown me.”
Brian blushed. At 6 feet he was now an inch taller than Frank.
“I think not,” Brian said. “I’m only 240.”
Frank whistled. “Shee-it,” Frank exclaimed. “That’s only 20 pounds less than I weigh, ya know.”
Brian smiled and gave Frank a look at his flexed biceps—21 inches cold! “And about 20 pounds more than you were when I first met you, right?” Brian asked. “How many men your age pack on 40 pounds of solid muscle in 15 months?”
Frank blushed. “And how many teenage guys double their weight in the same time?” he countered. Brian gave Frank a big hug. It occurred to Frank that the two of them together were packing 500 pounds of quality muscle. Damn, damn, damn. Better think about something else!
Brian leaned against the door frame, his big arms across his chest, his big shoulders nearly filling the doorway. “So aren’t you going to ask me how my summer was?” Brian asked innocently.
Uh oh, Frank thought. Let me guess! “Well, gee,” he said aloud. “Now that you put it that way—how was your summer? Anything interesting happen…?”
Brian smirked. “I met someone,” he said, in a shy voice totally at odds with the shit-eating grin on his face.
Frank put on his best fake stern face and shook his finger at Brian. “Well, I hope you used a condom!”
Brian’s eyes grew big and his mouth fell open. “Frank!” he said. “It wasn’t like that!”
Frank ran his hand across his forehead in mock relief. “Well, good!” he said. “I’m pretty sure your momma isn’t ready to be, uh, uh, a grandmother!”
Brian chuckled, then he giggled, then he started heaving with laughter. He kept pointing at Frank and mouthing grandmother, like it was the world’s biggest joke.
“And just what’s so funny about that, Mr. Smartypants?” Frank asked. “The trouble you kids get into these days…”
Which just prompted Brian to laugh even harder, so much so he was pounding the granite countertop hard enough for Frank to think it was going to crack! Finally, Brian settled down.
“Ryan,” he said. “His name is Ryan, doofus!”
Frank beamed. “I know,” Frank said. “Your momma told me a week ago!”
“Why you…” Brian started but Frank interrupted.
“These are on me,” Frank said, pulling a box of Trojan Magnums out from under the kitchen counter.
Interesting color, Frank observed inwardly as Brian turned twelve shades of red and purple. Magenta or puce? “You can breathe again now,” Frank said.
“But but but…” Brian spluttered.
“But nothing,” Frank replied. “If and when you and Ryan—you do know that your names rhyme, right?!—get around to it, you’ll be well-supplied. Just make sure he is, too, okay?”
Brian hugged Frank again.
“Thanks, Big Man,” Brian said. “You think of everything.”
Frank tousled Brian’s golden locks.
“No problemo, Big Man,” he said. “Welcome to the club!”
That fall Booker T. annihilated every team it played, thanks largely to Brian’s presence. No single individual can make or break a team but Brian’s sheer physical presence inspired his teammates to work harder and smarter than they’d ever done in their young lives. Their coaches and the fans were ecstatic.
By the end of the season Brian had grown another inch taller and added yet another 30 pounds of quality muscle to his frame. There were only two members of the team, both seniors, who outweighed Brian and neither of them was nearly as well built, or as strong. In fact, Brian held the statewide teen power lifting title, benching, squatting, and dead lifting more than any other adolescent in the state and out lifting most adult competitors.
“You’re stronger than I am,” Frank pointed out.
Brian blushed furiously. “Am not,” he said.
Frank shook his head. “Yes, you are,” he said again. “Not much but you’re outdoing me by 10-20 pounds on every lift.”
“You’re not mad at me, are you?”
Frank chuckled. “Are you crazy? I’m impressed as hell! There’s never been a bigger, stronger kid than you! You think I don’t get off on being Brian Davis’s trainer? Think again!” Frank put his big thick hands on Brian’s bulging shoulders. The joke on the team was that Brian didn’t need shoulder pads, his were already built in. He and Frank were exactly the same size. “Ya gotta face it, Brian,” Frank said. “You’re gonna be bigger than I am—in every way!”
