Two Boys Kissing

Page 13


He closes his eyes, feels the touch, but not any sensation from it. Time expands, and then he opens his eyes and looks at the clock and it contracts. Cooper must have slept for a little bit. Julian must have joined him. Now Cooper startles awake, and Julian shifts beside him. “What time is it?” Julian mumbles, and then they see what time it is, which is later than either of them want it to be. “We must have drifted off,” Julian says with a smile. He stands up, puts his shirt on, then warns Cooper before he turns on the light. “I think we need to call it a night,” Julian tells him. “I have first shift tomorrow morning—I have to get up at five-thirty. So I should probably get to sleep. Or get back to sleep, as the case may be. Let me drive you back to your car. Or walk you back.”
The thought of his car depresses him. But even so, Cooper cannot believe what he says next. Even as the words are leaving his lips, he cannot believe he is saying them. He hates himself deeply for saying them. They make him feel like he’s nine.
“Could I maybe stay here tonight?” he asks.
Julian is not expecting this. He looks at Cooper’s shirt, tangled on the floor.
“Not this time, okay?” he says. “I know it sounds silly, but that’s a big step for me. Plus, I have to get up so damn early. Another time.”
The next words that want to emerge from Cooper’s mouth are I can sleep on the couch. But this time he manages to trap them, swallow them back down. Were he a better liar, he could probably craft a story to justify the statement (a wild party in the dorm, a roommate’s boyfriend or girlfriend over, a feeling the Jack and Coke is hitting him too hard to drive). But the lies are as inaccessible to him as the truth is to Julian.
Cooper reaches down for his shirt and puts it on, then replaces the change that fell out of his pocket as he and Julian were rolling around. He tells Julian he doesn’t need to drive him or walk him to his car. He says he could use the walk, and that he doesn’t have nearly as early a start as Julian does. Julian hasn’t put on his shoes yet, and because of this, and because Cooper doesn’t really look like he wants the company, he backs down. Together they walk out of the bedroom, to the front door. Julian kisses him again, but Cooper barely feels it at this point. Before Julian opens the door, he asks Cooper for his phone number. Cooper gives him a fake.
“I hope I’ll see you again,” Julian says in parting.
“Yeah, thanks,” Cooper replies. Then he’s out the door.
For a moment when he gets outside, the air feels good. But that’s only because he isn’t thinking about anything else.
Then he starts to think about other things, and he doesn’t feel good. The noise has come to claim him again. The flat, dead noise.
We watch as Julian takes the two glasses into the kitchen, the ice cubes melted now. We watch as he puts them in the sink, then stands over the sink, both hands on the counter, wondering what just happened.
Miles away, Peter and Neil are feeling much more certainty. After dinner, they hid in the basement and made out for a while—an intense interlude that came to a mutually pleasing conclusion. Then they went online and chatted with friends, many of whom were also watching the Big Kiss. Finally, it was time for Neil to head home, so now they are saying their usual goodnights: Peter in his boxers, Neil in his pajamas.
“I could kiss you for hours and still be on my feet,” Peter says.
“Likewise,” Neil says.
Then they wave, and sign off into slumber.
Ryan texts Avery to say goodnight, and asks him what he’s doing tomorrow. Would he be up for another drive?
Avery has about a million other things to do, but of course he says he’s free. Completely free.
He should be floating from the day, but a look in the mirror drags him down. He has a full-length mirror in his bedroom, and it is often his enemy. Tonight he looks into it and tries to see what Ryan sees, and all he gets in return is disappointment. He’s worked so hard to change his body, to make it the right body, but he can’t come close to loving it. He thinks it’s because he was born in the wrong body, but we want to whisper in his ears that many of us were born in the right bodies and still felt foreign inside them, felt betrayed. We completely misunderstood our bodies. We punished them, berated them, held them to an Olympian ideal that was deeply unfair to them. We loathed the hair in some places and the lack of hair in others. We wanted everything to be tighter, stronger, harder, faster. We rarely recognized our own beauty unless someone else was recognizing it for us. We starved or we pushed or we hid or we paraded, and there was always another body we thought was better than ours. There was always something wrong, most of the time numerous things wrong. When we were healthy, we were ignorant. We could never be content within our own skin.
Breathe, we want to tell Avery. Feel yourself breathe. Because that is as much a part of your body as anything else.
Avery, we whisper, you are a marvel.
And he is. He may never believe it, but he is.
It’s eleven o’clock on a Saturday night. Since there is rarely anything to do on a Saturday night in Harry and Craig’s town, a lot of people are dropping by the lawn of the high school to see the two boys kissing. A multitude of cell phone pictures is being taken—the disposable commemoration of this day and age. Sometimes girls have to shush their drunken boyfriends, who want to say something inappropriate. Or maybe the boyfriends say it quietly, and the girlfriends laugh. Not everybody is here to show support. Some are just here because they think it’s a freak show.
“I bet if we wanted to break the world record with a straight kiss, they’d never give us the high school,” one guy complains, as if this is a particular aspiration that’s been robbed from him.
“Totally,” his girlfriend agrees.
“This is bullshit,” another guy loudly declares, his voice and confidence amplified by the Budweiser he’s consumed.
