From getting Jesse a place to live to supporting Stefan through his break-up, Devan was stretched thin. He needed some time away from James Street. This would lead him to make an unexpected call to his Aunt Gladys and Uncle Charles. When Aunt Gladys answered, she had been surprised to hear from him, having not spoken to Devan since his brother’s funeral. But, she took no time in saying, “I would love to have you over, dear.” So Devan took his car and he headed down south.
Devan’s last visit to Aunt Gladys’ and Uncle Charles’ was long ago, back when he was a teenager. The two of them didn’t live very far from Aunt Katherine and Uncle George’s, just across a suspension bridge with the cerulean sea underneath. Little had changed in their part of town. Devan passed palm trees and beach homes, driving over sandy streets. Men and women in bathing suits walked along the sidewalks with surfboards, coolers, and the like. Devan hoped he could take Stefan and Jesse here one day.
He approached a house made of wood, painted a light gray. He never imagined it’d be another decade before he’d ever come back here. Aunt Gladys and Uncle Charles were settled in on their beach porch, watching the ocean. They looked as if they spent their days there, just enjoying each other’s company. He took himself out the driver seat and walked along the front of the car. Aunt Gladys and Uncle Charles noticed it was Devan almost immediately.
“You’re here,” Aunt Gladys called out to Devan. “Come on over, we’ve been waiting for you.”
While Devan was gone, Jesse came over to Devan’s place to spend some time with Stefan. Jesse hoped analyzing Devan’s living space might give him some ideas on how to set up his own apartment. Stefan just needed the company.
“You’d think he got a hidden book on feng shui,” Jesse commented. “I don’t know where Devan got the idea to put this table here or those chairs over there.”
Stefan giggled. “I think he just placed everything where it would fit.”
Jesse sucked his teeth. “You lying, Stefan. He didn’t get any tips from the greats like Kelly Wearstler or Phillippe Stark?” Stefan’s quizzical look told Jesse all he needed to know. He walked around some more, paying extra attention to the bookcase and pictures on the wall like he hadn’t seen them before. “And Devan likes to act like he doesn’t watch HGTV…”
Jesse was slowly acclimating to his new living situation, having a job, and keeping up with the bills. Working forty hours a week is no easy task. Jesse hoped going out on the town after a long day might ease his stress, but he no longer enjoyed the perks of being a playboy and hitting the clubs every night. Without the money or the man, Jesse was just like everyone else and had to pay full price everywhere he went.
“You know who had good taste?” Jesse asked as he headed to the kitchen. “When I first met Nikolai, I used to fawn over his sense of style. The way that he dressed in his tuxedos, silk robes, and suit shirts. The way he cut his hair, the way he smelled when he wore his cologne. Or nothing at all. Even the way he situated his living room, his bedroom, the bed...” Jesse let out a slow exhale. Stefan could hear in Jesse’s voice his yearning.
“Stefan, the way that man made love to me was like nothing I’ve experienced before. Most boys in the club just want a quick fuck, but Nikolai worshipped every part of you, making love to you like he could do it forever. Uhh, look at me telling you all my business!” Jesse fanned himself.
Stefan smiled faintly. “Nikolai cared about you a lot.”
“He really did... You know, when he kicked me out, I thought I’d never speak to him again. I was thinking, how is this mofo bout to kick me out on the streets? It was like a betrayal. But I knew I had it coming. Nikolai never tried to hurt me. And to do what I did to him, I don’t know if he’ll ever forgive me.”
Stefan frowned. Jesse slowed down his pace as he looked at the assortment of dishes Devan had. He closed the counter gently, his fingers gliding across the countertops.
“I think it’s saying something that your remorseful about what you did. It means you have empathy. The worst thing you could’ve done is walk away and feel nothing.” Jesse stared at the countertops as Stefan spoke to him. “I don’t know if Nikolai will forgive you. I think that might be out of your control. But you can forgive yourself.”
Jesse looked skeptical. “How do I forgive myself for cheating on Nikolai and being so damn fucked up to him?”
