There are whispers. My face wrinkles, but I face front and walk on.
Cynthia turns to me in homeroom. "Is it true, Travis? Did you write Chris Valdeo will never love me seventy three times on a piece of paper?"
I cringe. Cynthia is Chris's girlfriend. This will not end well.
She rubs the sleep out of her eyes and turns away.
I zone out during the morning announcements.
When I am back in the halls, the whispers grow louder.
"Did you hear? He wrote Chris Valdeo's name in his notebook over and over. Like a little school girl."
"He's been stealing jock straps from the wrestling team. Probably sucks on them when he jerks off. What a fucking perv."
"Chris is going to beat the shit out of him after school."
I don't look at them. I just take one step, then another.
By the time I get to history class, I am shaking.
People won't look at me.
Mr. Andrews is going on about the forefathers and the Boston Tea Party and I am losing focus.
"It seems Travis is in his own world again," Mr. Andrews says, with a heavy sigh. "Travis-what is it that you are furiously writing? A note to another student, perhaps?"
"Probably just writing out a bid for Valdeo's jock strap."
There is scattered laughter. The retort comes from the other side of the room, where a few of the wrestlers sit. Zane glares at me, while his compatriot Damerae looks away.
"Well, if it's so important," Mr. Andrews says, "maybe I should read it in front of the class." He clears his throat, grabs the journal from me, and starts to read in a slow, seedy baritone. "'Doesn't the whole 'freedom' propaganda seem like a big fat scam? All the forefathers owned slaves. They just didn't want to pay taxes, decided the word freedom sounded good, and slapped it on all of their pamphlets. The way we study history is ironic. The way they force us to say the pledge of allegiance every day is ironic. In what kind of country do they force children to say that they are free? I was saying it before I even understood what it meant. This country hasn't been the land of the free and the home of the brave. It's been the land of the slaves and the home of the egotistical. Why are we even reading all of this crap as though these men are heroes or something? Christopher Columbus was a thieving, lying, raping, defiler of the human body. Does he really need a goddamn holiday?'"
There was an icy moment.
"Give me my journal back," I say.
"Quite the hero, aren't we, Travis? You sit comfortably in your little seat, too superior to be a normal student that pays attention and takes notes. Too superior to do normal things like respect our forefathers, or any authority for that matter. You are off in Travis-land, playing make-believe, while everyone else has to slog through a hard day of real work and responsibilities."
"You can't be 'too superior.' It's modal. You either are or you aren't."
"That's quite enough, Travis," Mr. Andrews says. "Why don't you go to the front office?"
"Fine," I say. I slam my books into my bag and turn to leave.
Someone lets out a fake cough as I go.
I shake my head and slam the door.
The guidance counselor is gone. From my experience, he shows up a few hours late and leaves a few hours early and takes a three hour lunch, so I have little reason to be surprised. I write my name on the sign-in sheet outside his room. There is a jar of candy on a table, with a box next to it labeled "Guess How Many M and Ms are in the jar?"
I write down my name and the number zero and fold it into the box.
The counselor tends to buy rip-off versions of candy, so my guess is probably technically correct, although he may not acknowledge it.
Eventually, I wander away. Time passes, and I find myself near the science labs. Some of them are unoccupied.
I try the door.
It whines open, and I flip on the light.
I'm not sure what I would say if someone found me in here.
But it's nice to be away from the game board, if only for a few minutes. No one placed me here; no one guided or manipulated me. I walked here randomly. Looking around the room, without a sense of purpose, but with more of an alien eye, lets me see it not as a science room, but as an eerie spectacle.
A spiral hangs from the ceiling, made of Styrofoam and wire.
I recognize the model.
Deoxyribose nucleic acid.
I push it and it starts to spin, twisting one way, and then twirling the other.
I used to do that as I sat on a swing set when I was younger.
The Watson-Crick double helix model. Funny, how in science and math, so many of the names are hyphenated. It's because one person can't always envision an entire model on their own. One person composes the framework, then another person fixes it.
Most people aren't good for more than half of an idea.
A centrifuge sits on the counter.
We used it for blood fractionation. I was Chris Valdeo's lab partner at the time. I remember being constantly nervous, clammy, and distracted; yet somehow, I still understood the material better than he did.
I had to explain to him about ten times how the centrifuge worked-how the chamber spun around and separated the components of the blood we were working with. After being cycled around enough, the blood divided into three layers: plasma, leukocytes, and red blood cells.
The component parts of something seem so united, yet that's always a simplification, an expedient, so we can talk about many things as though they are one thing.
A poster-board sits behind the centrifuge.
Insects are pinned to it. Who knows how long they have been dead.
A cockroach, with one of its wings frayed. A beetle, shimmering black. A fly, sleek with emerald green skin, its eyes appearing to follow me still.
They hold their skeletons on the outside.
I wonder if that is easier.
There's a monarch butterfly. Its wings are spread wide, and they seem to look at me as well.
All of them are so delicate in death. I could crush the shells of their remains into dust with the brush of my hand. The idea is sickeningly soothing. I close my eyes and imagine my body drifting into ashes.
I wonder, briefly, if they are really so different than myself.
