In the spring of 1973, my brother Danny and I accompanied our parents on a car trip from our home in Arlington, Virginia, to Bluefield, West Virginia, to visit our grandparents on our father’s side. I was sixteen and Danny was thirteen. As was our habit, we stopped by GoodyKoontz Pharmacy in downtown Bluefield before continuing on to our grandparents’ house. Our parents bought bourbon at a liquor shop next door while Danny and I combed the store’s burgeoning newsstand for magazines our parents would buy for us to keep us occupied during our week-long stay.
Our favorite publications were Famous Monsters and CARtoons and this was the only store we’d found that carried them. We grabbed the latest issues.
Next to us, a handsome young man my age put down his body building magazine and looked at me. He had conservatively cut black hair, a neatly trimmed mustache, and coffee eyes that were friendly, mischievous, and sad all at once.
“You boys visiting family in town?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Our grandparents. How’d you know?”
“Because I’m acquainted with everyone who lives here. By the way, if you get bored, give me a call and I’ll show you how teens have fun here. You might be surprised.” Although he spoke to both of us, he focused on me. He extended his hand. “My name’s Carl Bailey.” He looked into my eyes in a searching way. I felt a bit uneasy but decided he was probably just trying a little too hard to make a friend.
Just then, our parents entered the pharmacy. “And who’s this?” our mother asked with a smile.
Carl shook my parents’ hands, saying, “Hi. I’m Carl Bailey. My parents are William and Margaret Bailey. I understand you’re here visiting family?”
“Yes,” our mother said. “Frank and Mary Long.” She introduced herself and our father. Then she said, “It’s so nice to meet you, Carl. We went to Bluefield High with your parents. How are they?”
Our parents and Carl chatted for a few minutes about his parents and how our two families were connected via school, church, and clubs. As we left the store, Carl said to me, “Remember, call me if you want a change of scene.” He winked.
Outside, our mother said, “Carl comes from an excellent family. We’ve always liked his parents, and his father is the latest in a long line of surgeons. It wouldn’t surprise me if Carl follows in his footsteps. They’re also quite wealthy and members of high society, what your grandmother calls the upper crust.”
Our parents believed children should neither be seen nor heard, so we were left to our own devices. We ate meals with our parents and grandmother; otherwise, we were on our own except for our mother briefly checking up on us and our kindly grandmother slipping away to visit us when she could. We also loved our grandfather, an avid outdoorsman who used to take us fishing before he fell on ice and lost both his legs because of poor circulation and healing. He lived in the sunroom. He was always pleased to interact with us when our parents allowed us to share a few minutes of happy hour with the adults.
We read our magazines many times over, wrestled with Sandy the Boston terrier, played hide and seek, and revisited an old toy chest in the basement that contained an Erector set, a few Hardy Boys books we’d read on previous trips, and two ancient BB guns that only shot puffs of air. We also checked out the grounds and neighborhood. Four days into our visit, Danny and I were bored. Just as we were facing up to this dismal prospect, the phone rang. A few minutes later, our mother came into the living room where we were listlessly encamped on the overstuffed furniture.
“That was Carl Bailey’s mother,” she said to me. “She and her husband are going ballroom dancing tonight, and she invited you to come over and keep Carl company and spend the night. I told her you’d be thrilled. Is that okay?”
“Yes, ma’am.” I said—we were required to say “sir” or “ma’am” when speaking to our parents. One might think this convention was simply good manners, but Danny and I had an odd relationship with our parents. From the time we were preschoolers until we each turned twelve, our parents harshly spanked us at the slightest provocation. Although that phase of our lives was over, we were careful to speak to them politely, never to express anger toward them, and generally to keep our distance. I felt badly about abandoning Danny, but I really wanted to escape boredom. I slipped him a giant sweet tart he’d been coveting.
After dinner, my mother drove me over to Carl’s large white house in a ritzy neighborhood built high on a hill and waited with me on the front porch after we rang the bell.
The door swept open. “Mrs. Long,” Carl said. “It’s such a pleasure to see you. And Allen—thanks so much for providing me with companionship for the evening.” Again that secretive look. I had a feeling he had something illicit planned, but how bad could it be? What were we going to do, look at Playboys or sneak a couple of beers from the fridge?
“I’d love to say hello to your parents,” my mother said.
“Sorry,” Carl said. “Usual story—they’re out.”
After my mother left, Carl motioned me into the house. “Come in! Welcome! We’re going to have a wonderful time! I have my own wing—my quarters are replete with books, magazines, comics, records, television, and a pantry and fridge filled with my favorite snacks.”