Brian hung his head. “I just don’t want you to think I don’t look up to you or that I don’t need you,” Brian said. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
Frank gave the big ox a hug. It was all he could do to get his powerful arms around Brian’s imposing chest; reaching all the way around was impossible! “I’ve said it before, Brian,” Frank said. “But I’ll say it again.” He tilted Brian’s chin up (but not all the way up; the kid had two inches on him, after all!) and looked him in the eye.
“I’ll always be here for you.”
“He’s such a little queen,” Sally said over coffee that morning, once again reading Frank’s mind.
“Ahem,” Frank said, clearing his throat. “Technically speaking, all gay men are queens.”
Sally snorted. “Oh, pfft,” she said. “You know what I mean.”
Frank nodded. “Yes, I do,” he said. “And I hate to say it but you’re right.”
Ryan had arrived the day after Christmas, much to Brian’s delight—and to the chagrin of Sally and Frank! He is quite the little hottie, Frank thought to himself. Ryan was, well, pretty, that’s all there was to it. Model handsome, some would say, but definitely on the elfin, delicate end of the spectrum, 5’8” tall and maybe 130 pounds soaking wet, with jet black curls, sparkling brown eyes, and a rosy complexion. The total opposite of Brian, in other words!
“You were never like that, were you?” Sally asked, earnestly.
Frank laughed. “Oh, c’mon, your big brother was gay,” Frank said. “You know at some point every young gay man has to practice his divatude.” Sally rolled her eyes.
“You seem to have grown out of it,” she observed.
Frank chuckled. “Well, yes, and we can only hope Ryan will, too,” he added. “Else he’s likely to be…”
Sally laughed. “A bitter old queen by the time he gets to be our age?”
Frank nodded. “Not too many can carry off that much attitude past the age of 25,” he noted. Before Sally could add another word Ryan fluttered in with Brian tromping in behind him, his expression dour at best. He’s a St. Bernard puppy, Frank thought. Pining after a Chihuahua. It occurred to Frank that he was, perhaps, slandering Chihuahuas everywhere.
“We’re going to the mall,” Ryan announced airily.
Frank gave Brian a glance. “I thought we were working out?”
Before Brian could reply, Ryan did so for him. “Oh, well, not while I’m here, obviously,” he said, his voice carrying a tone of finality that most dowager duchesses would have a hard time carrying off. Sally rolled her eyes.
“But we’ll be happy for you to give us a lift,” Ryan continued.
Frank smiled. “Well, there’s good news and bad news on that score,” he announced. “Which do you want first?”
Ryan looked like he’d bit into a lemon. “I don’t do bad news, you know—it’s bad for my complexion.”
Which reminds me, Frank thought. I need to get Brian onto Clinique Face Soap for Men.
“Well, the good news is that the bus to the mall goes right by the house! Which really is good because the gym is in the opposite direction and that’s where I’m going.” Frank resisted an impulse to snap his fingers—it was clear that if he did Sally would totally lose it!
“Oh, well, then,” Ryan said and flounced out of the kitchen.
Brian looked mortified.
“Uh, well…” he began.
Frank patted him on the shoulder. “No problem, Big Man, I’m sure you and Ryan will have fun shopping!” he said, then added. “Oh, yeah, and I’ll be happy to give him a ride to the airport.” Sally kicked Frank under the table.—Oww!
“He’s going home tomorrow morning,” Brian said plaintively. “I want to spend time with him. He’s so…”
Frank put his hands up. “I’m teasing, kiddo. You’re being a good host—that counts for a lot in my book!” Frank said, silently adding to himself: Wish I could say your little boyfriend was being a good guest!
On the way back from the airport the next day it was clear that Brian was feeling blue. “Hey, kiddo, look,” Frank said. “You’re gonna go see him for spring break, right? It’ll be here quicker than you think, really!”
