Been a few months, but here's Chapter 9 of "Against the World."
I do plan to finish this story (and Becker, eventually.) Work, life, etc.--all things that inevitably get in the way. A few more chapters of this one still to come (I think 11-12 total? It keeps fluctuating.) Hopefully those will come with less of a delay—and hopefully will still be worth the wait.
Thanks for bearing with me... and thanks for reading and commenting: as always, it's much appreciated.
Don’t Fucking Do Stupid Shit.
Fucked that to hell, didn’t I.
Lynn Barber had taken off, run down the hallway, but Matt and I were frozen. Pained seconds.
“What do we say?” I whispered to Matt, as we both quickly and quietly pulled our clothes back on.
I could tell the lines in Matt’s face. The worry. But of course he was worried: as we had to go downstairs to face his mom.
I debated climbing out the window and disappearing, maybe forever.
Take the Tercel and drive: to San Francisco or Las Vegas or Yellowstone, until this avatar of Kevin Malley was bleached from memory.
But, of course, Matt was there next to me in my mind and I knew he wouldn't be in real life.
So I followed him down the hallway. Down the stairs, to our shared doom.
Lynn was sitting at the head of the dining room table, big glass of water in front of her. No doubt wishing that she had something stronger in the house.
“I,” she said, and her voice was strained and hoarse.
She had the same worry lines as Matt.
I expected anger. One of the drunken cyclones of Linda Malley, but Lynn Barber was not that kind of woman.
What I had not expected: anguish on her face. Confusion, betrayal, cosmic disappointment. Everything she had not begun to totally process.
Of course: Matt was her sun and her stars.
She had the cordless phone in her hand, and she looked at me. “I’m going to have to call your mom, Kevin.”
And she said it. Not firm, almost as an apology, and I desperately wanted to tell her some grand notions of love and sexuality and how we weren’t any different and.
But I was a kid. And not her kid. I was suddenly very aware of how much I was not her kid. But the kid who betrayed their trust and corrupted their family, the serpent with the intoxicating fruit.
And Matt. Next to me. Panicked and humiliated and defeated, eyes cast down at the tablecloth.
Mrs. Barber handed me the phone. I didn’t know who to dial.
Not Linda Malley. I did know that much.
She had the day off, which meant she’d be at the bottom of a bottle by now, and drunk Linda was unknowable and uncontrollable, and that was what scared me more than anything was losing control of this situation any more than we already had.
The only person I could think to dial was J.C. Who couldn’t afford to cut me loose no matter what I was--he was a businessman, through and through.
“It’s ringing,” I told her, and Mrs. Barber took back the receiver.
I could hear J.C.’s voice, muffled on the line: “Hello?”
“Hello, is Mrs. Malley home?”
There was a perfunctory pause, and I could imagine J.C. trying to figure out the angle. Things didn’t happen to J.C. accidentally, and he knew that. “Who is this?”
“This is Lynn Barber--Matt’s mom,” said Mrs. Barber. “Is Mrs. Malley home?”
“Let me get her.”
There was another pause, a long one, and I wondered if he’d hang up the phone or fake static or put on some sort of high-pitched fake voice.
Instead: Laura. Of course. “Hello?”
“Hi,” Mrs. Barber said. “Mrs. Malley?”
“Yes--call me Linda, please.”
“Mrs. Malley,” Mrs. Barber repeated. Sternly--her resolve had come back. Heartbreak for Matt, anger for the Malleys. “I just wanted you to know that your son is here. And I found him and Matt--” Matt buried his head in his hands. “--in bed together. I want to make it clear that this is not the kind of behavior that will not be tolerated in my household. And I wanted to make sure you knew about it so you could take action as well.”
There was an excruciating pause.
And I wondered what Laura was thinking. What J.C. was thinking.
Laura’s response came:
“Mrs. Barber, Kevin tells me you know our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, is that right?”
Mrs. Barber, thrown off-kilter by that.
The last thing she had been expecting.
What her image of Linda Malley must’ve been up until that very moment: the unrepentant drunk who left her son in poverty and stuck another family with the burden of raising him right. The lesser woman she undoubtedly prayed for.
“Yes,” she said, budding rage suddenly evaporated.
“Then please trust me,” Laura said, “that I will make sure this is resolved. I’m so sorry for this violation of your trust, and you have my word that this is not a reflection of who we are as a family. We will make sure he’s set on the virtuous path.”
Mrs. Barber’s mouth was hanging open, and she was suddenly unsure of herself: “I just thought you should know,” she said, the tension breaking, her voice suddenly quiet and exhausted and funereal. “I’m sending him home right now.”
“I’ll expect him soon,” Laura said, perfunctorily. “Thank you. God bless you, and I’m so, so sorry this was brought into your home. When his stepfather hears about this...”
“Oh, Jesus,” Mrs. Barber squeaked. “No, no, no, I didn’t mean... I think this would be more of a family affair, wouldn’t you? You wouldn’t want a thing like this to...”
I couldn’t hear Laura’s response. But Mrs. Barber nodded twice, calmly, and they said their goodbyes, and Mrs. Barber did not look at me as she hung up the phone and placed it facedown on the table.
“Kevin, I think it’s time for you to go,” she whispered to me, voice hoarse with defeat, for what we all realized was the end.
When I pulled up to our street, J.C. was sitting out in the driveway in a lawn chair, an empty chair strategically next to him and Leo playing on the ground in front of him.
He was waiting for me. Immediately waved at me to come over.
I'd entertained, briefly on my drive home, the thought that I could sneak past him, but of course J.C. knew all the tricks.
I parked in my driveway, and closed my eyes for two seconds to make time stand still just a little while longer.
But I didn’t think that J.C. was the kind of person who would.
Like, yes, he was a drug dealer.
