Two Boys Kissing

Page 7


Ryan goes on to explain he doesn’t hear from his father much now. Just a phone call every now and then. Ryan visited him once in California, and it was a disaster. Ryan was twelve, but his father planned it out like he was seven. “He tried real hard, but in the wrong ways. He thought Disneyland could make everything better, you know? We ran out of things to say pretty quick. I emailed him when I was coming out to everyone, and his reaction was one of the best ones I got. He told me to do what I wanted to do. But part of me felt like it was easy for him to be okay with it because he’d given up on me a while ago. Like, he wasn’t as invested as everyone else.”
Ryan stops now, self-conscious the moment he steps out of the story. “Gosh,” he says, “I’m talking a lot.”
“No,” Avery says. “Go on. How did everyone else react?”
“Oh, you know. Mom cried. A lot. Don was angry. Not at me, really. But at the manufacturer for giving him a defective stepson. My sisters, though, were fine. And so were most of my friends. I mean, a couple of them flailed a little in their first reactions—some of the guys were wondering if I was secretly in love with them. Which was only right in one case, but that went nowhere. The girls were by and large cool, even the churchy ones. Well, with one exception there, too. The inevitable rumors started, and I decided the only thing to do was confirm them, so I dyed my hair and started putting LGBT buttons on my bag and made noises about starting a GSA. The ass**les in school had the typical ass**le reactions. But there were a couple of other g*y kids, so we banded together. I dated this one guy, Norris, for about two seconds, which was as long as it took for us to realize that the only thing we had in common was that we were g*y. Our GSA advisor, Mr. Coolidge, is super cool, and has gotten a lot of things done, including the dance last night. That was his idea. The g*y prom. We contacted every GSA in the area. Is that how you heard about it?”
“A friend linked me to the Facebook invite,” Avery says. “Our GSA is kind of lame.”
“Well, whatever got you there, I’m glad you made it. I guess that’s the latest plot twist in my story, isn’t it?”
Avery thinks it feels like a responsibility, to be a part of someone else’s story. He knows Ryan is saying it playfully, not heavily. He knows Ryan is saying it to show that he’s done with his own storytelling, which means it’s time for Avery to start. Avery isn’t sure that Ryan is a part of his own story yet, but that could be because he doesn’t feel anyone can be a true part of his story until he or she hears it and accepts it.
They’re drifting on the water—not much, just a gradual pull. Avery finds his mind drifting to a small part of Ryan’s story, a small point of comparison. When he emerges from that brief thought, he sees that Ryan is watching him, waiting to see what he’ll say next.
“I was just thinking about you and your aunt in this canoe,” Avery explains. “How nice that must have been, to talk here. For me, it’s always a kitchen-table war council. Us against the world. Coming up with a plan.”
“That sounds stressful.”
“Yeah, but at least everyone in my house is on the same side. I know how lucky I am about that. And unlucky in other ways.”
“Unlucky how?” Ryan asks.
And this is it. This is where Avery must decide how much to tell, how much to let Ryan in. Like everyone else, Avery considers his inner world to be a scary, convoluted, inscrutable place. It is one thing to show someone your best, cleanest version. It’s quite another to make him aware of your deeper, jagged self.
Here in the daylight, does Ryan already notice? Does he already know? If he does, it doesn’t seem like he cares. Or maybe that’s just more hoping on Avery’s part.
Enough, Avery tells himself. Just talk to him.
The first sentence of the truth is always the hardest. Each of us had a first sentence, and most of us found the strength to say it out loud to someone who deserved to hear it. What we hoped, and what we found, was that the second sentence of the truth is always easier than the first, and the third sentence is even easier than that. Suddenly you are speaking the truth in paragraphs, in pages. The fear, the nervousness, is still there, but it is joined by a new confidence. All along, you’ve used the first sentence as a lock. But now you find that it’s the key.
“I was born a boy in a girl’s body,” Avery begins. Then he stops, takes in Ryan’s reaction. Which is surprise. His eyes widen a little. Then narrow as he takes a long look at Avery, figures it out. Avery feels like a body on display.
