4 YEARS AGO, SEPTEMBER
“Like what you see, fag?”
I blinked, shook my head and focused my eyes; I had been staring at nothing, trying hard to pretend I didn’t exist as I worked up the willpower to change clothes. A flat, hard stomach filled my vision. There was a reflexive thrill of desire under my belly button, but then I remembered where I was and my whole body stiffened with fear.
I had hoped my reputation wouldn’t follow me. I was wrong.
“No,” I said softly, looking down at the bench and trying to make myself as small as possible. It was my first week of ninth grade, and I had hoped that things would be different in high school. I had hoped people would be more mature, more focused on minding their own business, more open minded to different kinds of people. I had hoped my reputation wouldn’t follow me. I was wrong.
“Course he wasn’t lookin’ at your ugly ass, Wayne,” another boy called from across the locker room. “Even queerbaits got standards.”
“Shut the hell up,” Wayne said, turning and flipping the other boy the bird as he pulled on a grey gym shirt.
I closed my eyes and forced myself to breathe, resisting the jittery, animal panic threatening to burst out of me. Wayne wasn’t looking at me any more. Nobody was looking at me. I turned around, swallowed, and peeled off my shirt. The urge to cover my chest, and the shame over the idea of anyone seeing something that wasn’t there was as strong as ever, but I resisted it and slowly pulled on my own gym shirt. The shorts were even harder. Seeing my own pale, flat chest was painful, but I had to stare at the ceiling as I stepped out of my khakis and pulled on my gym shorts. Once that was done I tied my shoes and turned around to find the locker room almost completely empty. I breathed a sigh of relief and headed for the door.
A burst of static replaced my thoughts as a large body flew in from the side, slamming into me and sending me sliding, squeaking across the tiles. I moaned and looked up to see Wayne sneering as he loomed over me – I hadn’t gotten a close look at his face before, but I could see now that he had a crew cut and acne scars and large, blue eyes that seemed inappropriately pretty for someone like him. His eyes met mine and his face twisted into a mask of disgust. His leg snapped forward and I felt my stomach turn inside out, blasting all the air out of my body.
“Don’t you f***in’ look at me!” he said. I gagged softly and tried to crawl away on shaking limbs. Even if I could have spoken I knew better than to call for help. He had the unspoken approval of all the other boys in class, even the ones who didn’t like him, and probably even the teacher. From a million confrontations like this one, I knew I just had to stay silent and keep my body limp and send my mind somewhere else until it was over.
“How’s your daddy feel when he looks at you?” Wayne said. He knotted his fingers in my hair and pulled me to my feet. I coughed wordlessly and held onto his wrist for dear life. He brought his face close to mine, his breath hot and terrible against my cheek. “Is he proud he raised a faggot?”
He yanked me by the hair and slammed the back of my head into a locker. A loud buzzing filled my head and the whole world swam, but I could still make out his voice.
“I asked you a question!” he screamed. My thoughts swirled like water rushing down a toilet. I couldn’t grasp anything. Did he really want an answer? What did he want me to say? I felt tears starting to come and prayed for the numbness to come instead.
“No,” I croaked, my eyes still locked on the ceiling, the wall, on everything that wasn’t his face. “I know he’s not proud.”
We both flinched at the sound of echoing footsteps in the short, tiled hall between the gym and the locker room. He let me go and turned around, doing his best to appear casual. I slumped against the locker in his shadow, trying not to vomit.
“You okay?” he said. I didn’t want him to ask that. I wanted him to go away.
“Hey,” the boy from earlier said as he rounded the corner. He stopped when he saw us, his eyebrows rising silently. A tense moment passed before he slowly said, “Coach wanted me to come get y’all.” I swallowed and tried to stop my shaking. Wayne stood there for a moment, fists clenching and teeth grinding, but then he was gone in a flurry of stomping and I was alone with this tall, handsome boy. I felt his stare like the sun. I wished he would go away so I could vomit and curl up and let the numbness take me over.
“You okay?” he said. I didn’t want him to ask that. I wanted him to go away. The tears were still there, bulging in my throat, and I almost felt like it would be good to get them out, but they wouldn’t come. They never came.
“In general or right now?” I said, covering my face with a trembling hand. “It’s a ‘no’ either way I guess.”
“Did he hit you?” he said. I stood perfectly still, saying nothing. I knew what happened when you told on bullies, and it wasn’t good. “I won’t make any trouble. I know he hit you. Did he hit you in the head?” I nodded. I felt a hand on my shoulder and moved my hand away from my face. He was close now, trying to give me a comforting smile. His hair was curly and light brown, and his face was all angles and straight lines except for his lips, which could have been a girl’s lips. He was the same height as me, but something about the way he carried himself made him seem much larger.