And yes, I had seen him do some things to other people that were objectively terrifying, but he was not the kind of person who would.
I walked across the street, orphan pallbearer at my own funeral. Sat down next to him.
He wordlessly handed me an open beer.
A tiny beacon of acceptance, that it was not all over, and suddenly it took me everything I had to choke back the tears I had resolved not to cry from the moment I left the Barber house.
“So, um,” J.C. said, finally, staring down at Leo, who was scribbling on the pavement with a wedge of sidewalk chalk. “Got some news?”
“I just couldn’t think of who else to call.”
“You did the right thing,” he said. “What do I always tell you: I should always be your first call.”
“Yeah, but you mean if I’m arrested or shit.”
“This isn’t ‘or shit?’” With a thin smile: “So, you’re, um…”
“Yeah. I am.”
“But you’re so…”
“I know. Still: am.”
J.C. smiled and took a swig of beer, and shook his head. “All this time I thought you were banging the hot blonde.”
Lena. We’d been together over a year.
She trusted me and loved me, and everything had been a lie, and how would she come back from learning everything she had been told by someone she loved and trusted and thought she knew had all been a long-con?
It was Lena, who pushed me over the edge now, and I could feel wet sting of tears on my cheek, finally unable to be held back, and.
And J.C. was watching Leo.
“When you have a kid,” he said, finally, without taking his eyes off his son. “You start to think: is there anything I wouldn’t do for him? But you don’t even have to think about it, because you know: there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for my fucking kid.”
I thought of my dad.
Who would do anything for his fucking kid.
It’s too much.
No, you need it.
“Maybe Leo takes after Laura,” J.C. continued, “and maybe he’s not a fuck-up like his dad. Maybe he turns out not so bad. Takes Latin in Moreno and goes to UCLA, and I get to be proud of him.” He jabs Leo lightly with his foot, and Leo looks up at us with a smile, eyes bright and providential. With a smile to me, J.C. adds, “Or maybe he caps some Crip and winds up in San Quentin, but fuck me if I don’t write to him every damn day.”
Matt wasn’t at school the rest of the week, and I didn’t hear from him on Saturday either.
And I just had the worst feeling.
That he had been sent. Somewhere bad.
That he’d come back broken in some way, some brainwashed alien.
His swagger and his smile and his Prom Prince sash, all of it swept away because of me, and I was eaten away every second of every minute I didn’t hear from him.
Sunday afternoon, text from Tucker’s phone: “Matt’s grounded without his phone but says meet him at Dante’s tomorrow before school at 8.”
The one thing that gave me a shred of hope that he was okay, that we were okay.
Matt did not park next to me in the Dante’s parking lot, like he usually did. He parked right in front of the front door, made a move like he was going in even though Dante's didn't open until eleven. Then raised his hoodie and deked over to me.
“Hey,” he said, as he sat down in the passenger seat.
And I hugged him.
He put a very tentative hand on my back. Which was not nothing.
“What happened?” I whispered. “What did they do to you?”
He gave a brief shrug. “They just wanted me to see why that kind of thing is wrong.”
I was sinking. For him.
“What, like, conversion therapy?”
“No, no,” he said. “Nothing like that. My parents wouldn’t do that. They just talked to me a bit. Had someone from the church come by, off-the-record. To talk about why having another dude help you out like that is wrong.”
Help you out.
I thought of the way he kissed. His lips. His hands. How we’d hold each other.
“I had to tell them you kind of pressured me into it, which I know is a shitty thing to do,” Matt said. “I just didn’t want anything to get any worse. I said I let you do it because Jenna wouldn’t do anything, and that I was a little delirious from being sick still, but it was wrong and I felt terrible about the sinfulness of all of it, that sort of thing.”
“They believed that?”
“I guess,” he replied. “Remember a couple years ago when they found all that straight porn on my computer? I think they realize, you know, one-time mistake. Not who I am. Or maybe they just wanted to believe it so we could get past all of it, but either way, I think it’s behind us.”
Get past all of it. Behind us.
I held out hope this was all some official Orwellian dismissal from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, some rote gospel that could be thrown out and forgotten when this all blew over, when we were at UCLA in each other's bed, far away from Las Palomas and Moreno Valley.
“Okay.” I paused. “So you’re okay?”
“I’m fine,” he said, stiffly. “My parents aren’t going to let me see you, of course. They won’t police me at school, I don’t think, but we’ll have to be careful. And we can’t room together next year, obviously.”
“And,” he said, “I don’t want to do what we’ve been doing anymore.”
He was not opaque, and this was Shermanesque, but I asked anyway: “They don’t or you don’t?”
“I don’t,” he replied, quietly. “We never should have crossed the line.” He pauses. “Things will be okay. Eventually. It’s March now, and I’ll be up at the lake again for the summer, so we really just have to fake it for a couple months. And when we’re at UCLA… we’ll be okay, dude.”
“Fratres, Pabs, of course,” he said, with a smile, and I let myself breathe for the first time in a week. “We ran into Tucker and his family after services yesterday, and I told him I was grounded. I know he’s going to ask for details when we see him, so I figured we’d tell him my parents found out you sell pot, and that’s why they hate you now. And let’s just go with that story for everyone so we keep it all straight.”
A word that struck me with more force than I expected. Or than Matt intended.
And that’s why we hate you, Son Number Three.
“You should only ‘hate’ the Devil himself,” my dad scolded me, once, when I used that word.
I thought about Mrs. Barber and the lines on her forehead, how much she looked like Matt, and I couldn’t imagine what she told Van, Mr. Barber. What he would think of me now too.
There was my answer: Hate.
“Okay,” I told Matt. "That makes sense. That sounds good."
“It’s better than the truth,” he continued. He had thought this all through. “We can’t let anyone know about this, obviously. Especially not Jenna. But we just have to make it through two more months and when we’re at UCLA, we’ll go back to how things were before."
