The last cap hits the ground and the noise is deafening. It’s finally over. We have officially graduated. Everywhere you look, families are gathered together with big smiles, a few tears, and lots of hugs. If you took a snapshot of this moment, it would seem like the perfect graduation. The clear blue sky spreads out overhead without a single cloud to mar its pristine color and everyone is happily dressed in their fine clothes, bouquets of flowers clutched in excited hands.
I envy those families their closeness and the pride shining in each parent’s eyes. It’s not something I will ever experience. Standing off in one corner, my father shakes my hand briefly. His posture is stiff in his dress uniform and his stern eyes look somewhere over my shoulder instead of at me.
“You graduated.” That’s it. That’s all he says to me for this achievement before stepping away. I graduated with honors and received a full scholarship and this person still can’t find any pride in me as a son. A slight twinge of pain twists my heart but is quickly gone, leaving me cold.
“Congratulations, baby boy.” My mother whispers in my ear when she gives me a hug, the only bit of warmth in this family, but my father interrupts almost as soon as those words leave her mouth.
“My commander is across the quad with his grandson that just graduated. We should go over and congratulate them.” It isn’t a suggestion. It’s an order and he pulls Ma’s arms off of me to loop one over his elbow. He doesn’t ask me to go with and doesn’t say goodbye. With quick steps, he walks away pulling my mother along beside him. She turns to wave with her free hand, eyes full of regret and sadness.
“There you are!” A handsome face suddenly appears in front of me with a wide, toothy smile. “Come on, Winnie. My ma wants to take pictures.”
A warm hand wraps around mine and Per pulls me over to a copse of trees near the side of the building where his parents, sister, and baby brother are waiting. His mother hands the infant over to Per and gives me a tight hug while his father pats me on the shoulder. Both have big smiles and even his sister comes up to snuggle in for a hug. She keeps hugging until Per clears his throat and gives her a glare. She sticks her tongue out in response but releases me after a final squeeze.
“I need to get a picture of the whole family!” His mother declares holding up a fancy black camera.
“I can take it for you.” I hold out my hand for the camera but she doesn’t give it to me.
“I said I wanted a family photo. How are you going to be in the picture if you are the one taking it?” This is said in her most reasonable voice as if I had asked a stupid question. She turns to her husband and points to a narrow black bag at his feet. “Papa, can you set up the tripod?”
What she said makes an odd sort of happiness bubble up inside. My own parents can’t accept me and I spent every second for the last several years scrambling just to keep from getting screamed at or hit. Big black bruises were a normal part of my life. Then, here she is including me as part of the family without batting an eye and no thinks twice about it.
“Here, Win. Can you hold him? I think they need some help with the camera.” Per sets his baby brother in my arms and goes over to his parents who are loudly discussing how to operate the device. Neither seems to have a clue and are excited to hand it over to their son.
Baby Zee looks up at me with eyes that are an exact replica of Pepper’s and shoves a tiny hand into his mouth. He’s only six months old and was a complete and happy surprise to his parents. Per’s parents had a falling out years ago because of his grandparents. I’m not exactly sure what all happened but his dad moved back into his childhood home and took over the family business. Over the years, he still financially took care of his wife and children and the kids would go to visit him. A lot of things happened during that time and it messed Per up to the point where he hated to be alone and thought everyone would leave him. He still regresses to that sometimes but not as much since that day two years ago when he confessed the truth to me and barely at all since his dad came home shortly after that. A few months later, Per’s mom shocked everyone (including herself) with the pregnancy announcement. It was the happiest I had ever seen the family until the day Zee arrived.
“Everybody get together!” Per’s mother shouts and guides us to a spot in front of the camera with the trees behind us. She and his dad stand on either side of me leaving a little space for Per to squeeze in. His sister stands in front of their dad. As I try to hand Baby Zee back to his mother, Per shouts that he’s pushed the button and scrambles between us draping an arm over my shoulders. Zee and I both look up at him in surprise just at the camera clicks.
“I know I’m handsome but you’re supposed to be looking at the camera, Winnie, not me.” He gently pushes my face to look at the camera using a single finger on my chin. Then softly bats Zee on the nose. “You too, small fry.”
Baby Zee smiles and tries to capture his finger to shove in his mouth but Per evades the grabby hand and ruffles the tuft of hair on the kid’s head. His family chuckles and I can feel a faint blush heat up my skin. Per is still the biggest flirt I know. The only difference is that, now, he only flirts with me and doesn’t care who is around to see… unless it’s my parents.
“Nobody move! I’m gonna reset the camera.” Jumping away, he jogs over and presses the button again before running back into position. He slings the arm over me again and wraps a hand around to the front to tickle Baby Zee, who looks to see who did that, and the camera clicks. “I think we got that one.”
“I want one of just our boys, now.” His mom pipes up and finally takes the baby away from me. For sure, I thought she would hand Per the baby but she didn’t. Instead, Per grabs a handful of my gown and pulls me next to him in front of the camera. With one hand on my shoulder, he gives a big smile and makes a mini-heart with the fingers of his other hand. I raise two fingers and give the best smile I can, my heart still racing over his mom’s “our boys” comment and the realization that she meant me.
