Who gives a boy a name like that growing up in a teeny, tiny river town of less than a thousand residents in Jefferson County, Missouri? With most boys running around the softball field with names like Jimmy and Johnny and Timmy and Tommy, Boyce Brady didn’t have half a chance but to stand out as different.
But different would finally be OK where he was heading in a few days. At 19, Boyce Brady would break away from his grandmother’s clutches, board a bus and become who he was always meant to be, though he wasn’t even sure yet what that was. “Gamma.” he’d said to his grandma Ronnie, “I’m a misfit in this town and I’ve got places to go, new people to meet. People who will understand me and like me for me. I’m not gonna be no “Double B Coming and Going” no more!”
He had made that declaration at Christmas just before his last semester at Festus Senior High. His mom had wanted her unusual son to attend St. Pius X High School but she’d passed away just after his fourteenth birthday and there was no money for such things in grandma Ronnie’s estimation. Public school would be good enough for Boyce, she decided, maybe even straighten up his quirks.
Toughen him up. She held on to a secret, though, that a fund had been established years ago in Boyce’s name for college. She had been putting her coins away in a special place for years just for him. And for that, she could be patient and help him get through the high school days.
But for Boyce Brady, high school was one long, tormented day after day after day of being the source of everyone’s jibes and laughter. It was nothing Gamma could really help him with, he was on his own.
“What are you Boyce Brady?” the kids would ask.
“You’re not a boy, you don’t play softball or football or go out on dates. Are you a girl? What kinda name you got anyhow? Where is the Boy in Boyce!” they would yell and taunt.
Somewhere along the line he became BB, then Double B. Then by the ninth grade it turned into Double B Coming and Going. Who knows which of the kids thought that one up but it stuck because no one could make heads or tails of Boyce Brady. Now, in just a few days he was headed to Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri. Springfield! Population 136,040. And soon to be 136,041. He was beyond excited but for one important detail. Leaving his only friend behind.
In the summer after eighth grade, Boyce Brady went to summer camp at Bear River Ranch, back when his mom was still alive and was able to save her tips from waiting tables on the day shift at the Stoplight Diner and weekends at the Magic Carpet Lounge. She thought it was important for him to go to camp with the other boys and hoped for a blossoming to occur. But Boyce did not blossom there.
He watched as the boys paired off with girls behind the latrines to kiss and tell about it in their A-frame cabins later each night, bragging about things they didn’t actually do but dreamed of doing with Katie and Sherry and Anna and Sarah. Boyce Brady just sat in the corner and listened hoping not to be noticed. But someone would always call out his name at some point.
“BB, what about you Double B? Why aren’t you kissing anyone, huh? Hahahaha! You don’t know how to kiss a girl, BB?”
But Boyce Brady was kissing someone. Back home, not at this camp. Boyce was kissing Anh. Anh Thuong Johnson. Anh, also a misfit, had explained the name to Boyce Brady on a walk home from school one day when they realized they were walking the same route “and might as well walk together,” Anh had said, skipping to catch up with Boyce one afternoon.
“Anh means Intelligent One. But the kids at school call me Andy. You can call me whatever you want,” he added flashing a bright toothy smile set inside delicate brown features, shining eyes and thick black hair.
Anh was the son of a Vietnam vet and his bride from Hanoi who settled in Missouri to work in a nearby factory and raise their son.
After weeks of walking home together, Anh invited Boyce over during spring break for an afternoon at his house. With the Johnson’s toiling away at the factory, the two boys filled up the baby pool on an unusually warm spring day, grabbed the Johnson’s mutt Momo, stripped down to their underwear and splashed around together under the April sun until they got hungry for sandwiches of baloney, individually sliced American cheese and Miracle Whip on white bread.
When it was time for Boyce to go home, Anh walked him to the door and reached in for a hug. Taken by surprise, Boyce stood limp with his arms at his sides at first then gradually, then fully, reached around to hug Anh back, noticing that he felt a kind of warmth he had not known before. As they pulled apart, Anh kissed Boyce lightly on the cheek and said, “See you tomorrow!” and with a little wave, turned on his heel with Momo running alongside.