Brian sighed. “Oh, it’s not that,” he pointed out. “Ryan is a really great guy but he kinda wears me out, ya know?” Frank worked hard to maintain his poker face. “It’s just, I don’t know, he’s so cute,” Brian said. “And he’s so self-confident! He doesn’t care what other people think—he’s happy to be himself!”
Frank glanced at Brian in the rearview mirror. “Uh, Brian, you do realize…”
Brian interrupted. “I just wish you and Mom liked him more,” he said. “It’s hard trying to keep all three of you happy!”
Frank chuckled. “Kiddo, there are few things you need to keep in mind about all of this,” Frank said. “First is, you don’t have to keep anyone happy other than yourself, okay? It’s not remotely your job to keep Ryan happy. And the best way to keep your mom happy is to be happy yourself!”
Brian nodded, then sighed again. Damn, Frank thought. The kid’s got it bad!
“But what about you, Frank?” Brian asked. “What do I need to do to make you happy?”
Frank laughed out loud. “You’re kidding, right?”
Brian shook his head. “Seriously,” he said.
Frank patted Brian’s knee. “Brian, the thing you need to know is that if it were your job to make me happy, you couldn’t do a better job than you’re doing, not in a million years,” Frank said.
“C’mon, Brian, let’s get real,” Frank said, ticking off the points on his fingers:
“You’re a phenomenal athlete…
“You’re huge and built and handsome…
“You’re as smart as you are strong, which is simply astounding…
“Plus nobody works harder than you do and…
“You’re about the sweetest kid who’s ever lived.”
“Isn’t that enough?” Frank asked.
A shy smile played across Brian’s face. “And it’s okay if I have a Drama Queen boyfriend?” he asked.
Frank chortled. “Kid, we all do at some point,” Frank pointed out. “God knows I had plenty.”
Brian visibly relaxed. “Well, he doesn’t look like you,” he pointed out.
Frank gulped. “Well, thank the Lord for that! Dating a 40-year-old is probably one thing you could do that would actually piss off your mom!”
“I’ll keep that in mind!”
“He wants me to give up training,” Brian said when he returned from Atlanta.
Frank just stared. “You’re kidding, right?” Brian shook his head. “Nope, he says I’m too big for him.”
Frank snorted. “Well, you were too big for him last summer, when you get right down to it,” Frank pointed out.
Brian nodded. When he’d met Ryan at band camp in the North Carolina mountains the previous summer, Brian already outweighed his future boyfriend by 100 pounds—and he’d packed on another 60 pounds of solid muscle in the intervening months. Spring break of his sophomore year of high school, Brian was pushing 6’2 and carried 285 pounds of dense, sculpted muscle on his oversize frame.
“Face it, kiddo, you’re a beast,” Frank pointed out. “And Ryan…”
Brian sighed. “Well, yeah, I know,” he said. “Ryan’s definitely not beast material.”
Maybe if he weren’t so stuck on himself, Frank thought. Or such a bitchy little queen! “Ryan is who he is,” Frank continued aloud. “There’s no changing that.”
Brian nodded. “And I don’t want to change him,” he said. “It’s just…”
Frank rolled his eyes. “I know, Big Man, you don’t have to explain,” Frank said. “He wants you to change! Been there, done that, bought the shirt, wore it out…”
Brian snickered. “You know, sometimes…” he began.
Frank put up his big hands. “No need to go there,” Frank warned. “Just remember—I’m a big old queen!”
Brian laughed aloud.
“So whaddya think?” Frank asked. “You gonna give up the weights? Trim down and become a, well, I dunno, champion ping-pong player?”
Brian rolled his eyes. “You know better than that,” he said. “If I get run over by a bus, maybe. Otherwise…” Inwardly Frank heaved a sigh of relief. Not that I really had anything to worry about, he thought.
“Good,” he said. “Let’s go lift!”
