The boys thought Joachim must be Italian or French or something because of his name, but mail came that addressed him as “Joe” or “Joseph” or just “J.” The Native American boys were sure he was an Indian because they wanted him to be like them, so to them it was natural that his real name was secret or at least not public. No one ever snooped into his desk though they all studied the photos of past boys that were stuck to the wall above the desktop. They just weren’t readers, for the most part, and those who were had feelings about people who meddled. Joachim slept with his dog on his narrow bed and no boy tried to slip under the covers with him.
Then one day a little red car pulled up in front of the house and out bounced a woman. J. went out to meet her and they threw their arms around each other. “Probably his sister,” suggested one boy. Then J. told them he was going to stay with her in a nearby hotel overnight but leave the dog at the house. The boy who had hoped she was his sister slept in J.’s bed that night “so the dog won’t be lonesome.” Even the toughest boys dreamt that J. left them and then the house was shut down. They shuddered in their sleep. It didn’t help that J. called the next day, said he would be gone a second night and left some instructions.
When he got back, the boys themselves called a “pizza consultation,” which was just a house meeting with pizza so everyone would come, but anyway no one wanted to miss it this time. J. didn’t say anything. He sat in his chair waiting with the dog on his lap, though it was kind of a big dog for that. When they had slowed down with the eating, they shouted at him. He was betraying them. He owed them. Some wept. All the ghosts of their punishing pasts were in the room, taking up all the air and confusing them.
Finally they had nothing more to say and J. began to talk. “Do you remember how suspicious you were when you first came and what it was that reassured you? It was that you knew I’d been where you were and even worse off than you. I’d been diagnosed poz after a car crash that broke all my bones, I was in the hospital totally penniless, and since I’d been traveling from one coast to the other and was only midway, no one I knew lived nearby. Anyway most of my friends had died in the AIDS plague. I didn’t really care whether I recovered. The docs had to study up in order to give me the right treatment and even then they weren’t confident. I thought it was the end.
“This woman saved me. She was the book lady in the hospital, pushing around a cart. We fell in love over the books, her recommending and me reading. I read a LOT of books there and in some ways they healed me more than the meds, because I was head-sick in the first place.”
“We thought you were gay!” the boys accused.
J. looked sad. “Of all people in the world, are you guys going to put a label on me?”
“What’s her name?”
“I won’t tell you. I’m protecting who she is the same as I protect who you are.”
One boy whispered to the other, “We should have gotten the car license plate.”
His friend answered, “I wonder by what names they registered and what hotel they used.” Then the two looked ashamed of themselves. What were they — characters on TV?
One of the university town boys actually raised his hand. “If you love each other, why don’t you get married?”
J. rubbed the dog’s ears. “She’s already married. She has a family, children, a job of her own, a whole life and a husband she also loves.”
“That’s impossible if she loves YOU!”
“No. There are many kinds of love. Sometimes they double up.”
“Then she should choose!”
“Do you want a woman in this house? You guys who consider it so important to be gay?”
No one answered but every face showed shock at the very thought. They wouldn’t even be able to walk around naked anymore.
After a long silence J. said, “It’s just that now and then she and I need to be together. Accept it as part of who I am.”
It took them days, but they did. They imagined that J. and his lady spent the time in the hotel reading to each other. They were not far wrong. Eventually they began to wonder about books. Then it occurred to them that there were books on their handheld devices.