He didn't have to clarify which Before he meant.
Two years ago Before, when he was my straight friend, and I was his straight friend.
It stung but not as much as I thought, because I would still have Matt and every other worry could be held off so long as I had Matt and Matt had me.
“And I had the flu,” he said, “last week.”
It amazed me, in retrospect, though not at the moment: how easily people could embody a lie.
We got to school, and the Monday morning was almost eerie in its normalcy. The birds were singing and the teachers were droning and the world had tilted back on its axis, simultaneously experiencing all of this for the first time and the millionth time.
But every second of routine giving me more and more evidence: we would be okay.
I had Matt and Matt had me, and that was the one thing I clung to.
We were going to keep this quiet, and we were going to live our lives the way we always had: Pabs and Bobs, and we would manage.
Until third period, packing up just before the bell.
When Lucy Tang abruptly turned around and said: “It all makes sense to me now. That night you and I made out.”
Such a sudden deep-dive into history that it threw me off-balance for a second.
“You didn’t want Jenna,” she continued, her voice not quiet enough for a personal conversation. “I get it now. It all makes a lot more sense to me, because the whole time I was thinking: why the fuck would Kevin have a crush on a wet mop like Jenna Hicks, of all people?”
It was that singular moment of seeing both the charging train and seeing God, imminent death careening towards you, powerless to stop.
I watched myself trying downplay, hitch up that magic Matt Barber smile: “You got me. I wanted to get in your pants all along.”
She clicked her tongue, and replied, voice rising even louder: “Well, Brig Barber’s saying you like to suck off straight guys when they’re asleep, so maybe stay out of my pants."
The world began to disintegrate around me. Losing color, losing speed.
Don’t Fucking Do Stupid Shit.
Matt and I had broken the one commandment, peccatum mortale, and so eternally damned.
But I did notice one thing: that no one around me looked as surprised as they should have been if this had been brand-new information.
Fuck class: I grabbed my backpack and tore out of the room three minutes early. And fuck Mr. and Mrs. Barber: I immediately texted Matt, “I need to talk to you right away.”
I barely made it out to the empty quad, where I could finally breathe, but instead my eyes stung up with tears and I keeled over the nearest garbage can and puked a thin, acidic vomit, the kind that bites your throat.
I could just. Go away. And never come back.
But they locked the student parking lot during the day, and anyway, I had to see Matt.
Who would tell me everything was going to be okay, because I had Matt and he had me, and we would figure this out together.
I headed to Matt’s third period classroom in the science building, as every bitter scenario began to play in my head simultaneously.
A rumor like a mutant virus--spreading unchecked, further and further, no stopping it.
No. It was my OCD, it was my anxiety, my paranoia.
Just silly gossip and it was wrong and would be corrected at the earliest opportunity.
Because I had Matt and Matt had me.
“Brig’s a lying asshole, I think he’s projecting something,” Matt would tell everyone, extinguishing this rumor with a light laugh and disarming smile, like he did everything. By the end of the day, things would be okay.
It took all of my energy not to go to that darker place. To will myself to believe that everything would be okay, because I had Matt and he had me, and we were stronger together than vindictive gossip.
The bell rang, just as I reached the science building.
And I looked for him, as the halls quickly began to fill around me.
Like fate, I could pick Matt out of the crowd and his voice out of the din. Like he was the only other person in the world.
“Well, I was half-asleep when it was happening, so believe me: it was the last thing I wanted,” he was saying, with a breezy laugh, to two girls, as they walked. “He just wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
And if Matt saw me at that moment, I’d never know. Because I was motionless. Swept away in a riptide of people, as Matt continued on unflappably in the direction he was going.
No. Matt didn’t see me.
Because if Matt had seen my face, in that instant, he wouldn’t have been able to get away with it.
I did believe that much, still.
“Dude,” said Hiroshi, later that day when we ran into each other outside the library, during one of the afternoon passing periods. “You weren’t at lunch. What’s really going on?”
And this was Hiroshi: one of my closest friends, and I had been shattered so beyond worthlessness that I was tongue-tied, like I was talking to a movie star.
I wasn’t myself.
I wanted to think.
But I was myself, wasn’t I?
The Kevin Malley who didn’t have Matt by his side: a wounded and scared animal, the kid from Colton in line alone for subsidized food, here because he tricked some school administrator.
There were two things I could do:
Drag Matt down with me. To tell everyone what had really happened: after prom, at the lake, a million times at the Barber house that summer when we counted the minutes before Mrs. Barber came home.
Or I could not do that.
And maybe I didn’t have Matt but Matt still had me. Matt. In his James Bond tuxedo. That smile on his face.
Maybe he could do a thing like this to me, but I could never do a thing like this to him.
I was tearing up. Because Hiroshi looked suddenly wide-eyed, story confirmed. “It’s okay,” he said, awkwardly and tentatively. “Matt’s not gay though. You know that, right?”
“Yeah," I told him, finally. "I know.”
The final bell rang, and the day had taken forty years or forty days or forty seconds. I'd cycled through all of the emotions I had in me, squeezed flat and empty like old toothpaste, and the result was the newfound clarity that always came with this kind of heartbreak and abandonment.
The other side. The moment where, yes, you were alone, but you got to hold that perfect, untarnished freedom in your hands--the singular kind that came with having nothing and no one, no past and no present. And limitless futures.
There was Lena. The last tether.
Waiting for me at my locker, silhouetted in the long, afternoon sun of the late winter.
“Kevin,” she whispered, and never had my own name sound so heartbreaking.
She had been crying. Probably all day. Didn’t look like she cared, but that was Lena. Matt slaved for his popularity, suited up with a chainmail of charm and airs, but Lena could never be anything but Lena, and they loved her for it.