Ten weeks later…
“Ya know,” Frank told Brian when they’d finished a grueling leg workout. “I’m not sure how much I can keep up with you anymore!” Brian gave Frank a hurt look, which made Frank laugh out loud. “Oh, come off it, kiddo,” Frank said. “Ryan might get away with that look but not an NFL linebacker lookalike.”
It seemed like Brian had probably stopped growing taller but at 6’2” tall that put him three inches above Frank. On the other hand, he showed no signs of slowing down in terms of muscle. At 300 pounds, he now had 20 pounds on Frank, who at 5’11 and 280 pounds was bigger than he’d ever been in his life. Stronger, too, come to think of it, Frank told himself. Not bad for 40-something, I guess!
“Oh, come off it,” Brian said. “You just squatted 700 pounds for reps.”
Frank snorted. “And how much did you do?”
Brian blushed first but then he grinned. “Nine-fifty for reps, Big Man,” he pointed out. Frank chuckled. “One half ton here we come?” he asked.
Brian looked thoughtful. “Next week,” he said.
Shit, Frank thought. He really is a beast! And he’s fucking 16 years old!
A couple of days later…
Uh oh, Frank thought, as he stepped into Sally’s kitchen. It was Brian’s birthday and Frank had made his world-class blueberry muffins and… He could hear something like a water buffalo in severe distress coming from the direction of Brian’s bedroom—the big kid was bawling like a baby.
“It’s Ryan,” Sally said from the kitchen table. It was clear that Sally had been crying, too. Frank gulped.
“What about him?” he asked, fearing the worst.
Sally grimaced. “The little bitch dumped Brian,” she snarled.
Frank heaved a sigh of relief. “Well, shit, Sal,” he said. “I thought you were going to give me bad news.”
With that, Sally started bawling herself. Frank sat at the table and reached over to give his best friend a hug.
“Darlin’, baby girl,” he said. “What’s the matter? What’s going on?”
Sally handed Frank a piece of paper from the table. It was a doctor’s report. Frank felt his field of vision contract, as if someone had slipped goggles over his eyes. All he could see were two words:
He looked up at Sally, the disbelief evident on his face. Sally nodded, then pulled herself together.
“We need to talk,” she said.
“I want you to be his guardian,” Sally said that evening over dinner.
Frank shook his head. “You know I’d be honored to do so,” Frank said. “But that won’t be necessary.”
Sally smiled wanly. “Ever the optimist, huh?” She sighed, then continued. “Frank, I appreciate your optimism, I really do, but we need to face facts—my chances of surviving this are only one in three at best,” she pointed out.
Frank gulped. “But you’re a strong woman, Sally, and you’re a fighter, that’s clear as can be…”
She put her hand on Frank’s cheek.
“Yes, that’s true,” she said. “But there’s something you don’t know.”
Crap, Frank thought. Can this get any worse?
“My mother died of ovarian cancer,” Sally said. “It runs in the family.”
Frank looked down at his big hands. I can’t cry in front of her, he thought. She won’t mind but it’s not what she needs. “What…” he began, his mouth suddenly dry as the Sahara. “What do you want me to do?”
Over the next hour Sally reminded Frank that she was, in fact, a graduate of Harvard Law. She laid it all out:
Durable power of attorney.
Guardian ad litem.
“I’m an orphan,” she observed. “And so was Brian’s biological father. The closest relatives are cousins and they’ve never set eyes on him. So it should be a non-issue.”
Frank nodded. “Where do I sign?”
Frank knocked on Brian’s door.
“Come in.” The reply was muffled and opening the door Frank saw why. Brian was face down on his twin bed, his face in his pillow, clutching his favorite stuffed animal.
Jeez, Frank thought to himself. If he gets any bigger his shoulders are gonna be hanging over the sides! “Hey, soldier,” Frank said. “You hangin’ in there?”
