Two Boys Kissing

Page 8


There are fewer than a hundred people watching them online—mostly Harry and Craig’s friends, too lazy or too far to come see it in person. A few of those friends forward the link to other friends. This you have to see, they say. A few more tune in.
Two boys kissing. You know what this means.
For us, it was such a secret gesture. Secret because we were afraid. Secret because we were ashamed. Secret because it was a story that nobody was telling.
But what power it had. Whether we cloaked it in the guise of You be the boy and I’ll be the girl, or whether we defiantly called it by its name, when we kissed, we knew how powerful it was. Our kisses were seismic. When seen by the wrong person, they could destroy us. When shared with the right person, they had the power of confirmation, the force of destiny.
If you put enough closets together, you have enough space for a room. If you put enough rooms together, you have space for a house. If you put enough houses together, you have space for a town, then a city, then a nation, then a world.
We knew the private power of our kisses. Then came the first time we were witnesses, the first time we saw it happen out in the open. For some of us, it was before we ourselves had ever been kissed. We fled our towns, came to the city, and there on the streets we saw two boys kissing for the first time. And the power now was the power of possibility. Over time, it wasn’t just on the street or in the clubs or at the parties we threw. It was in the newspaper. On television. In movies. Every time we saw two boys kissing like that, the power grew. And now—oh, now. There are millions of kisses to be seen, millions of kisses only a click away. We are not talking about sex. We are talking about seeing two boys who love one another kiss one another. That has so much more power than sex. And even as it becomes commonplace, the power is still there. Every time two boys kiss, it opens up the world a little bit more. Your world. The world we left. The world we left you.
This is the power of a kiss:
It does not have the power to kill you. But it has the power to bring you to life.
Nobody is watching as Peter and Neil kiss. It is just a quick kiss as they leave the IHOP, before they head home. It is a syrupy kiss, a buttery kiss. It is a kiss with nothing to prove. They don’t worry about who might see, who might pass by. They’re not thinking about anyone but themselves, and even that feels like an afterthought. It is just a part of who they are together, something that they do.
Walking through the aisles of Walmart, Cooper isn’t thinking about kissing. He is scrolling through his app, chatting with strangers, and kissing isn’t on any of their minds. He came into the store because he was getting sick of the inside of his car, was feeling stupid just sitting there in the parking lot as moms and old people paraded in front of him with their shopping carts. Now he walks around as his mind is fragmented into screens and windows, torsos and come-ons, stats and entreaties. Most of the guys on here are older—some much older—than him. Cooper ignores the much older ones, but that still leaves him plenty to choose from.
“Hey, Cooper.”
Cooper doesn’t even recognize his name at first. This guy is telling him all the things he wants to do with his mouth, and all Cooper has to do is type Yeah and Wow and Oh man for the guy to go on.
It’s the second time that gets through, and he looks up and sees this girl Sloan from school, looking at him weirdly. Shit, he thinks, shoving the phone into his pocket.
Sloan laughs. “You were pretty intense there. Don’t let me interrupt you.”
Cooper wonders what she saw. It was just a chat screen. No photos. She’s not close enough to have read it, right?
“It’s nothing,” he mumbles.
“Oh, I know all about your secret life, Cooper.”
Cooper feels like he’s going to drop something, and he’s not even holding anything. Sloan is in a few of his classes. Sometimes they’re at the same lunch table. He never sees her outside of school. How could she know anything?
“You’re an undercover Walmart cop, aren’t you? Tracking delinquent teens like me. My eyeliner makes me a heavy shoplifting threat. I know the profiling that goes on here.”
Cooper doesn’t know what to say.
“I take your silence as complicity.” Sloan puts up her hands. “Check my pockets if you must.”
Why won’t she just go away? Cooper’s phone is vibrating like crazy in his pocket, and he imagines she can hear it every time it does.
She lets her hands fall. She’s gotten the message that Cooper isn’t playing along.
“But really,” she says. “What are you up to?”
He really wants her to go away. He keeps his answer as short as possible.
“For what?”
He feels stupid. Why did he say that?
“For the grill.”
“Because it’s supposed to get warm tomorrow?”
This is the problem with having a barrier between you and everyone else—you see it, but they don’t. They talk to you, but you can’t talk back to them. They care about things like the weather and what you’re shopping for, and you don’t care about a single thing. It is so obvious to you, and it is infuriating that they don’t understand. It just highlights that you’re the one who’s defective, you’re the one who can’t be normal, you’re the one who has to suffer while everyone else gets to live out their delusions. We know. We’ve been there.
If Sloan were a friend, she would see something was wrong. If Sloan were a friend, she would feel comfortable asking what was wrong. But Sloan’s not a friend. She’s just a girl he knows. A contact. His phone is out of control in his pocket. Sloan looks at him funny. Then finally she says, “Okay, Mr. Social. I’ll see you Monday. Good luck with the grill.”
“See you Monday,” Cooper says. He even tries to make it sound like he’s looking forward to it. Because that will get rid of her faster.
The barrier still stands. Sloan moves on, and Cooper takes the phone out of his pocket. These guys have barely realized he was gone. Cooper flicks through, still trying to find the guy he actually wants to meet.
All of these men and boys with their computers, all of these men and boys with their phones. All after the druglike rush of doing something adventurous, doing something they consider to be on the edge of something else. All of these men and boys fragmenting themselves, hoping the fragments are pieced together on the other end. All of these men and boys trying out this new form of gratification. All of these men and boys still lonely when the rush is over, and the devices are off, and they are alone with themselves again.
There is a term for this.
The term is limbo.
Better to be drifting in a canoe. Better to be brushing back your hair as it blows into your eyes. Better to know that everything you say is meant. Better to know that everything you say is heard.