We said nothing. Stood, facing off like this at the end of the world.
“Let’s talk,” she said, finally. “Walk with me.”
We started down to the student parking lot. Lena causing a silent scene with her tear-strewn face, each and every one of our migrating classmates staring at us, frenetic whispers.
We got to Lena’s Lexus, and she started fumbling in her purse to get her keys.
“I’m sorry,” I weakly told the back of her head.
And she didn’t turn around. She rested her forehead on the side of the car, and I could hear her sniffling. “I heard it fourth period, and everyone was waiting for me to tell them it wasn’t true but I just knew it was.”
A few more seconds lingered between us, as she lost her last shred of hope, as she processed the silent confirmation from my absent denial.
“Not all of it’s true,” I told her, finally.
She turned around. Her face blotchy, eyes puffed, mascara racing down her cheeks. “I know that. Because I know him and I know you. I know every little bit of you.”
In a movie, I would tell her: “You do know me. And you should know: I never meant to hurt you, Lena. Yes, I lied to you, but I wasn’t lying when I said I cared about you.”
Instead, I said nothing.
Because what could I say. I didn’t have the charm of Matt or the self-possession of Lena. I didn’t have much of anything, except a knack for being whatever anyone wanted me to be.
She closed her eyes, and shook her head. “Are you okay?”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“Think of me. After all of this.”
She was crying again. She wiped her eyes with the side of her wrist and said, “I just can’t imagine what you’re going through, because I know how hard this is for me and I know it’s got to be a million times harder for you.”
And maybe it was, but she still had tears to cry and I did not.
I wanted to tell her what would happen: that I would leave, and that maybe once in a while we would think of each other, but not often. It wasn’t healthy to dwell. That she would go to Boulder next year and meet a guy and be happier than she ever knew was possible, because that was what people did: they moved on, to something new, and something new always came.
But still. I wanted to reach out and touch her one last time, to kiss the top of her head like I always did, and smell her conditioner. To remember what it was like to hold her and be Pabs and have one last moment where I was still this person I lucked into getting to be.
But I didn’t tell her, and I didn’t hold her, and all I said was, “I’ll be okay.”
“You’re allowed to be upset. You don't have to be Big Strong Man.”
“I don’t want to be upset,” I told her. “I don't know. I don't feel upset. I just want to get away. For a while. Maybe just in general."
And she wasn’t expecting that. She furrowed her forehead. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know,” I told her. “I’m eighteen. I can do anything I want. Just get in my car, and start driving. Different state. Just go and go until I didn’t remember any of this.”
Lena gave an irritated sigh. Her mood, which she could never hide, flipping quickly from agony to vaguely annoyed.
"And then what? You'd drop out of high school two months before graduation, when you have a full-ride to UCLA?”
“I can’t go to UCLA.”
“Then apply somewhere else, but what kind of person would run away--throw everything away you've ever worked for--just because of one horrible day? What would your dad say about that?”
"Don't talk about my dad."
"I'd tell you what he'd say," she continued, annoyance flashing to rage. "He'd be fucking disgusted that his son would even consider..."
"Don't you fucking dare finish that sentence, Lena."
"Oh!" she said, jaw clenched, fighting back the words she wanted to add. "Maybe you’re not the man I thought you were.”
“I was never the man you thought I was! You never, ever knew the first thing about me--didn’t you learn anything today?”
My voice was colder, angrier, than I thought it would be, that I had any right to be. It came from nowhere, from someplace I didn't want to visit.
I really didn’t mean it like that. But Lena took it exactly like that.
Winced, as if I had hit her, the way I'd seen both of my parents.
“I don't know," I told her, finally. "I don't know what to do."
“Think about what your gut tells you to do," she said, "and then do the exact opposite of that.”
She turned back to her Lexus, unlocked the door. And she got in just slightly slower than she normally would, maybe waiting for me to say something but I didn’t have the words.
“I’m sorry,” I told her, lamely. “For everything.”
And she looked back at me, back to sadness.
I thought she was going to say something more, but she didn't. She closed the door and drove off.
Things withered away from there, with everyone, over the next two months.
No dramatics: just, one day I was there, and the next day I wasn’t. A rainstorm washed out to sea.
You’re my platoon. You’ll always have me, which was just another lie I had been told to believe and did believe, but like always, I was the one swinging alone on the gallows in the end.
And maybe I deserved it.
Maybe I deserved it for playing at something for four years that I had no business playing at. And maybe it was time to move on and move forward like I always had.
I spent a lot of time thinking. Probably too much time in my own head.
In the library, mostly. Where the geeks ate their lunch, spread out their stinking sandwiches and Pokemon cards.
But I wasn’t a geek: I was a pariah.
I spent lunch haunting the stacks, the best place at Las Palomas High School to be invisible. The tall, stuffed shelves blotting out the fluorescents--a beast on the floor of the rainforest.
I read. Mostly.
Though everything reminded me of everything:
“Do you know, Ántonia, since I've been away, I think of you more often than of anyone else in this part of the world. I'd have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother, or my sister—anything that a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don't realize it. You really are a part of me.”
My phone would buzz still, of course.
Public adoration was fleeting but drugs were eternal.
“Dante’s later?” Not a social invitation but an order form, like Lynn Barber calling her address book to sell charity wrapping paper.
“Charlotte adored her, brushed her pale hair and licked the tears from her cheeks, held her hand crossing streets and wanted never to let go, believed that when she walked through the valley of the shadow she would be sustained by the taste of Marin’s salt tears, her body and blood. The night Charlotte was interrogated in the Estadio Nacional she cried not for God but for Marin.”
There were only a couple people who still existed to me by April.
Kyle Owens, being the biggest one.
Because he liked my weed and his only friends were burnouts, so he wasn’t too picky about being seen with the guy who raped the Prom Prince with his homosexual wiles.