Brian rolled over and stared at the ceiling. He sighed deeply, his massive chest heaving up and down. It’s like a fucking landslide, Frank thought.
“By a thread, Big Man,” Brian said.
Frank sat down on Brian’s task chair, the back turned around so that it hid Frank’s crotch from Brian’s view. “Ya know, kiddo…” Frank began.
Brian shook his head. “I don’t think I can deal with it, Frank,” he said, his voice cracking. “It’s just too much.”
Frank nodded. “I’ll skip the kiddo stuff, Brian,” Frank said. “This is as grown up as it gets, I’m afraid.” Brian nodded, silent tears running down his face. “The thing you gotta remember is that life is wonderful except that it sucks,” Frank continued. Brian snorted. “In fact,” Frank added, “I’ve come to the conclusion that life is wonderful even when it sucks.”
Brian rolled on his side. “It doesn’t feel very wonderful at the moment,” Brian observed. Frank looked at the floor. “No,” Frank continued. “It certainly does not. But my guess is that at some point you’ll look back on this and see that even at a time like this, life and love are miracles, that our family and friends are blessings. And that what we’ve had together will stay in your heart forever.”
Brian searched Frank’s face. Frank held his gaze without blinking.
“You really do believe that, don’t you?’ Brian asked.
Frank nodded once again. “I couldn’t go on if I thought otherwise,” Frank replied. “And, as you have seen, I keep going on.”
It was Brian’s turn to nod. “I will, too, in that case,” Brian said. Then he rolled over and instantly fell asleep.
Before turning out the light, Frank looked upon the huge, muscular body of his young friend, who was already snoring softly.
“I know you will, son,” he said quietly, then shut the door.
Sally’s decline was swift.
It took a few weeks for her to get all the paperwork sorted out, signed, witnessed, filed, rubber-stamped, and a couple of weeks more to wind down her law practice, all while undergoing radiation therapy and chemo. She lost her hair, she lost weight, she had no appetite, and it was a toss-up as to which was more problematic, the pain or the nausea.
She never complained, though.
Frank and Brian tried to carry on as though things were normal. They went to the gym, they took care of the house, they shopped for groceries. They took over driving Sally wherever she needed to go. They spent as much time with her as they could.
On the 4th of July, Sally went into the hospital and except for two brief visits home stayed there through the end of the month. Brian and Frank took turns staying with her at the hospital. One or both of them was at her side 24 / 7. On the 1st of August she came home—with a hospital bed and daily visits from the hospice nurse. Brian didn’t leave her side except to go the bathroom, eat, and take a shower. He stopped training altogether.
Frank took care of everything else, buying the groceries, cooking the meals, taking care of the laundry, managing the household, taking over Sally’s finances. On the afternoon of August 19, he went to the grocery store. Sally, who was very weak, had asked for her favorite brand of ice cream, and they had none on hand.
“I didn’t know she ate ice cream,” Frank whispered to Brian.
“She doesn’t,” he replied. “Not for as long as I’ve known her.”
Sally chuckled quietly.
“My hearing is just fine, ya big louts,” she murmured. “It was what I craved when I was expecting Brian.”
Frank ran two red lights and cut an old lady off in the Express Check Out line at Albertson’s. He was back at the house in less than 30 minutes.
“She’s gone,” Brian said when he walked in the door.
Frank doubled over and would have fallen if Brian hadn’t caught him. He straightened up and put his arms around Sally’s—and his—son.
“What am I gonna do, Frank?” Brian asked.
Frank hugged Brian tight. “We’ll make it through, Brian,” he said. “Don’t ever doubt it.”
Brian nodded. “Just… don’t ever leave me, Frank, okay? Please? I mean I just can’t…”
Choked with emotion, Brian could say no more. “I never will, Brian,” Frank replied. “I’ll be here in your life, as long as you want me here, okay?”
Brian sniffled. “You promise?”
Frank took Brian’s handsome face in his two meaty hands. He looked into Brian’s bright blue eyes.