I want to run my hand through Kurt Thompson’s hair, but I can’t because he’s a guy and so am I. If that’s not enough to make you kill yourself, I don’t know what is.
I’m dancing with my girlfriend, and Kurt’s dancing with his. Each time Cassandra and I make a turn in our slow dance, I peek through her hair to look at Kurt. His eyes are mostly closed, but there’s a moment, at the very end of the song when he opens his eyes and looks right at me. He smiles and gives me a nod of his chin and a look. A look that tears right through me. His eyes were Billy-Idol blue and he even had the sexy smile to match.
Just last year I’d been normal. I had been just like everyone else. God how I’d clung to that. No use anymore: my entire planned future of a girlfriend and college and a wife and kids and a house obliterated the moment Kurt looked at me. Gone. My feelings weren’t just longing looks that I could hide forever, they were physical reactions beyond my control. I really was doomed.
The school year at Westhaven High always began with a dance. It was something the principal thought was a great way to start the year. But if you were a student, it was kind of a nightmare. We were all asking ourselves what we'd accomplished over the summer break? Had your face finally stopped breaking out? Had you finally filled out: height and facial hair for guys; tits and ass for girls. If so, the first place to really show it all off was the dance.No pressure.
“Let’s get some fresh air.” Cassandra jutted her chin toward the patio to the side of the gym. “Fresh air” really meant “make out until we sprain our tongues.” For a good Catholic girl, she sure knew how to kiss. Lately, she’d been laying it on thick that we should sleep together. She’d already tried over the summer, but I’d put it off, saying we ought to wait. I even admitted I was a virgin, which she thought was really sweet. I wasn’t sure how to feel about that. Relieved that she’d backed off a little? Or insulted that she was more experienced than I was? Making out was one thing, but lately, Cassandra had been pushing for more and more private encounters—encounters that could go from making out to sex before I would ever have a chance to stop it.
Even if she wasn’t a virgin, faking my feelings through our first time seemed like some kind of love crime. I wasn’t trying to be chivalrous; I didn't want my first time to be some kind of Oscar-worthy acting exercise. I wanted it to be real, to be genuine, like anyone does.
My second line of defense was my curfew (11 on weeknights, midnight on weekends), which made my job a lot easier. Normally, we would just be moving from heavy kissing to some under-the-shirt stuff when we ran out of time.Usually I didn’t mind making out that much, but tonight, it grated against my dance-floor fantasy of being in a boy’s arms. I needed a moment to switch gears.
“I gotta go to the bathroom,” I yelled above the music, pointing to the restroom on the other side of the gym.
She pointed that she’d meet me outside on the patio and left me in the throng of kids rocking the auditorium. On the surface, I was just like them. I made the grades, belonged to the soccer team, went to the parties—so typically straight that nobody suspected a thing. On the inside, I was dying.
In the bathroom, I stood at the sink and splashed water on my face. I had to get Kurt out of my head and focus on the evening as it was. Okay, so, I wasn’t really interested in girls, didn’t live in a progressive town, and would never have a boyfriend in high school. But I was safe. With Cassandra on my arm, at least I wasn’t a suspect. I wasn’t exactly The Rock, but I was a far cry from stereotypically gay guys for whom there was no escaping detection.
Cassandra was great to hang with; just being around her gave me confidence to branch out a little. She didn’t mind that I was different and even appreciated my taste in 80’s retro clothes. It gave me a “look” she said. People weren’t so much looking at me, Shane Noble, as they were looking at guy-in-cool-clothes- with-cool-girl. I’d passed an entry-level test that gave me license to be a little freer. Just for the dance, I’d bought this ultra cool midnight blue summer-weight suit, and a thrift-store fedora. To complete it, I wore a black t-shirt, a pinstripe vest, and a red silk tie hung loose around the neck. I gave myself a nod in the mirror.
Then out of the stalls came the Asshole Patrol: Rick “the Dick” Blake- ly, Jim Bartell, and their freshman lackey, Dylan Thompson who was all red hair and pimples, but “cool” because he was on junior varsity soccer. The three of them were like triplets separated at birth. Bully triplets. While I was officially friends with Rick and Jim, it was more like frenemies because I never actually confided in them, we were constantly competing against each other on the field, and Rick had tried to date Cassandra before me. Their genius was that in public, they only gave you a friendly tease—when they caught you alone, they showed a darker side that was freaky in a pack- leader-and-wolves kind of way.
“You want some?” Rick brushed back his black hair to reveal icy blue eyes. He pushed a joint my way. “This shit is epic.” I shook my head, pretending to be caught up in grooming myself at the mirror. “Thanks, but I’ll pass.” (Tip: Avoiding offers of male-bonding by pretending to groom oneself is the wrong way to counter rumors that you’re gay.)