Several pictures later, we all pile into his family’s minivan and head home. I didn’t see my own parents again before leaving and there wasn’t a need to tell them where I was going. My father wouldn’t care and my mother can’t go against him. She had tried after she found out the truth but no one would believe her and it set my father’s temper off even worse. After that, she did her best to keep me away from him but there was only so much she could do.
When the vehicle pulls up into Per’s driveway, I’m happy to see that my parents haven’t come home yet. They probably got invited by his superior to eat which works perfectly for me. It makes things so much easier.
“Is everything ready?” Per asks as we climb out of van. I give him a nod. It’s been ready for several days. “Then let’s go while they’re still gone.”
“Do you need any help?” Per’s dad asks, a concerned look on his face.
“No. There really isn’t a lot so the two of us should be fine.” I wave my hand at the taller man. “Thank you, Uncle.”
“Don’t you think it’s about time you called me Papa or Pa?” He gives me a smile and a wink.
“Yes, Unc… Papa.” He had requested this of me more than once and I guess it is time. After today, it would be silly not to. Papa’s smile widens and he whistles as he follows his wife into the house.
“Finally! My parents have only been waiting for more than a year to hear you call them that.” Laughing, Per takes my hand and pulls me out the gate and over to my house. “Let’s do this!”
Leading him inside, he follows me up the stairs to my room and looks around. It’s sparse inside with only the furniture and my freshly made bed. There are no pictures on the walls or trinkets on the shelves, just a few books and some blank paper. No matter how much I look around, I can’t summon up any warm feelings or nostalgia. It’s just somewhere I’ve passed time. I open the double doors to my closet and pull out one large suit case, a large cardboard box sealed with packing tape, and a white board. Besides empty hangers, these are the only items in there. Per looks with fondness at the whiteboard when he sees it.
“The suitcase has wheels so I can pull it and carry the whiteboard if you can take the box.” The box is heavy and the best I could do is drag it. There’s no way I can get it down the stairs. Per agrees and easily lifts the box. He doesn’t look it with his skinny frame but the man is all lean muscle.
Between the two of us, we carry my belongings out of the house in one trip and take them over to Per’s house where his car is parked. Setting down the box, he fishes the keys out of his pocket and opens the trunk. After placing my meager possessions inside, he locks it up and we head into his house.
“Are you sure you grabbed everything?” Per looks with curiosity at the house next door.
“Yes. There isn’t much that I can call my own.” Following his gaze, I nod. I didn’t know what I expected to feel when I got to this point, maybe relief or even fear, but I don’t feel anything at all as I stare at the building. It hasn’t been a home to me since I was very little, if ever. Now, it’s just another house filled with bad memories.
“Are you okay?” Full of concern, Per slides a hand down the side of my head and leans down to look me in the eyes. “You know I’m going to take good care of you, right? Just like I promised.”
“I’m fine, Pepper.” Leaning into his hand, I smile up at him. There’s no one in this world that I trust more and no one I feel as safe with. “Let’s go eat before your mother starts screaming at us and scaring the whole neighborhood.”
Throughout the celebratory meal, I keep waiting for my father to come pounding on the front gate but it doesn’t happen. We walk out of the house and his car still isn’t in the drive. I won’t completely relax until we climb into Per’s car and leave.
“Remember to call if you need anything.” Per’s mom keeps repeating to both of us with tears in her eyes as she gives us hugs. “Per, I don’t think I have to tell you to take care of our Win.”
“Exactly which one of us is your son, Ma?” Per rolls his eyes and grimaces.
“You are but Win’s my favorite.” With a playful shove on his shoulder, she gives me another warm hug.
“I knew it!” Grumbling, Per scowls at me so I scrunch my nose up at him making him laugh. We both know he can never stay mad at me.
“Take care, boys. We aren’t that far away so be sure to visit once in a while after you get settle. Your mama will hunt you down if you don’t… she’ll probably hunt you down if you do.” Giving both of us a firm handshake, we laugh at his dad’s joke, even though it’s the truth.
We give kisses to the baby and a last hug to Per’s sister before climbing into his car. As we pull away, everyone waves desperately as if we are travelling half way around the world instead of just across town. The house gets small the further down the road we get until Per turns a corner and it disappears from view.
Now, I feel it, the anxiety lurking in the pit of my stomach. My muscles tense and breathing becomes difficult. Tears wet my face as they drip unchecked down each cheek. Leaving my own parents made me feel nothing but leaving Per’s left me feeling crushed. His family is my family, the family that loves and cares for me. The family I choose to be a part of. My heart hurts.
A familiar hand covers mine as they shake on my lap. The warmth sinks into my skin and comforts me more than any words. I’m leaving but I’m not by myself. I have Pepper with me so I know everything will be alright. In the last two years, he’s never given up and never left my side. At home I kept my head down and appeared to follow every insane rule my father could come up with, from crazy early curfews to no grade below an A to a ban on all phone use after six p.m. No friends were allowed to come over and I was never allowed to be anywhere near Per. School became my favorite place. The music club room was our safe haven. It was the only time Per and I were free to be ourselves and no one would judge us, considering the most popular senior guys in the club and school were dating each other that year. By our senior year, it wasn’t even a shocking topic if one guy was dating another anymore. In fact, there are fan cafés set up for the school favorites. Per and I were ranked at #4 last time I got curious and looked. I just kept hoping that no one would point out that website to my father.