“...By acknowledging what you’ve done and to stop telling yourself you're a bad person for it. You’ve made an awful mistake, but you aren’t a bad person, Jesse. Bad people don’t protect their friends from abusers.”
Jesse couldn’t fathom it. Here he was having reached his lowest point: losing his longtime boyfriend, drinking fifths to drown away his sorrows, and living in a meager apartment with nothing but a bed and not even a hundred dollars to his name. He should be regretful for having done what he did, he thought. He was a monster. But Jesse neglected to see the ways his benevolence shined through. Didn’t it make a difference that he could stand face-to-face with Stefan, who is safe and sound thanks to Devan and his intervention? He felt good looking out for someone rather than always being looked out for.
Jesse smiled. “Thank you for that, Stefan.”
Uncle Charles cooked on the grill while Devan watched. The smell of cooked meats and charcoal smoke in the air brought Devan to the old days, days of Leroy and him making sand forts on the beach, jumping into the water, and getting hit by the waves. His father would be barbecuing with Uncle Charles cooking hot links and ribs. His mom would be inside preparing her famous potato salad, setting up the table just beyond the porch. And Aunt Gladys would be sitting by the ocean, keeping watch of her two nephews. Uncle Charles and Aunt Gladys’ home was their getaway from the concrete jungle that was their home.
“I bet you ain’t have home cookin’ like this in some time,” said Uncle Charles as he flipped over a beef patty. “Yeah, you and Leroy used to always come over with those big ole grins asking if we was barbecuing. Your Aunt Gladys and I used to have a hard time saying no to you two.”
“You still remember us coming around here?” Devan asked.
“Course I do, boy. You were the only nephews who came around here. Your ole uncle’s family live too far from here.”
“Why live so far from them? Did you wanna live near Aunt Gladys’ family?”
Uncle Charles shrugged. “Well sorta. Your auntie wanted to see you two grow up to be young men. Now as for me, well, there’s a reason I don’t bring that crazy ass bunch over here-” Devan heard the screen door to Aunt Gladys and Uncle Charles home swing close.
“Now, don’t be talking about your family like that,” scolded Aunt Gladys, bringing out dishes and plates for the three of them.
“I’m just sayin’, I reckon wouldn’t have left for no navy if I didn’t have a reason to get away.” Devan laughed. Aunt Gladys shook her head. “Let me tell you something, nephew, there ain’t no shame in getting away. I knew that growin’ up in the countryside was not the life that I wanted, and my ma and pops did not like that. After years of trying to find a way to make a life for myself outside the fam, I took a gamble and joined the military.
“I left right when I turned eighteen, knowing nothing about how to live outside my little farm town. Those were some hard times. Year later, I’d meet your Aunt Gladys at that coffee shop she used to work at, and the rest was history. All this to say you can’t choose your family, but you can choose who you wanna spend the rest of your life with.” Aunt Gladys swung by and kissed Uncle Charles on the cheek. Devan hadn’t thought in this perspective before. Having blood family was something he cared deeply for, even as a child. That’s why establishing a relationship with Jade was so essential to him. But when having an ideal relationship with blood family seems out of reach, what else was there? According to Uncle Charles, a family was something you could make for yourself.
“The meat’s almost ready,” said Uncle Charles. “Want to grill any vegetables, Gladys?”
“Oh yes,” she said, scurrying to the door, “I got some peppers and onions I want you to grill!”
Uncle Charles laughed. “Your auntie always forgets to cut up her vegetables.” His gray eyes looked at Devan, who watched him tend to their meal. “Yes neph, I wouldn’t change my life for nothing.”
Aunt Gladys returned with sliced onions and peppers for Uncle Charles. The sun began to color the scenery in a magnificent orange. The ocean surface looked as if it was on fire.