“Don’t toke?” Rick frowned like I’d said I didn’t eat pizza. “Asthma...” I said, taking a step back from the smoke cloud.
Rick nodded. “So you don’t smoke. Don’t really drink from what I’ve seen. What do you do?”
I half laughed because they wouldn’t have known it but Rick’s line was almost verbatim from the song “Goody Two Shoes” by Adam Ant’s third and final 1982 song. I moved to leave, but Jim and Dylan stepped in my way.“Hey, we’re just chatting, right?” Rick touched my tie, and when I looked down, he flicked my nose: gotcha. “So, you down her pants yet?”
“Sorry?” I feigned cluelessness. God, he was such a fucking jerk sometimes.
“Cassie... you down her pants or just pretending to be interested? You’ve been going out since last year.”
“What’re you, her chaperone?”
He laughed in my face. “Nah, she don’t need one with you around. You’re not trying anything from what I hear. What’s your secret, Noble? Too busy looking at Kurt Thompson?”
My heart stopped: They’re watching me. “Yeah, on the dance floor. Your eyes were just about glued to him, weren’t they, guys?” Jim and Dylan snort- ed and chuckled on cue. “Dude’s got a hard-on for my brother,” said Dylan, giving Jim a punch. “Wait ’til I tell Kurt.”
My face burned and I froze.
“You gay, Noble? This school’s already got one faggot, why not two? Maybe you and can make butthole babies together.”
I flashed back to first semester sophomore year. Lunch. Small-framed David Mortimer getting his ass kicked right there on the commons. Bloody nose. Screaming his fool head off. And all I could think was: If he just didn’t wear that ultra-gay flight-attendant scarf. Why? Why the scarf, David?
But today it’s worse than just his scarf; it’s his laptop. They grab it before he can shut it off, and there it is: “proof.” His #1 playlist on YouTube is a song by the screamingly gay Mika featuring screenshots of Mario Lopez and Zac Efron. They form a ring around him as he tries to get out. They each get in one really good hit before Dean Newcombe finally breaks it up and takes them all to the office. Could Newcombe drag his fat ass any slower? Hello! Little guy getting his ass kicked over here! The two amigos walk away hi-fiving, knowing they’ll be back in time for soccer practice which I actually share with them, hating it sometimes so much I actually consider switching to cross-country, or swimming (except I’d have to wear one of those skin-tight dick hammocks). Cassie tells me that in the office David won’t say a word and spineless Principal Schifrin lets it slide. Vice Principal Blakely—yes, Rick’s mother—really runs the school, but if she oversaw her own son’s discipline, well that’d be too direct wouldn’t it? David Mortimer—if he’s smart—he’ll be applying to one of those gay high schools in New York City and we’ll never see him again. Me? I can’t get found out—I’ll end up being the next David Mortimer. I can’t let that happen to me; it’d kill my mother. Hell, it’d kill me.
“Kurt? Are you kidding me, I was checking Britney out.” I checked my hair and tie trying to sound hip when really I was about to shit my pants. “Now, that’s a sweet ass.” It was the best I could do; besides, there was no way they could know exactly who I was looking at. (Tip: If you have to lie, remember that it’s a lot like acting; believe what you’re saying and so will they.)
Rick’s flinty eyes blinked a couple of times, his processors running a check on the data. Then he bought it. Or seemed to, with bullies you can never quite be sure. I nodded, wanting more than anything just to be on the other side of the bathroom door.
“Dude! I totally had you goin’!” said Rick, his face suddenly brightening. “You thought I was serious?!” He gave me a friendly but just-a-little-too- hard pat on the face. “No biggie, dude.”
“Just fuckin’ with you, bro,” said Jim, offering me a fist bump. I punched back, noticing how small my hand was against his. He was a big red-headed moose of a guy. I let myself have a half laugh before reality was hammered home one more time.
“But ditch that retro shit,” said Rick, thumping my hat. “Totally makes you look like a fag. Lose the tie or you’ll never get laid. And you want to get laid, right, Noble?”
They disappeared out the door into a blast of music and lights, leaving me whip-lashed but at least momentarily alone. God those guys were good; I had the shakes and they’d barely done a thing. Hard to believe that this was as far as I’d gotten in the friends department. We had spent afternoons since third grade on soccer fields and hockey rinks. Then we had gotten closer in scouting, and really seemed to bond when we’d all decided it was too gay for suburban wanna-be bad boys like us. Now, I was always on the fringe of their radical mood swings in cool-dom, but I still belonged. But in their increasingly erratic drive-bys, I knew that my safety was as thin as my normalcy: one slip and it would be over. Yes, waiter, I’ll have the David Mortimer with a side dish of total rejection, please.