He didn’t care about much of anything. As it turned out.
Except my weed. Which we smoked together sometimes on the loading dock behind Dante’s Pizza.
He made me think about Matt, too, though not for any tangible reasons. He didn’t smell like Matt’s cologne and he didn’t have his arresting smile, his silky voice, his spontaneity, his impertinence.
He didn’t have anything that reminded me of Matt, actually, except he was a human being who saw me as a human being, and that sort of thing was in rare supply.
“I just don’t know if I can do another year at home,” he was telling me. “That’s the shitty part of community college, no dorms. And my parents are being dickheads: ‘oh, if you can’t get into a real school, you should live at home.’ Fuck that shit, man. UCLA? No--that was before, right?”
It was a word that had become so loaded. There was Before, and there was Now, one so perfect and one so horrible, and that specter hung over every single conversation I had, even if the other person didn’t realize that.
“Not UCLA,” I told him. “I’m deciding between Tulane or Rice. I don’t know yet. They’re both insanely expensive, even with my Poor Person Scholarship.”
“You’re going to be dealing still, right?”
I hadn’t said that to him, or to anyone but J.C., but that was the plan.
The very, very, very short-term plan, because I didn't want this to stain the next chapter of my life: I would be in college, someone my dad wouldn't be disgusted by. It'd be just until I got myself situated, maybe had a little money saved up to buy a beer once in a while over the next four years.
J.C. had cousins in both New Orleans and Houston, which I assumed was some shady professional term that I didn’t want to pry at, so I’d snuck in applications to Tulane and Rice right at the buzzer, in the brumal early days of Now.
Because I had only applied to schools in California, and I couldn't go to any of them. Not with the Las Palomas mouths.
“There’s a lot of money in coke. Tulane or Rice? They’ll be sucking it up like a vacuum.”
“Sounds no different than here.”
Kyle puffed. “Same shit, different coast.”
I gave him a thin smile, and took the blunt. “That’ll work.”
It was amazing to see how everyone bounced back so easily.
Tucker, Harry, and Hiroshi would still give me a polite smile if we ever made eye contact in the hall, out of some misplaced loyalty. But they didn’t have anything to say and I didn’t have anything to say, and they were all just moons in Matt Barber’s orbit anyway.
Lena did not smile. Lena always looked away from me.
I never knew if she was hurt because I humiliated her, or hurt because I told her she didn’t really know me, but it didn’t matter in the end.
The one person I never saw was Matt. I never saw Matt. It shocked me how much I didn’t see Matt, but it was a big school and he knew where I’d be.
I didn't talk to anyone, really, and Kyle knew nothing about nobody, but I heard secondhand gossip here and there, hung on the latest news about the Better People like a fat twelve-year-old devouring a Tiger Beat.
Jenna and Matt broke up. Beginning of April, three weeks into Now.
No reason given, though my name came up in some of the hallway speculation. I wondered vaguely if the Mormons knew more than the lay people of Las Palomas High School.
Matt immediately started fucking Lucy Tang. Bragged about it constantly. So I heard.
Everyone saw it as some run-of-the-mill Matt Barber chest-thumping, not a desperate spackle on his social facade, but then again, they didn't know him like I did. Not that that mattered much either.
Prom came at the end of the month.
I didn’t go. The photos flooded onto MySpace over the next week, the old gang shining more brilliantly from afar than they ever did up close.
Matt and Lucy. Lena and Tom Caldwell, the kind of collectable vase that her parents would love and she was always destined to love once she grew out of her Marissa Cooper phase.
Lena was voted Prom Queen; expected. Timothy Chan was voted Prom King; an upset. And everyone had bounced back but I took some slight, bitter solace that maybe Matt didn’t bounce back as entirely as he thought he would.
Classes ended, and I gunned the Tercel out of the parking lot and that was that.
I didn't go to graduation--why would I stand up there and do that?
I didn't go back to Moreno Valley for two years, actually, until the day after Thanksgiving, 2007.
Met Becker at a Panera Bread up the street from Las Palomas, in the new shopping center across from Dante's.
He was staying outside of Vegas on his family ranch, the place his dad kept to trick the American people into thinking they were Real Americans.
I was high and I missed him, but I had an ulterior motive too.
One hidden even from myself.
Because I wanted something from Becker the day he came to the Inland Empire, but I wasn’t entirely sure what. I imagined it in my head as a kind of Balmoral Test of our relationship: his final chance to prove to me that we could stay together when I went off to Paris.
I had six weeks before I left, and I’d moved a lot in my life, and I knew this was the time when you cut a lot of the bullshit and started a very precise ritual of emotional cleansing. Extract what you need, tie up loose ends, and give everyone the finality to leave you behind in their Fondest Memories, just like you were going to.
A fancy way of saying: I was going to come out.
Because I was not starting this new chapter in Paris based on a silty foundation of lies about myself. I was too exhausted to be anyone I wanted to be, this go-around.
Coming out, luckily, was something that lent itself nicely to processes and, as a sufferer of obsessive-compulsive disorder, I was good at processes:
One. Write letters to both my mom and Nicky.
Very stern, very clear, concise: this is who I was, this is what I will be doing, and as the head of this family, I would not be entertaining any of their ignorant judgment. My dad laid down the law and so would I.
Two. Sit down with each of my close friends in New Orleans--Dana, Maddie, Tommy, Brett, and Rowen--and tell them, one-by-one. Ben, Veronica, and Chris already knew, but I put them on my mental list with a check next to them, for satisfaction.
I did expect universal support on this one, if some initial awkwardness, but I was going to Paris anyway--they would have a whole semester to marinate.
Three. Set my Facebook status to “Interested In: Men,” so everyone else would know for always, a scarlet letter on my online profile. I would turn off my computer and walk away. Take Veronica out to lunch, and let the entire controversy blow itself out by the time I got back to campus.