“Come on,” he said, pulling me toward the door. I followed, barely noticing when he turned left on the other side and led me toward the wide double doors that led out of the gym. “Coach!” he said. The P.E. teacher looked up from his clipboard with an irritated expression but softened when he saw who was talking to him. “He fell in the locker room. I think he might have a pretty bad concussion. I’m gonna walk him to the nurse, cool?” The coach nodded before turning to whistle shrilly at something that displeased him.
“Why’d he just let you go?” I said, my voice sounding distant and robotic.
“Captain of the football team,” he said, with a thin smile. “Comes with certain privileges.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Name’s Jamie by the way.”
“Oh,” I said again, then realized I was supposed to say my name too. “Andrew.”
“Nice to meet you, Andrew,” he said. “Sorry it couldn’t be under better circumstances.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Thanks, by the way.”
“I didn’t do nothin’,” he said, shrugging. “Coach really did send me to check.” We walked in silence for a few steps while he chewed on something and then he spoke again. “Can I ask you something?”
It was good to say it and not feel afraid, but not quite as good as I had hoped.
“Was Wayne right about you?” I didn’t answer. The numbness was giving way to fear again. “You can tell me.”
“No, I can’t,” I said, casting him a sharp look.
“What if I gave you some collateral?” he said. I just stared at him, knowing any answer would give me away somehow. He leaned in so close that I felt his perfect lips brush my ear and whispered, “I like boys.” He bit his lip. My eyes widened. “Boys like you,” he added in a soft voice.
“But you’re a…a football player,” I said. I remembered how the boys in the locker room had all turned to watch when he spoke, how even Wayne’s anger had been blunted by his presence. “You’re popular.”
“And that’s why nobody suspects anything, nothin’,” he said. “But if you told the wrong person, you could ruin me.”
“I won’t,” I rushed to say. He smiled. I felt something like warmth in my chest, but only a pale reflection.
“I’m the same,” I said, looking around to make sure nobody could hear. “I…like boys too.” It was good to say it and not feel afraid, but not quite as good as I had hoped. It didn’t feel completely true, and there was still something dark and deep in me that would never stop screaming until I said its name.
“Here’s my number,” he said, pressing a slip of paper against the wall and writing on it. He handed it to me, and I held it to my chest like a religious artefact.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Thank you,” he said, squeezing my arm. “I’ll see you this weekend, okay?”
“Sorry for the long drive,” Jamie said over the faint, low purr of his Mustang’s engine. “It’s just we can’t be seen by anybody from school.”
“I understand,” I said, forcing a smile and twisting my hands in the hem of my shirt.
“It’s not that there’s anything wrong with this,” he said, flashing me his straight-toothed smile. “It’s just…it is what it is, you know?”
“I know,” I said, remembering the ringing in my ears when my head hit the locker. What was the difference between us, I wondered? Nobody but Marcus had ever seen any evidence of what I was, and yet I’d been called names like queerbait and gaylord and faggot and pushed to the ground endlessly since first grade. Meanwhile Jamie was confident enough to approach people and whisper his secret to them with a smile. I would have hated him for being so above it all if I hadn’t also wanted him to kiss me.
There was a loud splash and I looked back down to see his shadow cutting across the bottom of the pool.
The lights of the city faded into the patchwork of the suburbs and eventually the more perfect darkness of the North Georgia countryside. He pulled off on a dirt road that climbed a steep hill, until eventually the car pulled into the driveway of a large house lit by floodlights.
“Where are we?” I said.
“My grandpa’s house,” Jamie said, killing the engine and hopping out. I followed slowly, keeping my eyes on the severe edges where the light and asphalt switched over to dark and screeching cricket-filled woods. A metallic groan caught my attention. I turned to see Jamie opening an iron gate that had barred us from a large, blue swimming pool. “They’re in Maine for the summer.”
“I didn’t bring swim trunks,” I said, walking toward him. I had loved swimming, but never got to do it any more; after Mom and Dad got divorced, we didn’t have our own pool, and I hated my body too much to take my shirt off where other people could see.
“Neither did I,” Jamie said, biting his lip as he pulled his shirt over his head and threw it over a nearby deck chair.
“I don’t—” I said, my cheeks burning, but then put my hand over my mouth and turned my eyes toward the heavens when he hooked his thumbs in his shorts and pulled those down as well.