“What Uncle Charles did was very risky,” said Aunt Gladys. “Being out on your own as a young adult without family support was no easy thing back then. You needed a lot of people around you. Your Uncle Charles was lucky... as were you, nephew.” Uncle Charles became slower and more deliberate in his cooking, trying to listen in on the conversation. He appeared tense. “I...never thought I’d see you at Leroy’s funeral. I never thought I’d be going to my own nephew’s funeral at that... To see you was a blessing. I can’t tell you how proud I am of you.” Aunt Gladys smiled genuinely.
“Should all be done anytime now,” Uncle Charles said. “Devan, help Aunt Gladys get the rest of the stuff out.”
“Jesse,” Stefan said, trying to talk to through his laughter. “This is the worst movie I’ve ever seen. Don’t we have anything else to watch?”
“Oh boo!” Jesse said with a pout. “You’re no fun.” Jesse flipped through the channels enjoying his limited access to cable while Devan is away. The two enjoyed a pizza and settled down on the living room floor. “Ok, what about this: Teen vampire joins new school to-”
“Sounds like Twilight. Can we watch a comedy?”
“Ugh, you’re so picky! You choose then!” Stefan laughed as Jesse passed over the remote. He looked outside and noticed it was getting dark. Devan hadn’t returned and Stefan didn’t recall him even mentioning when he would return. He became worrisome, sleeping alone was not something he felt comfortable doing for some time, as embarrassed as he was to admit it.
“Jesse,” Stefan said, “you mind staying here tonight? Or until Devan gets back?”
“Well, of course, hun. I’m not about to leave you here alone!” Stefan smiled. He turned back to the TV to look at the movie selections, but his mind was elsewhere. He spent a great deal of time thinking about his face-off with Chris and it’s aftermath. So much had happened in that short moment, he replayed in his mind how his ex threatened to physically attack him, and how his friends would bear witness to this.
“I have to ask,” Stefan said, still looking at the TV. “Did you know why I asked you not to call the police yesterday?”
Jesse nodded. “I know we gays, especially black gay men, don’t usually mess with the police if we don’t have to. And I can understand that. But something told me you didn't stop me cuz you were afraid of them.”
“...You’re right, I didn’t stop you because I was afraid of the police.”
“Then what were you afraid of?”
Stefan shook his head. He hated to admit this, but realized that Jesse was the last person he should have hesitance admitting anything to.
“I was afraid of them doing something to Chris.”
“That makes sense. You didn’t want anything happening to him.”
Stefan bit his lower lip. “I also didn’t because of what Chris said. What if you did call the police? ‘I’d like to report an assault between domestic partners. Both males.’ If you made that call, there’s no telling what could’ve happened. What if the other tenants found out? Or it ended up on the local news? It wasn’t just to protect Chris, though I know better than to put his safety over mine… It was about people knowing about us.”
Jesse’s brows furrowed. “Stefan, why are you still caught up in trying to be on the down-low?”
“Because it’s dangerous out there! You know it’s true. Being something other than straight means having a whole slew of other issues. You could lose your job. Your family. Your home. Keeping Chris and I’s relationship under wraps is hard enough. To be ‘out’ would feel like I have a target on my back. I can’t live that way… and Chris knows I couldn’t either.”
“What do you mean?”
Stefan looked hard at Jesse. “He told me to come back to him, or he’ll tell my job and my family that I’m gay.”
Jesse’s mouth was wide. “Chris is blackmailing you?! Ugh, this fool has gone too far...”
“I didn’t think it’d come to this. Chris is possessive, but he should know this is hitting below the belt. He could ruin my life!”
“What are you going to do?”
Stefan shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t really have many choices.”
Jesse looked solemnly at Stefan, then started staring off. “You are right about something, Being ‘out’ isn’t always the safest option for us. Anything can happen, that’s the risk. But being ‘out’ doesn’t have to be a death sentence, not here. James Street ain’t perfect, but compared to where you came from, there ain’t much to worry about.
“What Chris is doing is foul, forcing you out the closet like this. But, if worse comes to worse, Devan and I have been ‘out’ in this city for a long time, and though it seems scary, we survive it every day. If there’s a place you can be where you don’t have to worry about being ‘out,’ it’s here!” Stefan looked pensive. He understood what Jesse was saying, but the risk seemed too great. It wasn’t right that he had to make this decision at all. Stefan had to find a way to get out of Chris’ grasp for good.