Or maybe Ryan is just waiting for the next sentence. “Go on,” he says. His tone is encouraging.
“I think it was obvious to everyone from the start. And my parents are very … liberal, I guess. Practically hippies. So they actually tried to make it seem like I was normal. Or at least going through something normal. Now I can see the strain, and how much easier it would’ve been for all of us if I hadn’t been born a girl. But they never made me freak out. It was everyone else. Well, not everyone. There were some people who were cool. But there were a lot of people who weren’t cool. I was homeschooled a lot. We lived in a lot of towns, trying to find the right doctors. Eventually we found them, and I found other members of my tribe. Mostly online. But my parents and I go to conferences as well. They put me on hormones early, to sort of stop me from going through the wrong kind of puberty. Is this TMI? I’m sure you don’t want all the details.”
Ryan leans toward Avery, the boat rocking back and forth as he does. Avery grips the side, and Ryan puts his hand on top of Avery’s.
“Tell me whatever you want to tell me,” he says. “It’s cool.”
Avery shudders, and can feel the shudder travel through the boat, through the water, until the water becomes smooth again, until he feels his nerves become smooth enough to continue talking. It’s too much, too soon, but now that he’s talking, he can’t stop. He’s talking about hormones and the surgeries that have happened and the surgeries that are going to happen, and all along pretty much the only thing that’s filling his head is the question of whether Ryan is seeing him as a girl or a boy. Now that Ryan knows, is Avery still a boy in his eyes?
Ryan is measuring his next words carefully—in fact, he’s been weighing them, trying them out in his head, even as Avery’s been talking. We don’t blame him. We know it is sometimes hard to receive someone’s truth. Not as hard as the telling, but still hard if you care about how your response will be taken.
Finally, he says, “I like whatever it is that makes you the person you are.” It’s like something his aunt Caitlin would have told him, back when he was figuring things out. Then, to show that he doesn’t think this is the entirety of Avery’s story, he asks, “Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
The conversation continues, and we leave them to have it. We watch from a distance as the boat drifts for nearly a mile, without either of them really noticing.
You can give words, but you can’t take them. And when words are given and received, that is when they are shared. We remember what that was like. Words so real they were almost tangible. There are conversations you remember, for certain. But more than that, there is the sensation of conversation. You will remember that, even when the precise words begin to blur. How you gave, how you received. How close you felt to this other person, how remarkable this closeness was. The sharing of the words becomes as important as the words themselves. The sensation stays with you, attaches you to the world.
It was Craig’s idea to kiss like this. And a half hour into it, he still doesn’t understand what he was thinking.
There are many roots to it. One of them runs deep and connects directly to his childhood, to all those hours he spent poring over the Guinness World Records, dreaming that one day he’d be in it. The odder the record, the better—the world’s largest cherry pie, or the man who could fit the most nails in his mouth. As a kid, he probably skipped over the kissing section. Too gross.
Then there’s the root that runs closest, that runs right to where Tariq is standing with the cameras and the computer monitors, each one tethered to an extension cord they’ve run from the high school. Craig and Harry hadn’t really been friends with Tariq, not before he was assaulted. Even though they were all out, they didn’t move in the same circles. But when Craig and Harry heard he was in the hospital, heard what had happened, they felt the distance evaporate. Craig pictures him the day they visited his house, his body a badly matched collection of bruises, his usual smile too painful to use. Craig had cried—right there in Tariq’s living room, he had cried, and he felt so awful about that. Tariq told him it was okay, everything was okay, they hadn’t killed him. Ribs heal. Bruises fade. But Craig couldn’t stop crying—not just because Tariq was hurt, but because it was so senseless, so enormously wrong. Harry tried to comfort him, and Tariq said more soothing words, and Craig wanted to feel anger, he wanted to feel raw outrage, but instead it was sadness that was filling him, an extreme, helpless sadness. He rallied then—stopped crying, let Tariq tell them what he wanted to tell. But for the next few weeks, the sadness wouldn’t let go. At school he could distract himself from it, and with Harry and Tariq he could hide it. But when he was home it engulfed him. Because his family didn’t know and couldn’t know. They wouldn’t beat him up. They wouldn’t break his ribs. He knew that. But they had other ways of breaking him—with silence, with disappointment, with disapproval. His father would never accept who he was. Never. And his mother would go along with that. They had their beliefs, and those beliefs were stronger than any belief they had in him. Maybe this was the well that his sadness was being drawn from.
