It is 1963. Being gay is a sin against God. And twenty-eight year old mechanic Will meets Bran for the first time.
Over the years a close bond forms between them despite the seventeen year age difference. Will teaches Bran to swim and helps him with homework. The years pass, Bran drops out of school and moves away.
Then Bran comes home. Can Will move past their age difference? And if he does, how can he keep Bran in 1970 America?
A beautifully tale of love and loss told from the viewpoint of a deeply closeted gay man at the very beginning of the American Gay and Lesbian Rights movement.
I first met Bran eight years ago. He was eleven years old.
I was twenty-eight.
It was 1963 and I had just returned home from a long day fixing cars. It was an excruciatingly hot Houston day. The garage I worked at had been even hotter.
Coming home wasn't much of a relief. My apartment didn't have air conditioning and it was like an oven, as usual. I wolfed downed two PB&Js and a beer, smoked a nice fat bowl, and then put on my swimming suit and headed for the pool. My apartment complex was made up of three buildings that formed a horseshoe around a large community pool, and I couldn't wait to immerse myself in the relatively cool water. It was how I passed most of my evenings in the summer. I'd spend twenty to forty minutes floating blissfully on the surface while my high wore off and then do a few laps before dragging myself off to bed to get up at six the next morning.
I arrived at the pool a little after eight and I was hoping to have it to myself. As far as I was concerned that was the benefit of coming to the pool late. But this time I found a kid I'd never seen before sitting on the edge with his feet dangling in.
"Hiya mister!" he said as I came through the gate.
I mentally groaned. Sharing the pool with kids was the worst. They were always screaming and splashing when all I wanted was a little bit of silent relaxation. But I said, "Hey."
"I'm Brannon Nelson," he said. "What's your name?"
"What's your last name? My ma says I have to call grown-ups by their last name."
"Constantil . . . ?" he trailed away uncertainly.
I sighed, wishing not for the first time my father's father had done what other immigrants had chosen to do and Americanized his name. But no such luck for me. "Forget it, kid," I said. "Just call me Will."
"Okay." He was skinny and pale and his dark blonde hair was cropped short. He was in that terribly awkward pre-adolescent stage where he seemed to be nothing but big teeth, protuberant ears, and giant feet. "My ma and I just moved into apartment twelve--"
"That's great, kid," I said, hoping to quell the story of his life, which I had a feeling he was just dying to share. As if to prove me right he kept talking as if I hadn't spoken at all.
"--in building C. My sister, too, but she's only eight. She wanted to come to the pool with me but my ma said no, she's too little, and it's almost her bedtime anyway, but since I'm eleven I can stay out later so she said I could come check out the pool, and it's really swell, isn't it? I mean, we never had a pool before! But I bet it's gonna be lots of fun. We used to live--"
Holy hell, this was going to be worse than I thought. I dove into the pool and was able to swim in underwater silence to the other edge before surfacing next to him. He was still talking.
"--died last year. I guess really, it was more like two years ago now, just about, and we stayed there for a while, but then my ma said we couldn't afford to live there no more so we moved here. She works at the diner down the street you know, so she says this is perfect 'cause it's so close, and I have to watch my sister until my ma gets home, but that's usually around seven, and after that she says I can come to the pool and--"
"Jesus, kid," I said in exacerbation, "shut up for half a second, will you?"
"Sure," he said.
And to my surprise, he did. He just sat there smiling at me, not saying a word. I was a little taken aback by his acquiescence. "Okay then," I said awkwardly. "Just gimme a few minutes before you start talking again."
"Sure thing, mister."
I didn't actually expect him to be quiet for long, but I'd take what I could get. I stretched out on my back, closed my eyes, and let myself drift on the surface, riding out the peak of my high, letting my mind turn off and my body cool down, until I finally emerged into the mellow THC-induced valley below that would carry me through until bedtime. I slowly cracked my eyelids open and looked over at him. He was still sitting in the same spot, watching me.
"Sure thing, mister."
"How'd your dad die?"
"In a car wreck."
"Jeez, I'm sorry, kid. That sucks."
"I know." He said it in a matter-of-fact tone that was way too old for his eleven years and it threw me a bit.
"Are you going to get in?" I asked. "Or are you just going to sit there all night?"
"Are you serious?"
"Ma says maybe she can afford lessons next year."
It was bad enough to live in the Houston heat. Now he had access to a pool but wouldn't be able to use it? That'd be tough on an adult; it had to be absolute torture for a kid his age. "Come on, kid," I said, before I had time to think about what a bad idea it was. "I'll teach you."
So for better or worse, I ended up teaching Brannon to swim. He met me the next three nights at the pool. He was a quick learner and not even bad company, for a kid. But on Friday night, I told him I wouldn't be there the next evening. I could tell he was disappointed, but it didn't matter. I sure as hell wasn't going to change my mind. Saturday was my night for myself, when I would sneak off to one of the little-known bars downtown for guys like me -- guys who preferred other guys. I never brought anybody home, but that one night each week I allowed myself the release of actually being touched by another man. Whether it was following one to his place or just a quick fuck in the back room of the bar, it was something, and I wasn't about to give it up for some kid.
"I can still meet you on Sunday," I told him.
"I can't swim on Sundays," he said. "Ma says it's the Sabbath. I think when God said you shouldn't work on the Sabbath he didn't mean swimming, but ma says it's inappropriate."
I wasn't sure whether God cared about swimming or not, but I sure as hell wasn't going to contradict any kid's mom. "Then I'll see you Monday."
He followed me around for the rest of the summer, which just about drove me nuts, but once school started in the fall he found friends his own age.
Still, I would see him once or twice a month, at the pool or in the laundry room. He brought in my mail when I left town to visit my folks. He came to me when he needed help with his homework, or when his mom pissed him off. Sometimes he got on my nerves, but mostly I could tolerate him. He was a smart kid and he'd talk your ear off of if you let him. More than once I snapped and told him to shut the hell up. But just like that first day at the pool, he took it in stride.
The one good thing about a kid his age was that he never asked any of the questions: Why wasn't I seeing anyone? At the ripe old age of twenty-eight, why hadn't I settled down and gotten married? Was I going to stay a bachelor forever? Didn't I want a nice woman to take care of me? They were questions adults always seemed to feel they were justified in asking. I thought maybe they could have learned a lot from Bran.
Over the next few years, I watched him grow. He was still skinny and awkward and gangly, although he did finally grow into his feet. He played basketball at his high school and he was incredibly bright and inquisitive.
In 1967 Timothy Leary got everybody buzzing about "questioning authority". Sometimes I thought Bran took the advice a bit too much to heart, but it was purely academic for him. He was much less rebellious than I had been at his age.