On autopilot, my hands took the tie off, stuffing it into my pocket. My retro dreams of Duran-Duraning it up for the dance were over. Had I actually been so deluded that I’d fantasized about doing Nick Rhodes eye make-up for Chill, the holiday dance? For the moment, I had escaped anything permanent occurring, but whether Rick said they were kidding or not, they really had been watching me. And I had no idea how long that had been going on. I just wanted to run, to go home. I was afraid that as soon as I saw Cassandra, she’d know something was wrong, get me to crack: ‘Homo? Why would they think you’re a homo?’ So I didn’t give her a chance.
I left the bathroom like a rocket, spotted Cassie at the patio railing, grabbed her and dove into a kiss like an Olympic medalist. I grabbed and pawed at all the appropriate spots, letting her push my hands away. Finally, she stopped and turned her head away. “Ok, ok. I need to come up for air.” She laughed a little and I could tell I’d overdone it just right. “Where’s your tie?”
I patted the front of my pants. “Got hot dancing—in my pocket.”
“Oh, is that what that is?” She groped me gently and I knew that she was ready for round two, but I couldn’t go there again. So I pretended to notice the big wall clock inside.
“Oh shit, it’s already 10:30. We should be going.”
Cassandra sighed in frustration. “Would it kill you to be late just once? What’s your mother going to do, shoot you?”
“No, she’ll just pull the plug on going out for a semester, is that what you want?” I brushed the hair out of her face and gave her a sensual caress on her arms the way she liked.
“Jesus, Shane, with your mom around, who needs abstinence-only programs?”
Before I could soften her reaction, Cassandra was marching off toward the parking lot.
The drive to my apartment was a little quiet, windows down, heat on, tunes up too loud to talk.
“I don’t mean to be a bitch, Shane.” Cassandra let the car idle, the amber dash lights giving her an unreal glow. “I appreciate that your mom has rules, and that’s good. But I feel like what we have is maybe worth updating the rules for. I mean you want me, right?”
“Of course I do.” I lied. The several times we’d gotten close to doing it, it was me who had to put the brakes on. Cassandra was ready to go, very comfortable with her body, and with giving it to me. I felt like shit for not feeling the same way.
“I’ll talk to her. But you know how she is? There’s not much you can hide from a nurse. She’s going to know that later curfews means sex and I don’t know if she’s ready for that.”
“And what about you?” She took my hand and smiled warmly, the pissed- off Cassandra gone. “How do you feel about that? About me?”
“I want to do it, you know I do. I just want it to be right, you know?”
She said “me too,” but I got the feeling that if I’d said I was ready right then that she’d have yanked me into the back seat. We kissed goodnight and I walked up the stairs of my building, turning to wave dutifully as she drove off.
The town-house-style apartment where I lived with my mom was always quiet at night. She was on nights at Mercy General in the ER. We didn’t have to worry about money, but the twelve-hour shifts were tough on her and left me a lot of time on my own. My friends thought it was cool, and so did I for a while. But you can only skip so much homework, wander at night so often, or try to get into trouble so many times before you realize that real trouble is always out there waiting for you. On junk-food treks to the Kwik Mart I’d passed enough drunks, runaways and creeps who stared at kids to know that only luck was saving me from a run-in. Sophomore year I started staying in, doing my homework and watching whole lotta Discovery Channel and NatGeo. Nothing to take your mind off things like finding out that our brains are mostly water.
In my room, trying to shake off what happened at the dance, I reevaluated myself in the full-length mirror on the back of my door. Did I look like a fag? Could people really tell? Online there were always people leaving comments about this star or that singer “looking gay,” “sounding gay,” or “acting gay.” Sometimes I saw David Mortimer in the hallway and wondered if he could tell about me. He was usually busy keeping his head down and trying to avoid his next ass-kicking, but I wondered if he didn’t pick up on my signal no matter how badly I tried to suppress it. Is that what the Asshole Patrol did on the dance floor? Sense a gay vibe?
My walls and ceiling were covered in the best of the 80s, literally like wallpaper I don’t think I’d seen the actual wall since I was 12. Yeah, I had the Bangles, and Sheena Easton, and the Go-Go’s, but they were just filler between my real loves. Duran Duran (them decked out in black and white, Simon in a trench coat, John Taylor in those loose leather pants!) Adam Ant, Stray Cats, Simple Minds, Thompson Twins, Culture Club, Yazz, The Cure, The Smiths, and my all-time fav (drumroll please) Billy Idol. That guy was perfection. From the tip of his bleached out spikes to his battered boots, and every rubber bracelet and artfully torn shirt in between. So incredibly beautiful, but that raunchy grin that just makes your head spin. My 80s playlist from an old iPod was on eternal loop. The Smithereens “Blood and Roses” came on and I knew God had a sick sense of humor. The lyrics were exactly right: not belonging and love coming out wrong.
