Luis was out of breath. He stopped, took a few deep breaths, and said, “I was talking to Ashton in the science labs. It was kind of important. I'm sorry I'm late.”
“What were you talking about with Ashton?” His eyebrows remained furrowed and his lips pinched together.
“Just something I had a question about,” Luis said. “It's not important. Besides, I wasn't even sure you'd be here after what happened this afternoon.”
Jase seemed confused. “Why wouldn't I be here?”
“I thought you might want to avoid me.”
“Well, I'm here aren't I? I'm not avoiding you.”
Luis smiled. “I see.”
“I'd stay away from guys like Ashton if I were you.”
Luis tilted his head to the side. “Why?”
“Because I've heard rumors about him, that's why. A lot of people think he might be gay.”
“You said the same thing about Alec.”
“I'm only offering you advice.”
Luis remained expressionless. “So you think people will start to think I'm gay if I'm seen with Ashton or Alec.”
Jase took a deep breath and sighed. He ran his fingers through his hair and opened the car door for Luis. “I don't know what I think anymore. Let's go home. You're the most confusing guy I've ever met. I have to get ready for a ceremony tonight.”
It was Friday night and the end of the school year was approaching. Luis had overheard a few students talking about a ceremony. It was some kind of awards ceremony the school held every year at graduation time. He could see how rattled Jase became when he talked about anything involving being gay. He didn't want to push him too far. So he smiled and got into the car without saying a word.
At dinner, Isabelle asked Jase what time they had to leave for the award ceremony. Isabelle and Judah would be there representing Barry and Mary because they were on vacation. Evidently, Isabelle thought they were all going over to the high school together.
Jase swallowed a huge mouthful of roast pork and said, “You guys have to be there by eight o'clock. I'm leaving earlier. I have to pick up a buddy and his girlfriend. And then I'm picking up Betsy Melchiorri. We're all going over in my car because we might do something afterward. Maybe go out for something to eat and hang out for a while.”
Luis didn't say anything. He continued to eat without looking up from his plate.
Isabelle sat back and squinted. “You're dating that Melchiorri girl. Isn't she the one with big legs and that awful frizzy hair?”
Judah laughed so hard he dropped his fork.
Luis tried not to smile too much.
Jase said, “She's a very nice girl, gram. And it's not like we're engaged to be married. I'm taking her out tonight, is all. Give me a break already.”
Isabelle laughed and lifted her hands in surrender. “I was curious. I didn't mean anything by it.” Then she turned to Luis and said, “You can come with us, dear. We can all sit together during the ceremony.”
This was news to Luis. He hadn't planned on going to the ceremony at all. He swallowed and said, “I think I'll stay home tonight with Millie and Mollie if that's okay with you. I'm not really part of anything.”
“Nonsense,” Isabelle said, “I'm not going to let you stay home all night alone while everyone is out having fun. You might meet up with some of the people at school and go out with them. You're coming with us and that's that. Right Jase?”
Jase shrugged. He didn't look at Luis and he didn't offer to take Luis in his car. “Whatever you say, gram.” He glanced in Luis's direction. “It's up to Luis, not me.”
When Luis saw the way Jase looked at him, with such a carefree attitude, Luis turned to Isabelle and said, “I'd love to come with you. As a matter of fact I told a guy at school I might see him there tonight. His name is Alec Stark.” He knew this would piss Jase off.
Jase frowned. “Alec?”
Luis didn't look at Jase. He continued speaking to Isabelle. “Alec seems like a nice guy. He said he'd take me hiking in the woods.”
Isabelle smiled, as if she felt sorry for Luis because Jase hadn't offered to take him in his car. She seemed to sense Jase was purposely leaving Luis out. “I know Alec. I know his family. They are fine people. I'm glad you're making friends, Luis.” Then she sent Jase a serious glare, as if she wanted to smack him in the back of the head for being so rude and clueless.
Jase rolled his eyes and sank into his shoulders. But he didn't change his mind about taking Luis with him that night.
Luis rode in the backseat of the Jeep Wrangler and Isabelle sat up front. Judah drove them to the high school and Luis couldn't stop smiling all the way over. The only way Luis had ever known this Jeep was with faded, chipped leather seats and worn out carpet. But in 1986 the leather seats were still new and shiny and the carpet was clean and fresh.
At the ceremony, the first thing the principal did was stand up and lead everyone in two verses of The National Anthem. Luis hadn't sung The National Anthem in so long he couldn't wait to place his hand over his heart and belt out the notes. While everyone else watched Luis with bewildered stares, Luis lifted his chin and sang each note as if he were doing a solo. He was one of the few there who actually knew the second verse of The National Anthem. And when he started in with the third verse and sang, “And where is that band who so vauntingly swore ... , “ Isabelle grabbed his wrist and said, “I think we're finished, dear.”
Jase sat with his friends on the other side of the auditorium and Luis sat with Isabelle and Judah. But Luis applauded each time Jase's name was called and he won an award ... three times altogether: one for athletic achievements, one for student government and leadership abilities, and another for academic excellence. Even though Jase was purposely ignoring him, Luis was thrilled for Jase and he wanted to show it.
When the awards were over, Luis went over to Jase, with Isabelle and Judah, and shook his hand. He congratulated him and thanked him again for all the help he'd given him in the past week. Of course Betsy Melchiorri was hanging all over Jase, chewing gum, smacking her lips like a donkey. She had one arm around Jase's waist and the other glued to his shoulder, as if she were hanging on for dear life. Luis ignored her completely. He felt like kicking her in the ass. But he knew that would have been pointless.
Isabelle wasn't as kind. Luis knew by the way Isabelle looked Betsy up and down she wasn't fond of her. She marched up to Jase, shoved Betsy out of the way, and gave him a huge hug and kiss on the cheek. “I'm so proud of you, Jase. I can't wait to tell your mother and father all about it. They're going to be so sorry they weren't here.”