He knew what it was like to drown in it, to feel the sadness coming up to your neck, your mouth, your eyes. For a long time he thought he had a demon on his shoulders, weighing him down so he’d drown quicker. The demon liked boys, wanted nothing more than to kiss a boy. Craig couldn’t get rid of him, no matter how much he wished it, no matter what promises he made to God. Then he met Harry, and suddenly the demon was revealed to be a friend. He offered Craig a hand, pulled him up. Craig emerged, gasping, from the sadness—then created a dam to keep it at bay. He didn’t let Harry see it, just like he didn’t let his parents see it. It had to remain inside of him, contained. When Harry broke up with him, the dam came undone. He started drowning again, even as he pretended for Harry and their friends that he could swim. Smita kept a close eye on him, and in his own way, Harry did, too. Their friendship helped him rebuild the dam. He still had his life within his house and his life outside his house, but he was almost used to that. It was all under control. Until he saw Tariq after the assault, and felt in his heart that this was his future, that this time the demons were as bad as he feared, and they were going to win.
He hated feeling this way. He hated feeling helpless. He wondered what he could do. How could he stand up for himself? He knew vengeance wasn’t an option. He wasn’t going to track down the guys who’d beaten up Tariq. He wasn’t going to punish them. But there had to be some way to show the world that he was a human being, an equal human being.
He thought about protests. About gestures. About making the world watch. Then he thought about world records, and came up with the idea of the kiss.
There was nothing in the rules that prevented it. To the book of world records, a kiss was a kiss, no matter who was kissing. All the record keepers cared about was that the two people were standing the whole time, that there were no breaks, that lips were always touching lips.
The only hitch was that Craig couldn’t do it alone, and he knew the only person he could do it with was Harry.
Harry had no hesitation. He thought it was a great idea. And when Craig and Harry told Tariq about it, it seemed to help him drown a little less, too. Harry was a dreamer, not a planner, so it was up to Craig and Smita and Tariq to figure out all the logistics. Craig was sure there were things they’d forgotten, and yet here they were. Here he was. Kissing Harry. Smita had been merciless in her teasing—Surely, there are less elaborate ways of getting your ex to kiss you again. But it wasn’t about that. Or at least that’s what Craig insisted to himself. It was Harry because they were the same height (no neck strain), because he and his parents were on board, because he took it seriously, because they had trained their bodies and their minds for it in a way that only two people who were really close could do. Harry’s lips are so familiar to Craig. He has memorized these lips. And yet each time they were together was a little different, each time was a small thrill. These lips. Harry’s arms around him. Their balance together. Craig could lose himself in this, if there weren’t the need to keep it going for thirty-one more hours, if there weren’t people watching, if it were about him and Harry, not about him, Harry, and the world. Don’t think of it as kissing him, Smita said. Think of it as standing for thirty-two hours with your lips together. But how can he not think of it as kissing? He remembers the first time Harry kissed him, leaning over in the movie theater as the credits rolled. The surprise of it. The welcome surprise. The whole world narrowing down to that one intersection of skin and breath. Then expanding out, larger than before. A gasp of a kiss. His body remembers that. Even now. Even still. They have their signals—for water, for phone, for needing a squeeze, for calling the whole thing off. But there’s no signal for what Craig is feeling. There is no way his hand can take the form of a question mark. He looks into Harry’s eyes, wondering what Harry is thinking. Harry sees him, and Craig can feel his smile. But he still doesn’t know what that means, or really what any of this means, except for the fact of doing it.