“50-CENT MARTINI LUNCH AT COMMANDER’S PALACE!” Veronica had texted, all caps, when I informed her of her critical role, earlier this morning. “It has to be memorable.”
Not a bullet, but concurrent to the process: breaking the news to Becker.
Making Becker realize this was, in fact, non-negotiable and I would be an openly gay man in a matter of days. That we could do long-distance for a semester but only if he moved forward with me. Not a secret boyfriend, but someone who was truly and openly mine, no matter where I was, no conditions.
I knew: Becker would never, ever act unless he was absolutely cornered.
Maybe that was this, then.
Anyway, he was showing me photos, on his new camera, of his week: A Very Becker Thanksgiving, at some palace of a restaurant on the Strip.
The men were in tuxedos, Becker, his brother Philip, his dad, all vaguely indistinguishable from each other. His mother in black too, a Real Housewife dripping with diamonds, cement smirk frozen on her face. And his sister Justine, the only color: spilling out of an erotic pink negligee that I was sure cost more than my car but made her look like a working girl on Baseline Avenue.
Just your average family Thanksgiving.
“We were at Robuchon,” he replied. He paused for praise. When he didn’t receive it, he gave me that look he always gave when I had to be momentarily unpersoned for not knowing the finer points of cotillion. “The best restaurant in Vegas, at the MGM Grand? Seventeen-course tasting menu.”
I looked back down to the new camera. I wondered if he’d give me his old one, but of course I wouldn’t ask him for that.
I idly flipped through the Beckers in different combinations at Robuchon until I made it to earlier in the day: Becker by their pool. “You look really hot with your shirt off. Peter.”
Becker grinned, threw his head back theatrically. “Please don’t call me Peter. I’ve been Peter all week.”
“You’re Peter in all these. I’m just using the local vernacular.” I handed the camera back to him. “My dad took us to Vegas once. We stayed at Circus Circus, right on the Strip. I remember the acrobats.”
“Circus Circus,” Becker repeated. “So you still have bedbugs, is what you’re saying.”
Becker was Becker.
Self-deprecation was usually the best way through: “I still puke up the 99 cent surf-and-turf from time to time,” I told him, with a smile. "But only when I see people on trapeze.”
Becker, for his part: looked at me with a placid longing.
“I missed you, Kev,” and I knew he meant it.
I directed Becker, in his family’s Nevada Jeep, down the familiar streets to Before.
Frederick, to Eucalyptus, to Nason, like I was in the passenger seat of Matt Barber’s Eclipse, the sound of Something Corporate and the smell of Fierce by Abercrombie & Fitch lingering in the air.
Becker turned into the driveway for Las Palomas High School.
“It’s nice, right?” I asked him.
“Very nice,” Becker reassured me.
He parked at the curb. The front gate was locked, but we could see everything through the bars. The buildings, the ghosts, frozen in time.
“That’s the main quad,” I told him, quietly, “where we’d have lunch,” and the hill where Pabs and Bobs would hold court, a pair of kings, but of course Matt was the king and I was the consort: power from proximity.
“You’d have lunch outside?” Becker asked. “I guess it’s California.”
“Yeah,” I told him. “Every day was beautiful.” I pointed to the other side of the quad. “And my locker was over there, in that row. My friends and I all had lockers next to each other, and people were always coming by to--you know. Ask me for things.”
Lena. Silhouetted and betrayed.
Sometimes I played things back in my head, changing just a few details that would change everything.
Where Now was Never, and Before was simply Still.
Part of obsessive-compulsive disorder, maybe.
I looked back to Becker, who was also imagining me in high school, but he couldn’t imagine.
I reached out, almost by instinct, and I held Becker’s hand.
Because this was just the slightest bit more painful that I had thought, and having Becker here was just a little more necessary than I had thought too.
It’s only for a little while. It’s only temporary. Everything will be different and better.
He wouldn’t take no for an answer. I know every little bit of you. Hate.
I squeezed Becker’s hand, and I could feel his tension rise from the Public Display, but he didn’t let go and I gave him credit for that.
“I conned my way into this high school,” I told him, finally. “I wasn’t supposed to be here. I told the school district I needed to take Latin.”
I had never told him that. I had, as a rule, never told anyone much of anything at Tulane, because why would I bring up the past with anyone in the present.
But Becker was my boyfriend, and Becker had to know.
Becker gave me a smile. “I didn’t know you spoke Latin.”
‘It’s a dead language,” I told him, and the only person I had ever spoken it was Matt, anyway. “Semper ubi sub ubi.”
“What does that mean?”
“Always wear underwear.”
He gave a small giggle, and looked back at through the fence. “I can just imagine you at your locker. Selling your pot. All of the cheerleaders lining up to get a date with you. Little did they know.”
Little did they know, of course, until they knew far too much.
“Well, I was not popular in high school. Let’s leave it at that.”
This was the sort of thing you should be able to tell your boyfriend, right?
About the past, old fables about how you lost everything and how you don’t really care because it was so long ago, but you do kind of care because that sort of thing never really leaves you.
My dad was really the only person I really told everything to, and I wondered, not for the first time, what he’d think of Becker.
“But if you’re happy, bug,” he’d tell me, “that’s all that matters to me.”
Boys are only supposed to give girls Valentines.
No. You’re my platoon. You’ll always have me.
“I’m sure it wasn’t all bad,” Becker said.
“It’s so far in the past at this point,” I told him. “It was hard in the moment, but I knew it’d be over, and then I’d move on to another life. Which I did. And then I found you, and everyone in New Orleans, and it’s like none of this ever happened.”
He smiled. But a real smile, a deeply touched smile. We were still holding hands.
“Well, good, because you’re stuck with all of us.”