Every day that week Boyce returned to Anh’s house to play cards or Yahtzee, get in the pool or watch TV and make sandwiches after and, always, they talked about how they were both going to get out of that town one day. During an episode of Gilligan’s Island, the one where Mary nne gets amnesia and wakes up and thinks she’s Ginger, gets up on stage in Ginger’s clothes and tries to sing but fails miserably, Anh turned to Boyce and asked,
“Don’t you think we can be anyone we want to be? I do not want to pretend to be someone I’m not, something I’m not. What about you, Boyce? You are not Double B, after all. Who are you? Who do you want to become?” he probed.
Boyce wasn’t sure what he meant exactly but he could feel what it meant somewhere deep in the sanctuary of his heart. That this was, in fact, precisely true but something he could not yet articulate was enough of an answer to that question. And a silent nod to Anh was confirmation, Defiant and firm and absolute and right.
“I am Boyce Brady,” he said quietly.
“Let me tell you about the rest of my name,” Anh said softly, pulling a piece of errant hair back off Boyce’s forehead as he spoke.
“Thuong means One Who Loves Tenderly,” he said, and looking deeply into Boyce for understanding, he leaned in for a kiss on the mouth. Boyce didn’t hesitate, he knew just what he wanted with Anh, that it was mutual and without shame or prejudice. The two embraced and kissed again. They giggled and hugged afterwards, sharing a new-found freedom together, a liberating moment of long-awaited peace and understanding. Belonging.
The two carried on a secret romance for the years to come right into high school, all the while guarding their secret affection, knowing that their town would not understand their friendship and love for each other. Though Boyce never wanted to say the word gay out loud, he knew he was at the very least bisexual because he sometimes liked to watch the Miss America Pageant with Gammy.
He didn’t know anything for certain, not yet, but he knew that Springfield was an open door to find out one way or another just who Boyce Brady was. Who Boyce Brady could and would become. Anh had helped him get part of the way there and now the rest was up to him. Discovery.
As senior year approached, they accepted their fate and honored each other’s needs and choices. Anh, whose parents were unable to pay for college, would remain behind but their last few days before Boyce’s departure were spent together at Anh’s house, their special sanctuary, for hours on end talking and laughing and crying and holding each other. And holding all that they shared together, tightly and dearly in mutual respect and gratitude.
“It’s time we get you to the bus station, Boyce, gather up your things,” Gamma yelled out from the kitchen where she was washing up the last of the breakfast dishes.
The day had finally arrived and Boyce was excited, nervous, happy and sad all at once. Leaving his grandmother alone made him anxious but he knew his time to shine was now.
“Coming,” Boyce yelled back to Gamma. “And Going,” he whispered under his breath.
Pulling his suitcase on wheels into the kitchen, Boyce said, “Gam, I just need to make one stop on the way to the bus station.”
Pulling up to Anh’s house, he got out and walked slowly to the mailbox, gazing across the lawn at the front door to Anh’s home and heart. That door that had opened wide into a place of awakening. Knowing that Anh’s parents were at work and Anh himself away at his job as a clerk at the clothing store at the new mall in town, he slipped the envelope with Anh’s name on it, tightly sealed with two layers of Scotch tape, into the box marked Johnson.
As he made his way back to the car and forward towards his new life, he recited in his head the simple message to his friend who was the illuminating light in his life:
My Dearest Anh Thuong, Intelligent One Who Loves Tenderly,
Thank you for showing me I can be anyone I want to be.
May we both be free to be whoever and whatever that is
forever and ever amen.
I Love You Always,
© 2020, Mary Corbin.
Double B Coming and Going is from the “Life Lines” collection. Featured artwork: “Eye on the Ball #3” – painting by Mary Corbin. No reprints without permission. This story was also published in Written Tales, January 2021.