You’re bullshit, the drama club girl next to him wants to say.
Eventually the crowd thins out—there’s not much to see after a while. It’s getting late, a little chilly. People get back into their cars—some to go to late-night parties, but most to go home.
Even within Harry and Craig’s team—that’s what they think of themselves now, over eleven hours into it—there’s a shift change. Harry’s mom blows a kiss to both Harry and Craig, then goes home to get some rest. She’ll see them in the morning. Rachel also heads home, so she can relieve Tariq later on, even though he’s pledged to stay up the whole time. Smita promised her mother she’d be home by one. Mykal has a schedule of a few friends who are sleeping now but who will come in the middle of the night, bearing glow sticks and caffeine.
It’s also the end of Mr. Nichol’s shift. As his replacement comes closer, we can’t believe our eyes.
Look, look, we tell each other. It’s Tom!
He’s Mr. Bellamy to his history students. But he’s Tom to us. Tom! It’s so good to see him. So wonderful to see him. Tom is one of us. Tom went through it all with us. Tom made it through. He was there in the hospital with so many of us, the archangel of St. Vincent’s, our healthier version, prodding the doctors and calling over the nurses and holding our hands and holding the hands of our partners, our parents, our little sisters—anyone who had a hand to be held. He had to watch so many of us die, had to say goodbye so many times. Outside of our rooms he would get angry, upset, despairing. But when he was with us, it was like he was powered solely by an engine of grace. Even the people who loved us would hesitate at first to touch us—more from the shock of our diminishment, from the strangeness of how we were both gone and present, not who we were but still who we were. Tom became used to this. First because of Dennis, the way he stayed with Dennis until the very end. He could have left after that, after Dennis was gone. We wouldn’t have blamed him. But he stayed. When his friends got sick, he was there. And for those of us he’d never known before—he was always a smile in the room, always a touch on the shoulder, a light flirtation that we needed. They should have made him a nurse. They should have made him mayor. He lost years of his life to us, although that’s not the story he’d tell. He would say he gained. And he’d say he was lucky, because when he came down with it, when his blood turned against him, it was a little later on and the cocktail was starting to work. So he lived. He made it to a different kind of after from the rest of us. It is still an after. Every day it feels to him like an after. But he is here. He is living.
A history teacher. An out, outspoken history teacher. The kind of history teacher we never would have had. But this is what losing most of your friends does: It makes you unafraid. Whatever anyone threatens, whatever anyone is offended by, it doesn’t matter, because you have already survived much, much worse. In fact, you are still surviving. You survive every single, blessed day.
It makes sense for Tom to be here. It wouldn’t be the same without him.
And it makes sense for him to have taken the hardest shift. The night watch.
Mr. Nichol passes him the stopwatch. Tom walks over and says hello to Harry and Craig. He’s been watching the feed, but it’s even more powerful to see these boys in person. He gestures to them, like a rabbi or a priest offering a benediction.
“Keep going,” he says. “You’re doing great.”
Mrs. Archer, Harry’s next-door neighbor, has brought over coffee, and offers Tom a cup. He takes it gratefully.
He wants to be wide awake for all of this.
Every now and then he looks to the sky.
We reach midnight. Tariq can’t keep up with all the comments. Even with Harry and Craig on their phones, also answering, there are too many people to thank one by one. Tariq had thought it would slow down as it got late, as people started to go to bed. But he hadn’t been counting on it becoming so global. As people go to sleep in New Jersey, they are waking up in Germany. Australia’s heading into the afternoon. Tokyo, too. Because of the pink-haired blogger and all the other posts that have echoed out, word is passed on and passed on and passed on. Rachel hastily put together a Facebook page, and it already has fifty thousand fans.
Tariq is exchanging chat messages with someone from the site that’s hosting the feed, making sure there’s enough bandwidth, when he hears an engine gunning behind him, like a truck passing by.
There’s a shout:
Then laughter and cheers coming from the car that’s making the noise. Everyone turns, and the car rolls through the parking lot, turns around for another pass.
Because of the spotlights, it’s hard to see outside of their circle, hard to see anything besides headlights and a blurry head leaning out the passenger window. Tariq feels himself freezing. He knows these guys aren’t going to get out of the car, aren’t going to come over here with all the cameras going and the police officer and so many witnesses. But still, his instinct is fear.
Harry and Craig hear it too. Craig flinches at the sound, and Harry is a mix of amused and pissed. He refuses to take drunk shitheads seriously. He watches as the police officer halfheartedly takes a few steps away from the taped-off area, tries to get a better view of the car. But it’s already speeding away, point made. Harry’s father is asking Tariq and Smita if they know who it was, if it was kids from the high school. But neither of them know. Mykal asks around.
Harry gestures an M for music, then indicates that Tariq should turn it up. Tariq’s planned his playlist well—there’s not a ballad within earshot at this time of the night. Instead it’s all Lady Gaga, Pink, Kylie, Madonna, Whitney, Beyoncé—the g*y Sirens, here to lure you away from sleep and onto the dance floor. Tariq’s found an “Express Yourself/Born This Way” mash-up, and as he turns it up, Harry convinces Craig to dance with him. If they’re going to be faggots, they’re going to be dancing faggots. Dancing, kissing faggots.