“Don’t you wanna see me?” he said, a laugh tinkling behind every word. I glanced down for just a moment before the feelings of guilt forced my eyes back up.
“I do,” I said. There was a loud splash and I looked back down to see his shadow cutting across the bottom of the pool. I stood at the very edge and watched his rippling image as it moved. He surfaced on the far side and treaded water, his face glowing blue.
“Join me?” he said.
“I think so,” I said, wrapping my arms around myself. “I don’t know.”
“Well get in the water and let’s find out.”
I padded around to the steps at the shallow end and chewed my thumbnail.
“You have to close your eyes,” I said. He rolled his eyes but did it. I stripped as quickly as I could, grimacing when my underwear came off, and hurried into the water until I was waist deep. “Okay, you can open them.”
“Finally!” he said, opening his eyes. His smile almost immediately turned into a confused frown as he started swimming toward me. “Why are you doing that?” I looked down and saw that I had crossed my arms over my chest without thinking. I dropped them to my side and felt my cheeks burn.
Suddenly his face was near mine, his nose was brushing mine, and his lips were almost against mine. I squeaked and backed away a single, sloshing step. “Don’t you think we’re moving too fast?”
“But aren’t you lonely?” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s just,” I said, hating how tremulous my voice sounded. I brought my eyes back to his and wanted to run away from the look of frustration I found there. “It’s just I thought this was going to be a date.” I looked away again. “I thought you wanted to get to know me.”
“That’s what straight people do,” he said flatly, like it should have been the most obvious thing in the world. “We can’t get married. We can’t have a family. We can’t even be seen together. We don’t get to have anything straight people have, but we do get to have this.” His fingers brushed my thigh and I backed away again. My heel brushed the step and I nearly stumbled.
“But aren’t you lonely?” I said.
“No,” Jamie said, but his voice was so low I could barely hear him over the rise and fall of the frogs screaming and the crickets singing to each other. “I have a girlfriend.”
“You didn’t tell me that,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest again and looking down at my legs, the one part of my body I liked. “Does she know?”
“Does it matter?” he said, sounding impatient now. “I don’t want a…a boyfriend.”
“What if I do?”
“Then motherf***ers like Wayne are never gonna leave you alone,” he said, rubbing the bridge of his nose wearily.
“They never have,” I said, shrugging weakly, “and I’ve never even kissed a boy.”
“Then when you actually announce to the world that you’re a fairy they’ll upgrade from beating the shit out of you to trying to kill you.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Sorry.” He waded over to me and sat on the step just above mine. Even as nauseous as I felt, I couldn’t help but glance between his legs and blush. I was sure God would forgive me. “And sorry I didn’t say anything about my girlfriend.”
“If you’re not gay… What are you?”
“I don’t care,” I said.
“Just don’t tell her, okay?” he said. “You really, really can’t tell anybody.” His chest rose and fell rapidly all of a sudden. “Really. Like, it would be a disaster if you told.”
“I didn’t plan on it.”
“Good,” he said, pursing his lips and nodding as his breathing slowed. “This was a bad idea. Can we just pretend this never happened?”
“You don’t want to be friends?”
“What I want don’t matter,” he said, pulling his wet hair to the back of his head. “My dad…if he knew how I am, Andrew…”
“Okay,” I said, feeling completely numb now. “You can pretend you don’t know me if you need to.”
We sat in the pool for a while, listening to the night sounds and the slosh of our legs in the water. He touched his fingers to the nape of my neck. I closed my eyes. His fingers ran through my hair and danced down my temple and brushed my cheek. When was the last time a human being who wasn’t Mom had touched me from any desire other than to hurt me? But then I remembered that he only liked me because I was a boy, and that he was going to pretend I didn’t exist, and I realized this was just a different kind of hurt.
“You’re so beautiful,” he said. I didn’t say anything. Eventually he stood and grabbed towels from a covered shed, tossing one to the edge of the pool where I sat. “You probably need to get home.”
“Can I ask you a question?” he said, once he was dressed and I had my pants on. I turned around, re-crossing my arms over my chest, and shrugged. “If you’re not gay… What are you?”
I moved my arms and looked down at the pale, flat expanse of my chest. There was that old stab of agony like a lance through my brain, same as always.
“I don’t know,” I said, though of course I did. I knew exactly who I was, and what I wanted.
I pictured, for just a moment, the girl I would never be, her long hair, her body in a bathing suit not betraying her. I pictured her laughing as drops of starlight fell from her hair. I pictured a boy like Jamie, but better, holding her hand, pulling her close, loving her without saying she was doomed in the same breath. I felt sick.