My eyes traced the quad, to the last people I had been stuck with to the end of time, to Matt and to Lena and to J.C. and to Leo, and my dad, and.
All I could do was push a smile and tell Peter Adam Becker, “Looks like I am.”
I took Becker the long way to Colton: got off an exit before and took the side streets. You did have to pass all the strip clubs coming from this way, but I wanted to buy a little more time.
My obsessive-compulsive had been okay lately. The eye of the storm: a temporary reprieve of many months or several days or just a few minutes, no way to ever really tell until the rain picked back up.
But I felt myself getting nervous now, getting anxious now, but not in an irrational way. I was nervous for a reason, a good reason, because he was meeting Nicky.
“Um,” Becker said, without unbuckling his seatbelt. “I’m going in?”
He had that mix of panic and disgust on his face, that I had seen so many times from him. When he was forced to think of me and our relationship.
Driving up, I decided there was a 50-50 chance I would just bust in and tell Nicky: “This is my boyfriend and I don’t fucking care what you do or what you think,” and not just because I was having trouble writing my letter.
Instead, I was begging Becker to even come inside: “You’re just a friend from college,” I said, begging a little more than I wanted to. “Nothing else.”
Even that did not compel Becker to move. Arms folded, seatbelt fastened.
“I need you to see this,” I wanted to tell him. “I need you to see who I am and where I came from and where I want to go. Because you can’t say you love someone when you don’t really know who they are.”
All I could manage, in the end, was a very weak, “Come on.”
And he did come with me. Which was not nothing, but not much of anything.
You’d never seen anyone as uncomfortable as Peter Adam Becker meeting Nicholas John Malley.
I didn’t know what I was thinking. Becker, walking out of his Sperrys ad into our shitty living room, Nick half-drugged, passed out on the couch.
“Hey, Nick,” I said. “Someone I want you to meet.”
His eyes fluttered open: they were red and distressed.
Sat up, scowled slightly, dripped judgment for the preppie pastelled twink standing next to me.
“Hey,” he said, thankfully politely. “I’m Nick.”
“Becker just came in from Vegas for the day to hang out.”
“Nice,” Nick said, perking up. He liked Vegas. “You go to Tulane too?”
“Yeah,” said Becker.
And that was the end of small talk, because of course it was: what would these two people have in common, other than an (occasional) affection for me?
No. You couldn’t mix the past and the present.
I was teaching myself that again and again, maybe for the rest of my life. But Nick wasn’t yet the past, was the thing, and neither was Becker.
And, you know, I dazzled Justine Becker when I met her, and there was no smaller gulf between me and Becker’s Paris Hilton of a sister than there was between Becker and Nicky.
Though I didn’t exactly know what I was expecting from Becker.
Becker was Becker. Becker would always be Becker. That was another lesson I’d maybe be teaching myself for the rest of my life.
Our final spot on my tour: the dry, concrete Santa Ana Riverbed, under the overpass.
Becker had brought a bottle of Veuve-Cliquot pink champagne that he had taken from his parents wine cellar: drinking a warm bottle of expensive pink champagne in a dry riverbed.
“I’ve never had pink champagne before,” I told him. “It’s good. A little gay, but good.”
“It is not,” he replied, his voice glottal-stopping when he intentionally skipped over the g-word, because he didn’t like to say it. “It’s stately.”
“It can be both gay and stately,” I told him. “Just like my loving boyfriend.” I took another swig, then handed it back to Becker. “I’m telling my mom and Nick I’m gay. I’m writing them a letter and leaving it for them on my way to the airport.”
I tried to study Becker’s face, which was shocked but more expressionless than I was expecting. I could always read Becker: I was surprised I couldn’t.
“How do you think they’ll take it?” he asked me, finally.
“Oh, poorly. I fully expect to be disowned by the time I land in New Orleans.”
“Then why do it? Why even bother?”
“Because it’s time." I had anticipated this entire conversation with him. “This is the right thing. I’m giving everyone the chance to do the right thing--and they can make their choice. And then I can be completely free when I turn the page to the next chapter, and live in Paris for six months. To live like some Senator’s child.”
“Five months,” Becker corrected, weekly.
“Five months,” I repeated. I didn’t want to ask: “Did you book spring break?”
“No,” he said, too flippantly, and maybe he realized that because he started nervously rattling off the usual excuses. His parents, the timing, the chatter. It was all so Becker: trying to bring out every reason there was to not move forward, to not be with me, to not do any of this.
“You should,” I told him, “soon. Unless you’re too mad at me for coming out.”
“Well, your coming out doesn’t make it any easier, frankly,” he told me, finally. “I just don’t know why you’re going to do it, if it’s going to cause such a scene. If it’s going to make everyone around you so miserable.”
And that was the moment.
When I realized why I brought Becker here.
So he could fall out of love with me.
So he could see me for who I really was: the kind of guy who had no business dating a Senator’s son, and no business at Tulane or drinking pink champagne or talking about a seventeen course dinner on the Las Vegas Strip.
And maybe he did.
Fall out of love with me.
With every grimace and every grunt and every eye roll as we passed the strip clubs and Nick and the overpass.
It wasn't lost on me: I wanted him to fall out of love because I knew this was over, and it was better to have him ride off into the sunset, holding the Fondest Memories, than. To.
Have him exist out there, somewhere Before, with only loose ends and only Hate.
I didn’t want him to think about me like that, and I didn’t want me to think about him like that, and it was easier if he just. Thought of me Fondly.
But, yes, it was over.
Whether or not he knew it or I said it, and maybe it had been over since I decided to go to Paris--maybe, in the back of my heart, I knew it was over and so decided to go to Paris, but that was a conversation for another time.
This: this was a breathless moment.
