Rich sat on the front steps of the white ranch style house and stared out into the pecan orchard. Tables were set up in front of him as almost a dozen of his extended family milled around making sure all the food was put out right and there were serving utensils. He looked right, towards the blacktop and saw, in the stretch of grass between the house and the road that a football game had started. He couldn't see his cousin Dean anywhere. As Granny walked towards the steps holding a pitcher that once held iced tea he stood and opened the door for her, ten-year olds knew to open doors for ladies in the South in the seventies. He would be ten in a few months. "Do you know where Dean went?"
"I think he went inside," she said as she climbed the three concrete steps slowly and held the door as she entered the house with Rich right behind her. He stopped at the cookie jar in the kitchen and pulled a peppermint out before walking down the hall that went the length of the house towards the guest room he slept in when he stayed here a week or two each summer. The door to his room was shut and he pushed it open after popping the starlight peppermint into his mouth and using his tongue to flip it into his cheek.
"There you are." Dean sat on the bed holding a purse and his eyes were red. He'd been crying... again. "Why don't you come out and play with us? We're going to play tag until it gets dark and then hide and seek."
Dean wiped his nose with the back of his pale thin arm and looked up at Rich out from under impossibly curly hair that was almost an afro it was so long and the curls so tight. "They were making fun of me again."
"Who was?" Rich asked sitting on the bed next to Dean and dangling his dirty feet over the edge.
"Steve and them."
"Because of the purse?"
"So leave it inside."
"But I like it. I want to play with it. I can still run and play tag. How's a purse stop me from running?"
"I mean when there's all these people here. They..." Rich was thinking they didn't know Dean played with a purse, but everybody knew he did. Everybody knew he acted like a girl all the time and everybody talked about it. But he'd always done that. He was eight and as long as Rich could remember Dean had acted like a girl. Not a tom-boy girl either, a girly girl, girlier than any girl Rich knew. "They just... Can't you just leave it alone? One family reunion a year is all we have. Can't you pretend to be a boy for one day? Pretend to be normal? People wouldn't be so mean then."
"But I'm not. Nobody else has to pretend to be somebody. Just me. I don't want to." Dean was crying again. If Rich had been older he'd have recognized them as mad tears. But at nine and a half tears were tears.
"But I want you to come play with us and it'll be more fun if you do. Most of the other kids here don't know all the good hiding places you do. You live here. You'll be better at it than them. They can't make fun of you then, not if you win." Rich knew Dean wouldn't win. He never won. He screamed, no, squealed as he ran and ran like a girl. Anybody could catch him. But he did want him to come play. His older cousin was playing football. The one he usually played with and Rich didn't know most of his other cousins out there. Some company, even Dean, would be better than none. "Please."
"But they don't like me. None of them do." Dean said softly.
"They barely know you. They're just mean." Rich said.
"Why are they always mean to me though?" Dean asked.
"Because you're different. Just don't be different and they won't be mean." As Rich said it he felt like he was onto something big that he was just starting to figure out for himself. "Just pretend to be like everybody else. Just act like everybody else. Act like a boy."
"I hate being a boy." Dean hissed. "I'm just a boy here." He grabbed at his crotch.
"Well that's how you tell who's a boy and who's a girl. It's the difference."
"Not for me." Dean said.
"For everybody. You don't have to mean it. You can just fake it. Like acting. Like when we play scenes from the Carol Burnett Show." Probably not the best thing to mention since Rich played Tim Conway and Dean always played Mrs. ah-Whiggens or Charo.
Dean fiddled with the purse some more, snapping it open and shut. Open and shut. Open and shut. It was wicker and the handles dark brown leather. The brass catch on it was clicking loudly every time Dean slid it shut. He put the purse on the bed beside him and stood up. "Only one time, and you have to play with me tomorrow instead of Harvey." Harvey was his older brother, the cousin Rich most liked playing with, the one he looked up to and admired.
"OK. I promise." Rich picked the purse up off the bed and tossed it towards a chair that had clothes on it. He didn't want anybody to come in and see it on his bed and think it was his. Dean's eyes tracked it across the room as it flew.
He hugged Rich quickly and Rich hugged him back, uncomfortably, unsure if what he'd just done was a good thing or not. He knew for himself getting along by acting like everybody else was looking like a good idea but it didn't seem like Dean was going to be able to. He didn't know if he should have told him to. Even now, thirty years later he still wasn't sure if what he'd done was good or not. Dean wasn't Dean any more. He went, she went, by Melissa now, whereas Rich was still Rich and most people he met couldn't tell he was gay until someone told them... and someone always told.