I don’t recall the details of that evening except that Carl was an attentive host and the hours quickly passed as we ate ice cream and Oreos and slowly worked our way through Carl’s almost overwhelming hoard of kid-oriented possessions. Eventually, we grew sleepy and I asked Carl about the sleeping arrangements.
“Well, I hope you don’t mind, I’ve just got the one bed, but it’s quite large—we each should have plenty of room.”
I’d never slept in the same bed with anyone, including Danny. I was mildly perplexed but my parents said Carl came from an upstanding family, and his parents obviously were aware of the sleeping arrangements and found them suitable, so I told Carl no problem.
Soon we lay on our backs in bed in the dark.
“You said you’re in high school,” Carl said. “But how old are you?”
“Sixteen, how ‘bout you?”
“Seventeen,” he said. “Have many close friends?”
“My best friend Will, a couple of other friends, and Danny. How ‘bout you?”
“Not really—I sort of keep to myself—not sure why, but I do go to parties. Are you close to your parents?”
“They’re okay,” I said. “They kind of do their own thing and Danny and I do ours.”
“Tell me about it,” he said. “My dad works long hours and my mother’s involved in a zillion charities. In the evenings, they frequently attend meetings or social events. And they’re always fully booked on weekends. When your mother said she’d like to see them, I wanted to say, so would I.” After a moment’s silence, he said, “Ever fucked a girl?”
This question came as a shock. When I discussed sex with my buddies, we used the word “screw.” Also “fuck” seemed out of character for Carl, given his penchant for formal language. I would have expected him to use a phrase such as “sexual intercourse” or “sexual congress.” I hid my surprise. “Not yet,” I said. “I had a girlfriend when I was fourteen, but we didn’t get that far. Just hugging and kissing and holding hands. How ‘bout you?”
“Fucked lots of them. I know you probably think Bluefield’s some sleepy hick town, but I go to parties you wouldn’t believe. Orgies. Guys fucking guys, girls fucking girls, guys fucking girls, groups of guys and girls all fucking each other at the same time. Anything goes. We’re very sophisticated here. You go to any parties like that?”
“No—we just talk, listen to music, drink beer and maybe smoke some dope—I’m allergic to cigarette smoke, so I don’t do pot. I’ve never heard of any orgies in Arlington.”
Suddenly Carl grasped my penis through my underpants. “Here, let me show you that a guy can give another guy an erection.”
“Don’t touch me!” I said, rolling onto my stomach.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to upset you. I was just trying to prove a point, but I obviously went about it the wrong way. I really am sorry—I won’t touch you like that again.”
“You got that right,” I said. “I’m going to sleep now.”
I wanted to call my mother and ask her to come get me, but it was late, and I wasn’t about to let her or anyone else know what had just happened. I considered pretending I was too sick to sleep over, but I didn’t feel like making a commotion and faking illness. Although I felt anxious and guilty, I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong. Worse case, I’d be awake all night protecting myself from further molestation.
After a few minutes, the bed shook. At first, I thought Carl was silently laughing at me—or worse, masturbating. Then I heard a sob.
“You okay?” I said.
“Not really,” he said, sniffing back tears. “It’s just that I’m so lonely. Do you have any idea how long it’s been since someone touched me?” His voice cracked and his crying intensified.
“What about your parties?” I asked.
“I’m not talking about sex!” he said with angry frustration. “I’m talking about affection, like being hugged.” His voice broke again and the bed continued to tremble.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “That’s rough. But aren’t you in the cool crowd at school?”
“Yes, that’s true,” he said. “But I don’t have a special someone. I have looks, wealth and popularity, but I don’t have love.”
This was the first time I’d heard a guy discuss his feelings so openly. Part of me was still angry with Carl and viewed him as a sexual predator, but part of me recognized how lonely he must feel. After all, if I didn’t have Danny for company, my home life would be pretty miserable. Also, if I didn’t have several good friends, school would be nearly intolerable—the popular kids ridiculed me for being a brainiac.
“Would you do me a giant favor?” Carl said. “And I swear it’s nothing queer.”
“What do you want?”
“Would you hug me before we go to sleep? Nothing else, just a hug?”
I hesitated for so long Carl began to weep again.
I held him tight until he quieted.
Allen Long‘s memoirs have appeared in The Copperfield Review, Eunoia Review, The Linnet’s Wings, Literary Brushstrokes, Milk Sugar, Scholars & Rogues, Stepping Stones, and Verdad. Allen is an assistant editor at Narrative Magazine, and he has recently completed a book-length memoir, Less Than Human. He lives with his wife near San Francisco.