Ryan asks Avery about the pink hair.
“I know, strange color choice, right? For a boy born as a girl who wants to be seen as a boy. But think about it—it just shows how arbitrary gender is. Pink is female—but why? Are girls any more pink than boys? Are boys any more blue than girls? It’s something that has been sold to us, mostly so other things can be sold to us. My hair can be pink because I’m a boy. Yours can be blue because you’re a girl. If you free yourself from all the stupid arbitrary shit that society controls us with, you feel more free, and if you feel more free, you can be happier.”
“My hair’s blue because I like blue,” Ryan says.
“And mine is pink because I like pink. And I totally didn’t mean to lecture you. It just makes me mad. All the stupid arbitrary shit.”
“It makes you want to overthrow the world.”
“On a daily basis.”
Stupid arbitrary shit. We know what Avery means, and we also know he doesn’t know the full weight of its harm, or the despair it can cause. He doesn’t know how a single fact about a human being can mean that he and thousands of others like him will die, because nobody wants to talk about the disease that is killing them, nobody wants to spend the money so they won’t die. Stupid arbitrary shit means the president of the United States can wait six years before even saying the disease’s name. Stupid arbitrary shit means it will take a movie star to die and a hemophiliac teenager to die before ordinary people start to mobilize, start to feel that the disease needs to be stopped. Tens of thousands of people will die before drugs are made and drugs are approved. What a horrible feeling that is, to know that if the disease had primarily affected PTA presidents, or priests, or white teenage girls, the epidemic would have been ended years earlier, and tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of lives would have been saved. We did not choose our identity, but we were chosen to die by it. For stupid arbitrary reasons instilled by people who refused to see how arbitrary they were. We believe in the golden rule, but we also believe that people fail to live up to it, time and again. Because they fall prey to differences. Because some use the arbitrary very deliberately to keep their own power.
We don’t burden Avery with this. Why would we want to? There is the hope that the world will get less stupid, less arbitrary, as time goes on. The good thing about human progress is that it tends to move in one direction, and even a fool who looks at the difference between a hundred years ago and now can see which direction that is. Moves like an arrow, feels like an equal sign.
In the meantime, we are vigilant. Deaths like ours teach you to be vigilant.
Avery looks at the river, looks at Ryan on the other side of the boat.
“The world from here isn’t that bad, though,” he says. “This right now is a world I can live in.”
This is what the right people can do. They can make you see that better world.
There are things they aren’t saying, of course. Ryan came down with such a severe eating disorder when he was thirteen, about the time he was coming out, that the school nurse made him get help. Even his parents don’t know, because he swore the nurse and the counselor not to tell. And Avery isn’t advertising the fact that he’s never been past second base, and the idea of sex petrifies him. Ryan will not confide—not yet—his determination to head far, far away for college, and to never come back to Kindling again, not even for weddings or funerals. Avery will not detail the foolish lengths he went to get Freddy Dickson to like him, and how when it backfired spectacularly, he cut himself for the first and only time in his life. Not everything needs to be said at once. Sharing truth is not the kind of gift that comes in wrapping paper—ripped open once and, there, you’re done. No, this is a gift that must be unfolded. It is enough to start the telling. It’s enough to have the beginning and feel like it’s a beginning.
Harry has been kissing Craig for forty-seven minutes, and he’s amazed how easy it is. To be kissing Craig again, but without the drama of being boyfriends. It’s so much more comfortable now. Much less fraught. He’d known all along that they’d get here, that they’d have this. When it was ending—when the boyfriend part was ending—he had been very deliberate about choosing his words. He didn’t want to say Let’s just be friends or I hope we can stay friends, because that made friendship sound like a consolation prize, the blue ribbon to look at distractedly while someone else walks off with the gold cup. No, what he said was: “I think you and I will be even closer, and that we will be even better together and more to each other if we’re best friends, not boyfriends.” He knows it still hurt Craig, and he knows it took some time for Craig to adjust, but he’d been right, hadn’t he? They would have never attempted this if they’d been boyfriends. They would have never lasted long enough to get here. And he wouldn’t have lasted even forty-five minutes if he’d wanted to do anything more than kiss Craig, if Craig turned him on anymore. Maybe there was something at the start, but now it’s leveling off. He’s glad Craig can’t read his mind, because he knows it might be taken as harsh, but really it’s a compliment. There are moments where Harry is so revved up, is so horny, that he’d sleep with just about anything. It takes a lot of restraint to realize the damage this can do, and to not venture places where you shouldn’t go, even if you’re revved up. He and Craig had fun, for sure, but it was never about sex. And now Harry needs to stop thinking about sex, because his body is starting to … react. So he thinks about something else—about whether he should ask for a sip of water. They’re allowed to have some, but only if it’s through a straw, and the lips are still touching. Tricky, but it can be done. The problem is, if he drinks now, he runs the risk of having to pee later. And he really wants to avoid that. This is another of the rules: no diapers, no cheating in the bathroom department. If he has to go, he’s either got to whip it out and pee on the grass—or just leak a little into his pants. Neither option is really attractive, and the horny edge is totally off his mind now. Craig squeezes his arms, sensing that he’s drifting off. Good call. He has to focus on the kiss. Not letting go of the kiss. The worst thing he can do is drift off. There are people all around, but he can’t turn to look at any of them. He has to focus on Craig. And maybe the people over Craig’s shoulder. That’s it. He loves Craig, it’s true. And the number one reason he doesn’t want to mess this up is because he wants Craig to have this achievement. He wants to do this for Craig. Because it means more to him. Harry doesn’t know why—maybe because it was Craig’s idea, or maybe because he just needs something like this more. Yes, that must be it. Craig needs something like this more.