I Know a Place - MUNA
Benji's mom returned home from dropping his siblings off at school about an hour after we got to his house. We were all sitting on the living room sofa in a heap of blankets, Benji's legs across my lap and Aspen's head on my shoulder. I had closed my eyes and leaned my head back, the weight of the past 12 hours bearing down and making my shoulders tight. She stepped into the house, setting her purse down on the entryway table, then caught sight of my eye and covered her mouth with a hand. "Jey," she inhaled sharply, "what happened to you?" I exchanged a nervous glance with Benji. We hadn't discussed how much of the story we would actually tell his mom and he had never mentioned how his family would respond to my being gay. I knew his family wasn't religious and Mrs. Krol always seemed to be giving me these sweet little glances like she might already know but my heart fluttered in my throat nonetheless.
"Um," I started, "my family kicked me out. Because....because they found out that I'm gay." Mrs. Krol's face softened, then and she made a soft, sad noise. She came to sit cross-legged in the floor in front of me and put a comforting hand on my knee. The whole story started to come out, then. As I spoke, I could feel the tightness in my lungs start to release. She listened so carefully as I told her about Adrian's relentless mocking my whole life and how it had gotten physical when he saw me with Benji and jumped to conclusions. When I got to the part about my mom and how she had told me that God didn't love gays so she couldn't either, her eyes welled up and she quickly wiped them, squeezing my knee. When I finished and let out a rattling breath, she sighed heavily and said, "I'm so sorry this is happening to you, Jey." She got up, then and pulled all three of us into a hug. She smelled like a floral perfume and for a second I thought I might cry again. Before I could, she straightened up, smoothing her sweater and said, "c'mon I want to show you boys something."
We all followed Mrs. Krol into the kitchen, where she paused with her hand on the handle of a door I had never seen anyone go in or out of when I was there. She leveled a serious look at Benji. "This was supposed to be a surprise," she said, "for your senior year. But we didn't want to move you down here after the accident in case you needed help. But, since you're out of the brace now and Jey clearly needs a place to stay, I think it's a good time." She winked at me, and pushed the door open.
Benji had told me that his house had an unfinished basement they used for storage and to house the washer and dryer. The space we walked down into, however, was all crisp white walls and shiny hardwood floors. The house was built on a hill, so the living space had wide windows that were shaded by the trees in the backyard. A small hallway to the right of the stairs led to a bedroom and a bathroom. To the left of the stairs was a set of glass French doors, leading into a little corner room with one wall lined with shelves. "That was supposed to be an office," Mrs. Krol said, "Hence the glass doors and no closet. Our plan was to let Benji kind of take over down here. Spread his wings a little, y'know? So I figured you could each take a room down here. We'll turn Benji's room upstairs into the office and there's an extra twin bed in Thomas' room from when Ben was a kid that we can put in here for you, Jey." She gestured into the office space, then put her hands in her pockets, smiling expectantly at me.
"This is sick," Aspen cried, throwing herself onto the massive white sectional, "maybe I should come out to my parents so they can kick me out."
"You're going to let me stay here?" I asked Mrs. Krol, still not quite sure I was understanding what she was saying.
She nodded, "Well I can't, in good conscience, send you back to your mother. If you're here, at least I know you're safe and warm and cared for. I mean we have the space and the means, so it only makes sense that we use it to help someone." Benji emerged from the bedroom down the hall, smiling so widely at his mother, I couldn't help but smile, too. "You're the coolest ever, you know that?" He told her. She shrugged nonchalantly, but looked ridiculously happy when Benji picked her up in a hug and spun her around.
Benji, Aspen, and I spent the next few hours moving all of his stuff from his room upstairs into the basement. We even dug out some old Christmas lights in the garage and strung them back and forth across the ceiling, making the whole room feel intimate and cozy. Mid-afternoon, sleet began tapping on the windows. It fell heavier and heavier as the sky grew darker, until everything outside sparkled with a coating of ice. When we went upstairs to eat dinner with Benji's family, his father looked at Aspen sternly and said, "I don't want you to try and drive home, young lady." Aspen chuckled lightly, then realized he was serious and straightened her face. "Oh no, Mr. Benji's Dad," she said solemnly, "I couldn't burden you like that."
"It's not a burden," Mr. and Mrs. Krol said together, then Mrs. Krol added, "we've already added Jey, might as well have a whole herd of teenagers around here."
Aspen grinned, "Thanks, I was a little nervous."
"Call your parents and let them know, I'll get down some blankets so you can sleep on that couch downstairs."
"Oh they don't care where I am."
Mrs. Krol was quiet for a moment before clearing her throat and starting to clean up dinner. Benji got up to help her. Aspen excused herself to get something out of her car, but motioned for me to come with her.
Outside, she sat down in the drivers seat and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, handing me one. She lit both of ours and took a deep drag. "You okay, kid?" she said softly, reaching out to lace her fingers with mine. "Yeah, I think so," I nodded, "it's a lot to process. But I never imagined it would turn out this way."
"This is pretty awesome of them. I'm glad you're safe, Jorge. I mean you're a giant nerd and kinda funny looking, but I think I'd drop dead if anything happened to you." She pulled me into a hug, then. Her voice had been growing tight and I could tell she was trying not to cry. Her hair smelled like brown sugar and she held me so tight I could feel her arms shaking a little. "Aspen?" I whispered into her hair. She made a little sound in her throat. "Aspen," I repeated, "I love you." She released me and put out her cigarette. "Let's get back inside," she said, wiping some streaked mascara away with her thumb.
Back down in the basement, Benji sniffed a little at my hair as I plopped down next to him on the couch. He made a face, but didn't say anything. Aspen sat down on my other side and snuggled into my side, kicking off her heavy boots. Benji had turned on a movie while we were outside and even put on the subtitles in Spanish. I smiled up at him and he brushed his lips against my forehead, resting his chin on top of my head. In that moment, surrounded by the warmth of the two people I loved most and buried under an obscenely large blanket with the soft pitter-patter of sleet on the window behind us, I remembered that sometimes being alive felt really, really good.
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