My mother helped to hide our relationship from my father as much as she could, knowing Per was the only reason I still smile. When we decided to move me out of the house right after graduation, she helped me pack and kept my father out of my room so he wouldn’t suspect anything. Last night, she hugged me tight and wished me happiness. When she started to apologize, I hugged her tighter and tried to hold back the tears and the fear of what my father might do once he finds out I’m gone. I can’t stay here any longer but I hate to leave her alone with him. She promised to go visit my grandparents if it gets bad. It wasn’t much but at least it was something to ease my mind.
“We’re here.” Per shakes my shoulder, startling me out of my thoughts, and I look around to find that we are already parked in our assigned spot in the parking garage.
Grabbing my few belongings, we walk into the lobby of the small apartment complex and clamber into the elevator. The ride up is quiet with only the whirr of the lift motor and the quiet ding when it reaches our floor. Per leads the way to a plain wood door and sets the box down to unlock it. Pushing it wide open, he holds it with one foot and lets me walk in first then follows with the box in tow.
It’s not very large or posh and the pale blue paint on the walls is a little faded but it looks perfect to me. Per had found it and signed the contract, moving his stuff in last weekend, but this is my first time seeing it. It’s affordable and close to the university campus that we both will be attending. The small kitchen and living space share the main room with a single bedroom and bathroom off to the right. Worn but sturdy-looking furniture in shades of tan are positioned in front of a television with Per’s precious guitar displayed on its stand in one corner.
Per takes my things and carries them into the bedroom as I explore the cozy space that we are going to be sharing from now on. The chairs and sofa are comfortable to sit in, the fabric soft under my fingers. A single large window on the one outer wall gives a view of the bustling city as night begins to descend. Standing, I walk over to lean against the side of the window frame and watch as lights start popping on and the glow of streetlights fill the road below.
I don’t hear Per’s footsteps as he comes up behind me but the scent of his musky cologne tickles my nose. His arms wrap around my waist and his chin comes to rest on my shoulder as he breathes out in a relaxed sigh. Leaning back into him, contentment fills my soul and, for the first time that I can remember, I am perfectly happy. My whole body hums in delight. I’m not alone. I’m home.
A loud knock on our front door interrupts Per kissing me affectionately on the cheek. He laughs as he heads for the door with a mischievous grin. Curious, I follow only to be bombarded with familiar loud voices as a group of guys tramples inside.
“Welcome to the neighborhood!” P’Ohm shouts excitedly with a case of beer in his hands and Mick rolling his eyes behind him.
“Why the fuck didn’t you wait for us, asshole?” A hand smacks Ohm upside the back of his head as Noh walks up to him. “N’Mick really needs to reign your ass in.”
“Not my fault you were too busy sucking off Phun’s face to walk over with us.” Ohm tries to kick him in the shin but almost falls when Noh side steps.
“Like you have any room to talk. You didn’t even take the time to zip up your pants after leaving the bedroom with n’Mick.” Noh points down at the flash of red showing through Ohm’s open jeans making him blush a deep red.
“You guys are ten times worse than us ever since you got engaged so shut the fuck up.” Setting the case on the kitchen counter, Ohm hastily zips up his pants.
“Engaged?” My shocked question reminds them where they are and it’s Noh’s turn to blush as I stare up at him in surprise. “How come I haven’t heard about this?”
“Yep, engaged.” Phun comes up next to Noh and proudly pushes their hands forward to show off the matching rings.
“You haven’t heard because you’ve been living under a rock for the last two years, Winnie.” Linking his hand with mine, Per bats me on the nose.
“Congratulations, p’Phun and p’Noh.” I push Per’s hand away with a scowl. Like it’s my fault I practically lived in a prison thanks to my father.
“Thanks! Congratulations on graduating and becoming our neighbor.” Phun responds back.
“Neighbor? We’re neighbors?” Seriously, is there anything else that I haven’t been told? This is getting ridiculous.
“What the hell do you mean ‘our’ neighbor?” Noh crosses his arms and stares at Phun. “The apartment across the hall is mine and Ohm’s. Since when do you claim it?”
“Since he spends every night and most of his free time in it. I’m seriously thinking he needs to start paying his share of the living expenses.” Ohm says sarcastically.
“I spend all my time there, too, p’Ohm.” N’Mick puts his hands on his hips and glares at his boyfriend.
“Fuck it! Fine! Yes, we all freaking live there in one big fucking happy rainbow family.” Throwing his arms up, Ohm gives in as he usually does to his younger boyfriend.
“Good because I’m moving my stuff in next week.” Mick says triumphantly.
Watching the antics of our friends and feeling the happy glow from holding my Pepper’s hand, I realize how lucky I am to be here now. There is no doubt. I am really not alone in this crazy world and I never will be again.