While Uncle Charles went off to bed, Devan and his auntie settled in on the porch chairs. The sun was setting, and a purple and pink glow could be seen in the sky, the clouds, and the ocean. The waves grew stronger, pounding against the fine sand.
Aunt Gladys turned on the porch light. “I’m really glad you all came this way,” she said. “You enjoy watching Uncle Charles throw down on the grill like he used to?”
Devan laughed. “Yeah. It reminded me when I was a kid. You both still come out here to grill once in a while?”
“Mmm, not as much as we used to. See, Charles and I gotta look out for our health. We’re not young like we used to be. I try to suggest having a salad or some fruits once in awhile, but your Uncle Charles is a stubborn man. Ooh boy…” Devan laughed again. This was all so familiar: Uncle Charles and Aunt Gladys on their porch chairs, while Leroy and Devan would sit next to their feet on the floor or the porches ledge, listening to them talk and fight with one another till sundown. They were pleasant memories, but just that, memories. Devan was now in his mid-20s, and he had to wonder, why all the lost time?
“I think we stopped showing up around the time I reached sixteen if you remember.”
“...I do. This home hasn’t been quite the same without the whole family here. Your mom, dad, Leroy, and you.”
“Why did we stop coming?”
Aunt Gladys glanced at Devan. “...I did love my sister, your mom. And I certainly loved my brother in law too. But I didn’t like who they were. You can be raised by the church and still have very different views. Sometimes that effects the expectations you have for the people around you.”
Aunt Gladys continued, “Your Uncle Charles and I thought much different and did things based on what we believed. We hoped you’d have a cousin to look after as you grew older.”
“Mmhmm. That was our dream. Move to this beautiful home, have a child, be close to the family. But, we weren’t married, and the family was furious, especially your mother. Unfortunately, that dream would never come to fruition… I lost my child. ”
Devan froze. The feeling in his fingers went numb.
She continued, “I could never forgive her or the family. It had been years since I seen any of them… until your parents’ funeral. Being wrapped up in my anger, I hadn’t realized my sister had committed another unspeakable act in the name of the Lord just two years after I lost my child. She abandoned you.” Devan looked hard at Aunt Gladys. Finally, he could understand why she of all people wasn’t there for him when his parents kicked him out. Aunt Gladys and Uncle Charles loved him, they would never turn their back on him. He found it in himself to forgive them.
“Do you know,” he asked, “why my mom and dad kicked me out of the house?”
Aunt Gladys grew tight in the face. “I didn’t.... They talked as if you grew wings and flew out on your own one day. Just like Charles. But, family likes to talk, and I’d hear through the grapevine that my young nephew was…”
“Gay.” Aunt Gladys folded her finger and sucked in her lips. The wind picked up, the wind chimes near the door colliding.
“Now, you know how we were raised, Devan. We all have our interpretations of what the bible says. And in this family, being homosex - gay - is not okay to be.” Devan looked to the floor. He was well aware of the feeling of a once solid, supportive family, ripping the rug from underneath him because of who he chose to love.
Aunt Gladys sighed. “I apologize for not being here for you all these years. Please understand who you are in no way changes the fact that you are still my nephew. I believe that the Lord is love. Don’t matter if you never go to church, live with someone before you’re married...or you’re gay. The Lord only cares that you gotta good heart. You looking out for you niece Jade like this, I can tell you have a truly beautiful heart, Devan dear. Something tells me all you do will come back to you ten-fold. If you need me to have a little talk with Miss Kathy to make sure you see that child, I’m always a call away.”
Aunt Gladys put her hand on Devan’s, a warm smile appeared on her lips. Devan’s tenseness had melted, having Aunt Gladys on his corner. His auntie’s love shattered his preconceived notion that his entire blood family wanted nothing to do with him. He had her, he had Uncle Charles, and he had Jade. This was his family, and nothing could take that away.