The bell rings.
I feel more awake, yet somehow further away.
My next class is Ceramics. It's the one class I don't hate. My hands stroke the spinning wheel as it turns, coaxing, wheedling, inveigling. First it is a formless heap of clay in my hands; then, definition and life streak the mass; I shape something from nothing; I make ideas real.
"It's like he is making love to the wheel," someone mutters.
"Well, it is a little phallic," Cynthia says.
They shouldn't matter. They can't.
I have to compose myself so they don't.
I make it through the day and to wrestling practice.
I dress into the singlet quickly, trying not to feel the heat of eyes lingering on me, or the chill of frowns settling all around.
"Travis," a voice says softly.
I look up. It's Hiro. His lips are out slightly, like he is about to pout, but refuses.
"Hiro," I say softly. "I moved up a weight class. We won't wrestle anymore."
"I know, Travis," he says. "I got you something."
He reaches out and drops something in my hand.
I lift it up into the air. Three crystalline bars are connected to each other at odd angles.
It's a keychain.
"What does it mean?" I ask.
Hiro holds it up by the chain and it swivels. "At the perfect angle, it looks like a triangle. But it isn't-you know it isn't. Your mind plays tricks on you-and makes the impossible seem real."
It spins just so--and I see the ends of the bars connect. It makes a triangle in my mind.
I look into Hiro's eyes.
He looks back.
"Coach told me you were switching weight classes, and I wanted you to remember me," Hiro says. "It's called a Penrose Triangle, and the illusion is called the tribar illusion."
I take out my house key and thread it onto the chain.
"At least," Hiro adds, "I thought I wanted you to remember me. How could you wrestle me that many times and not tell me? How am I supposed to trust you?"
I bite my lip.
"Hiro-I just didn't know how."
He shakes his head at me. "Travis-good luck in your new weight class. I heard Chris is going to beat the shit out of you after school...so God knows you will need it."
I snort. "And here I thought you would leave me with one of your witty phrases."
Hiro's lip crinkles, then he flashes a half-smile. "Fall down seven times. Stand up eight."
I couldn't help but smile, at least for a second.
The moment is brief.
That's the second person that told me Chris is out for blood.
I start heading toward Chris's corner of the locker room.
Before I get there, Calvin grabs my arm.
"Can I talk to you, Travis?" he asks.
"Not now, Calvin," I snarl.
"Travis, I'm not sure you should even be here," Calvin says. "Most of the guys just aren't ready for a gay guy to be on the team. They want to make an example of you."
Someone whistles. "Look, Calvin's got the cundango by the arm."
There is scattered laughter, but most people either ignore him or simply glare at me.
My heartbeat grows faster again.
I scowl at Calvin. "I don't care what people are ready for. If they want to be prejudice jerks, let them. It doesn't fucking matter. Which reminds me..." I step back to my locker, twist in the combination, and pull out my backpack. "I brought you the rest of my old mokimon cards for you to give to Sissy. I don't want them anymore."
I toss the rubber-banded packet toward him and he tosses it back.
"Travis," he says. "I don't think it's a good idea for me to take these anymore. I don't want you to feel like I pressured you."
"Oh shut up," I say, throwing my backpack into the locker and slamming it shut. "We both know you used to steal my cards when we were growing up. I don't know what's stopping you from taking advantage of me now. Do you not want them now that my gay hands have been on them? Is that it?"
I open up the packet and toss them on the floor.
"There! Take them if you want, or just leave them. Now fuck off."
Calvin grimaces and then shakes his head. He bends over and picks one up off the ground.
"Travis-this is a first edition Marizard from Base Set. I think it might be worth something."
He hands it to me and I look at the image. I feel the fire bubbling across my fingers.
I hold the card up into the air-and rip it in half, letting the pieces drift and fall.
"Now go away," I say softly.
By the time I walk up to Chris I have no energy left. He looks at me, expressionless.
"Chris," I whisper.
"I'll put a note in your locker," he says. The light in his eyes, the smile, the spring in his step-they are all absent.
He turns away and I know the conversation is over.
Wrestling is a disaster.
Damerae, the jaimaican boy with a goofy smile, pins me so fast I look like a rag doll.
Eduardo, the Cuban boy who likes to push the rules, also makes short work of me.
Over and over, these muscle gods slam me to the floor, flexing their sweaty, tight-clad bodies above me, and breathing deep. Eventually, Eduardo whispers in my ear.
"This is a sport for men, cundango."
The way the ladder drill works you have to win to move up, so I never face Zane or Chris, which is a small mercy.
At one point, Damerae beats Calvin; they trade spots; suddenly I'm faced with my old best friend.
"I'm going to sit this round out," I say.
I didn't even want to look at him right now.
I am out of my league in this new weight class.
When practice ends, I get back to the locker room, and my curiosity gets the best of me. I pull the note Chris wrote me out of my backpack. It's crumpled. It only has one word, in large font.
Zane and Eduardo burst out laughing. I stuff the note away.
I'm not waiting around for showers this time. I can shower at home.
As soon as I can, I slam the door and lock myself in my room. I'm shivering, huddled in a ball.
