It started the day my son, Ben, had a hickey on his neck. Having a fairly close relationship with Ben, I asked him about it. First of all, like most 17-year-olds, he denied it was a hickey. I quickly grounded him in reality, stating that I most certainly knew what a hickey looked like. He was flustered but also pleased to be sporting this huge purple blotch on his neck.
"Who is she?" I asked. He had several friends who were girls, and I really couldn't imagine him wrestling romantically with any of them. They had always been strictly platonic. He wouldn't tell me who had delivered the hickey.
Being me, I started listing friends, and acquaintances, hoping to hit upon the right name.
"Kelsey? Miranda? Abby?" He denied them all with a foolish grin. As a joke, I brought up the name of a guy friend of his, who had just recently started showing up around our house. I hadn't met Alex yet, but I knew my son had been out with him the night before.
"Alex?" I teased.
"No," he said. But he smiled a smile that I didn't understand and left the room.
I thought about that for a while. As the days progressed, I started to notice some changes about Ben. He was dressing different, wearing newsboy caps, scarves, and sporting an "indie" beard. He was spending a lot of time with Alex, to the exclusion of his other friends. I still had never met Alex. One evening I was supposed to pick up my son from town, where he was hanging out with Alex. I wanted to get gas first, so I came into the parking lot through another entrance. As I pulled in to the dark lot, I thought I saw my son and another taller boy, definitely locked in embrace, up against a van in the shadows. When Ben became aware of my approaching car, he quickly pulled away from the boy and pretended like nothing had happened. He got in the car and the other boy slunk away, giving me a level, defiant stare over his shoulder.
"Alex?" I asked Ben.
"Yup," he said, and changed the subject. I let it drop. I was too much in shock over what I had just seen. In fact, I started doubting immediately that I had even seen what I knew I had seen. The only thing that remained firmly lodged in my mind was Alex's thunderous dark-eyed look, aimed directly at me.
In the next days that followed, I was haunted by that look. Alex came over to the house, or met Ben in parking lots, but it never happened when I was around. They waited until I was at work, or somewhere else. Ben was becoming more and more flamboyant in the way he was talking, dressing and acting. I started asking my daughters if they thought that Ben was gay. My middle daughter evaded my questions.
"Ask Ben," she said.
I left Ben a note on his computer one morning, that said, basically, that all I ever wanted for him, since he was born, was to be happy and to be free to be who he was. It was a little ambiguous, I know, but I thought that if Ben was gay, that the note would tell him that I would still accept him, and that my primary desire here was his happiness. He never said anything about the note.
The day that I was taking Ben's laundry out of the dryer and a "gay pride" sock fell out and landed at my feet, I decided that Ben was really, really trying to tell me something. I couldn't wait any longer. I had to talk to him.
It's hard to pin down a 17-year-old, for a heart-to-heart talk. Ben wasn't the most receptive to mother-son talks anyway, always brushing off my concerns and barely listening, since he was a little boy. But I felt strongly that he needed to have a "safe sex" talk from me more than almost anything else. I had found out that Ben lied about Alex being 17. He was 21 and a junior in college. I felt that Ben might be in over his head with someone more experienced than him. I knew this wasn't going to be easy.
Not knowing how to begin, I decided to just jump in. I couldn't make my mouth form the "g" word, though. It's not that I didn't want to say it, I just didn't know how it would be received by Ben. What if he wasn't gay? Would I hurt him worse by asking him if he was?
I asked, "Is Alex more than a friend?" Ben wouldn't look at me and gave me one of his famous "non-answers."
"I don't know," he said.
I persisted. "Because if he is, then there are things we need to talk about."
Ben was panicking a little, "Just stop!" he begged.
"I'm not stopping. I need to tell you this stuff because I love you and don't want anything to happen to you."
"You need to stop!" he pleaded again.
"Why do you want me to stop?" I kept my voice calm.
He turned away and mumbled with a catch in his voice, "It's embarrassing." My heart broke for him. I understood what he meant. He wanted to be true to who he was, but he wasn't ready to take on the full load of being gay. He didn't want to be outed by his mother. But, in effect, he just had been outed by his mother.
I apologized for bringing it up, but I also told him that if he was gay, that there were things that I had a responsibility to address, his safety being my number one priority. He said that, yes, Alex was more than a friend.