And that surprised me. How there was no billowing sadness, no mourning. Just the weightlessness of the last and final clarity, like there always was. The bittersweet satisfaction of dotting an emphatic period at the end of the chapter and flipping to the pristine next page to write another day.
“I have to do it,” I told him, quietly. “I want to do it. It's time. And I don't care what everyone thinks or what they do anymore. This is about me. It’s not about anyone else. I know that’s hard for you to wrap your head around.”
Becker was giving me that look.
That quiet, smoldering, worried judgment.
“The look that I knew you’d give me when you saw me for who I was. Poor and dysfunctional, not that I expect you to understand either of those words.”
“I don’t have a look,” I told him. “I’m not giving you a look.”
I said nothing. We’d run out of champagne, swigged the whole bottle. I stood up and I launched it at the concrete wall--it exploded, the launch of a new vessel.
“‘Becker and Kevin were here, November 23, 2007,’” I told him, with just a little sadness. “Now we’ll always have this.”
“We’ll come back,” he said, softly, and maybe he believed it and maybe he didn’t; maybe I believed it and maybe I didn’t. But I wrapped him in my arms, because I wanted to feel him before he was just a memory too.
“Next year, we’ll have Thanksgiving together in Nevada,” I told him. “I want to wear a tuxedo and eat a thousand courses at Robuchon.”
Becker didn’t wear cologne like Matt did, but he always smelled fresh, untouched, in a way that was so uniquely him and I’d recognize forever.
“We’re in Maryland on the even years.”
“Fine, Maryland,” I replied, squeezing him a little tighter. “We’ll wake up next to each other in your bed, and I’ll bury your face in the pillow so your parents don’t hear. Because you’ll be screaming as I fuck you.”
“You’d have to stay in the guest room.”
“No,” I whispered. “I’m not staying in any guest room. I’m going to be so fucking charming that the Senator and Mrs. Becker will say, ‘We’re so glad our Peter’s gay, because Kevin is a million times better than any girl he ever could have brought home, and of course they can go fuck upstairs.’”
“Yeah, okay,” he told me, with an eyeroll. “Like that’s going to happen.”
No. Of course it wasn’t.
It was a shame. To think. Of all the parallel Stills that could've ever existed, and how happy I could have been in all of them.
Of Becker and I, older, pulling up floorboards in an Uptown shotgun. Matt and I pushing out beds together at Berkeley. My dad tying my bowtie on prom night. Leo, J.C., and Laura. Nick crosslegged on my bed, “I loved your boyfriend, Kev, he's perfect.” Lena in twenty pounds of white lace, my mom at the reception holding my dad's hand, “No, no, haven’t touched the stuff in years."
And I wasn't unhappy, you know. In Now. Reality just couldn't ever compete with Still, and that was maybe the hardest thing about giving up so many Befores. That you just didn't know, you didn't get to know.
Becker and I disappeared into each other's lips. Hands exploring each other's bodies, like it was the first time or maybe the last time. United in the shared Now that Becker was mine and I was his.
His hand grazed the bottle of lube he knew was in my front pocket, and he gave me Those Eyes.
“Turn around,” I commanded, and he complied like a good little bottom.
I yanked down his shorts and briefs, and he dug his forehead into the dirty concrete pylon. Pert ass saluting me, demanding me.
I clicked open the bottle, and squired a bit onto my index finger.
Sex was, maybe, the only time Becker was ever not Becker. Or maybe the only time he truly was Becker, the Ur-Becker. That was a distinction that might've seemed relevant to me before, but didn't seem relevant now.
I lubed up his hole with my finger. Teased him for just a little bit, one finger, then two, until his knees were just starting to buckle--his hands clawing at the concrete to keep himself upright as he writhed in pleasure.
I was so fucking horny, and time was never a luxury in a place like this. Pulled down my pants, squirted some more lube on my rock-hard cock, and lined up behind him.
Becker gave a sharp whine, but I didn’t stop for him anymore. Not for that.
I knew what he was feeling, what he complained about, when he said he felt pain but he just meant discomfort, because it was the same every time.
He relaxed, as he always did, when I finally sank myself completely into his ass and he melted against the concrete pylon.
There was something intoxicating about being in public with sex, your primality on display, naked and exposed, every inch of your flesh.
I grabbed the bones in Becker’s hips, and just started fucking him. Slow and hard for a few seconds, and then fast and hard.
Faster, sinking my cock as deep as it would go, so fucking deep into this tight ass, and I was grunting and he was moaning. As I fucked his tight ass harder and harder.
And fuck. A week without sex, without even jacking off because I was sharing a room with Nicky, and holy fuck, I was ready to explode.
Ready to fill Becker’s ass with my load, to see it pouring out of his delicious little ass like bechamel at Robuchon, maybe feed him seventeen courses of that shit, you’d like wouldn’t you, you little bitch boy bottom.
I was nearing the point of no return, so I reached around and grabbed his dick, started stroking with everything I had.
“I’m so fucking close,” I rasped in his ear.
Becker whimpered. Couldn’t say anything. Never had words, by this point.
And fuck. I started shooting, filling up that ass with my hot cum and still fiercely stroking Becker, until he painted the concrete with his own giant load.
“That’s hot,” I told him, as his semen ran down our champagne stain.
We were completely alone. Just the unceasing whir of traffic above us, because the world never stopped even for sex. We silently and quickly pulled up our pants, just in case.
Becker was biting his nail. He didn’t get a post-sex glow but a post-sex paranoia, that he had done something wrong, and usually it bothered me but it didn’t bother me today.
Because, for the first time after fucking Becker, I didn’t feel elated or in love or even disappointed, but clear and stoic and reborn.
He would be okay, and I would be okay. Maybe once in a while we’d each think back on that day after Thanksgiving when two first boyfriends painted an underpass with pink champagne and semen, and we would say to ourselves, “That. That was a moment."