"Chris," I whisper. "What's wrong with me?"
I get the note out of the backpack again, looking at the one word he had for me.
A bead of water accumulates at my eye, burning.
It falls onto the paper and stains it.
What can I say? I try to hide it, but I cry a lot.
It happens when I see the world for what it is.
At least I have enough sense to cry quietly. Sometimes, if others are around, they don't even notice.
The tears start to drop a little more freely.
My throat starts to feel lumpy; my muscles pulse with soreness.
I hug my pillow.
Something about the paper catches my attention. The water stain bleeds through to the other side and I see words.
I turn the paper over.
In small writing on the middle of the page are a few more lines.
Come over to my place at 8 tonight. Tell no one. Come alone.
My heartbeat quickens. It is horribly risky. He could do anything to me.
But there is no doubt in my mind what I will do.
I want to do what Chris says. Part of me wants to please him-to get caught up in his pride.
And, if he really does want to hurt me, I really don't care about pain anymore.
I'm going over.
My mother is inquisitive during dinner; in particular, she seems curious about the fiasco during history class.
"Sorry it happened," I grunt. "It won't happen again."
"Still, a mother worries."
The icy silence is back, but thankfully, not for too long.
The conversation drifts to my father's day at work and I embark into Travis-land again.
After dinner, I tell them I am going out.
My mom tells me not to stay up to some ungodly hour, and I nod before turning away.
I know where Chris's house is. Everyone does.
It stands out.
The way the houses are arranged in our neighborhood is a little unusual. There is a band of trees between two rows of houses. The forest is about a quarter of a mile wide and three miles long. There are no fences, so everyone can just walk into each other's backyards. Small towns like ours have low crime rates, so we can get away with it. It's not like a thief would have anywhere to hide from a dedicated search party-or anywhere nearby to unload his goods.
Which makes Zane's kin seem all the more foolish.
Everyone refers to the band of trees as the forest, even though it is barely thick enough to hide yourself in. Its main purpose is to create the illusion of privacy between the two roads. The roads curl and connect at the north end and south end of the forest, so in reality it is more of a loop I suppose.
I don't want to be seen tonight, so I avoid the streets, weaving my way amongst the trees in the forest. It is dark enough that I can be just another shadow.
I know Chris's house when I see it. It has white pillars like a Roman Temple, surrounded by a black fence that stretches around the property's perimeter. I open the gate and walk inside. My gaze trails down the grand house and to the old-fashioned mahogany cellar doors, glinting under the faint light of the street lamp.
There is a piece of paper taped to the cellar door. I step toward it and read it.
Make yourself at home
I take a deep breath, grab the note and put it in my pocket.
Then, I unlatch the cellar door, waiting as it whines open, and take a few steps inside.
"Lock the door behind you."
Chris's voice is deeper than usual-less playful, less casual.
I swallow. I turn and find the inner latch. It clicks into place.
"Come down here."
I walk down the stairs.
Chris is sitting on a couch. He flips off his television and I look at him.
He is so beautiful. There is a little bit of a draft from the fan and it picks up his hair like the wind picked up the leaves in the trees. His eyes shimmer and for a moment, I can almost see sunlight in them. His wet lips move-I can sense the hint of the smile that makes my knees my buckle. Dimples appear at the corners of his mouth and I feel myself melting.
He is shirtless.
He beckons toward me and I walk, slowly, to him.
"Sit down," he says.
I sit next to him.
He runs his hand through my hair. "I always liked you, Travis. I hope you know that."
I nod. My gaze flashes around. There are rows of bottles. Some are cider; some are wine.
"I always liked you too, Chris," I whisper, my voice breaking soft.
Chris lets go of my hair. "That being said, I am a straight guy. I'm sorry, but that's just the way it is. I can't be seen with you, and I can't be your boyfriend or make your dreams come true or anything of that nature."
I nod. "You don't hate me?" I ask softly.
Chris laughs. "Why would I hate you? You have done nothing wrong. Yet anyway. You should just remember-I beat you up today."
He looks at me, raising his eyebrows. What was he talking about? Eventually, I play along.
"Yes sir," I say, biting my lip. "I guess I should be going home. Can I-hug you goodbye?"
"I don't see why not," Chris says.
I lean over into him and he wraps his arms around me. My face collides with his chest and I breathe him in. I am hard in an instant. I close my eyes.
He lets go of me and I remember myself. I stand, my tongue playing with my bottom lip as I turn slowly away.
"Goodbye, Chris," I say.
"Wait, Travis-one more thing."
I turn back to him, my eyes searching the flickering gold in his.
"Travis-did you want to give me a massage?"
He flexes, the moisture on his broad muscles glinting.
I want to give him a massage--with my tongue. Doesn't he know what he is doing?
The way his eyes glitter tells me he knows exactly what he is doing.
"Cynthia told me you are always in your own world in Ceramics class. You lose yourself, and sculpt beautiful things with your gifted hands. Don't you want to sculpt me? I'm curious about that world."
I am so confused, and yet, I walk back over to him without a second thought, sitting down next to him again.
He chuckles. Then, he grabs my hands and puts them on his pectorals.
I bite my lip and look up into his eyes.