I felt the lump of the tie in my pocket and took it out, unfurling it like a tiny flag. It was still in a loop so I put my head through the soft noose of it. The guys in these bands had it so good. Fame, fortune, any woman—or man—they could possibly want. And they made make-up cool for men. And not just Bowie or guys like Simon Le Bon and Nick Rhodes either. Billy fuckin’ Idol, too. Street tough who could be pretty and rough at the same time. It never got any cooler than that; we’ve just been backsliding since then. Gay marriage?! Ha. What good is being married when your kid gets bullied at school because of his two moms or dads? How many minutes was I out of sweating a close encounter with the Asshole Patrol myself? What was it I had to do to get them off my back... have sex with Cassandra in public, post a video of us doing the nasty? Those guys were human earworms eating away at my brain. Faggot, I thought. Queer. Cocksucker. That’s all I’d ever be to them. If I made it to graduation, I’d just face more of them in college, and then at work.
“Faggot,” I said out loud, and gave the tie a backward tug. Queer. I pulled harder, the tie squeezing my jugular. Rick’s words burned in my ears: “What’s your secret, Noble?” Did he already know? Who else knew? What would happen if everyone knew? I pulled the tie until it cut off the blood to my head, immediately getting dizzy and weak. A few more seconds and I’d be out.
I heard keys in the front door and jerked back to reality.
“Shane,you home early?”
Mom’s voice filtered up, muffled by heavy carpeting and the floor between us. I whipped the tie from my neck and quickly went to block the door in case she tried to come in.
“Just getting ready for bed, Ma.”
She was already upstairs. “They overstaffed tonight so I got sent home. Can I come in?”
I threw the tie on the bedpost and pulled off my shirt. I opened the door a crack and she hovered outside.
“How was the dance? You and Cassie have fun?”
“Oh, it was totally great. But could we talk about it tomorrow? I’m kinda tired.”
After the briefest pause, “Sure.” She used her casual voice, which always made me tense. “Goodnight, hon.”
I heard her pad down the hall, then the soft click of her door. We were now each sealed in our respective mother/son bunkers. But who was I kid- ding? She had to know something was off; we just hadn’t talked about it. The older I got, the more internal my problems became. A skinned knee at 8 was a lot easier for Nurse-Mom to diagnose than a broken heart at 16. Who was to blame for that? Her for not digging (well, okay, prying) or me for not coming forward? But c’mon, really, come forward for what? To have my head chopped off? Parents are all supportive until they actually get something concrete. And then it’s like “Drugs!?” “Suspended for what?” “Pregnant?! How!?” I’d heard people at school telling lunchroom war stories long enough to know that secrecy was a necessary shield sometimes.
I left my guard-post at the door and sank down against the tangled mess of bedding at my headboard. All that came to mind were the blond curls of Kurt Thompson’s mane. Unaffected, unpretentious, nearly unstyled, he was naturally beautiful and undeniably masculine. Envied by the guys and adored by the girls. You either wanted to be him, or be with him. And of course, I was in the latter group. It was so Capulet-Montague it was sick. How could my heart be broken if I hadn’t even had a relationship?
Because at the rate things were going (i.e., glacial), I wasn’t ever going to have one. Kurt Thompson was a quarterback. Me, I was a safe background player on the soccer team. Guys like him (i.e. straight) didn’t go for guys like me (i.e. not straight). (Tip: Being strategically neutral about everything sexual makes it really hard for anyone to figure you out. How can they date you if they can’t get to know you?) And if somebody actually did like me, well then I was really doomed. How could we ever be together? Forget “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” my high school’s policy was “Don’t Tell, Don’t Exist.” From Kurt to Cassandra to my mother, my entire life was a lie.
The tie was still on the bedpost. I’d read online about other boys who’d offed themselves by hanging. All you have to do is find something to put around your neck and lean forward; once you passed out, gravity did the rest. I put the tie back around my neck and slipped it neatly over the bedpost to test it. Sure, Mom would be devastated at first, but maybe not when she found out the truth about me. Wouldn’t this be better? Nobody wants a fag for a son.
End of Chapter One. Get the Book
My feelings weren’t just longing looks that I could hide forever, they were physical reactions beyond my control. I really was doomed.