When I close my eyes, I can still be there, in the moment we met. More accurately, I can recall the moments before we met: my eyes are fixed to the wall, which is covered in sticky notes—one after the other, the scales of a dragon overlapping and overwriting the beige walls hiding beneath them. My fingers knot into the comforter beneath me, gripping the fabric, and I feel heat and then sweat in my palms, knuckles turning white. His breathing is hot and jagged against the nape of my neck. The taste of cheap beer lingers on the tongue, like the distinctive tang of sourdough bread, and I wonder why I’m not drunker. I wish I were.
Behind me is someone who is important only in that he is the reason we met. His fingers dig into my hips and the flush of hot, bare skin against my own is unforgettable; it is his face that I cannot fully recall. It hides somewhere, stuck like change between the cushions of a couch, lost-but-not-lost because although I know his name I cannot recall the twist of his face when he was finished, only the soft grunt of a mission accomplished. I’m still facing the wall when I hear his pants being zipped—mine still taut around my thighs, pulled down, not unbuttoned—and he escapes out into the sounds of pong balls bouncing off or into cups, of gossip spoken loudly over pounding basslines before I can turn around, before I can finish, too, before I can even exhale. I lie there for a moment, alone, with my face in the sheets and limply tug my jeans back over my hips and around my waist.
When I finally rise, I rest my back against the door, slowly examining the bruises floating to the surface of my skin, until I hear the turn of a knob. I’m being pushed forward and onto my feet, wobbly on precarious legs made more precarious by rum and my fleeting friend, while someone else’s body fills the frame of the door: enter Carter.
I perch precariously on the brick wall that separates Teresa Cott’s home—and Monroe Senior High’s cool kids—from the rest of the world. We are not very high up, but the wind whistles past us regardless, carrying the scent of dry grass and Carter’s cologne, which is every bit as intoxicating as the six-pack of Shiner that sits between us. On the fence, Carter seems more at ease than he did in the Cott’s guest room, where he had nearly caught his lacrosse teammate and I, where he seemed taken-aback and slack-jawed at the notion of his friend’s experimentation, where he grabbed my wrist and led me, like a puppy on a leash, to the fence. I followed him out of curiosity, out of almost-drunkenness, out of boredom, happy to be trailing behind him when his grip slipped from around my wrist to between my fingers.
Following his lead, I could take in his tall frame, taller than mine and capped by a mess of blonde hair. He had narrow shoulders and narrow hips, hips I would discover are hungry and longing to meet others, and they weaved through throngs of stumbling high schoolers paying little attention to us, absorbed in their phones or themselves or in performing the person they wanted to be for the crowd. For all of us, the time before senior prom but after freshman homecoming was a costume parade; we wore personalities and friends and social circles, trying them on, trying desperately to make them fit. This elusive chase after identity proved to make Carter and I invisible, or invincible, to the masses. At times I could hardly see him, blindly trailing the tug of my own hand, until we reached the back door, swinging wildly through swarms of blacked-out or blacking-out teens. Still, Carter continued onward, towards the edge of the Cott property, to the fence, where we would be alone with whatever reason he had for dragging me out there.
“I like girls,” he said after a while, while his hands—now holding each other—fidgeted. I watched them in the periphery of my vision, pretending to be fascinated by some imaginary star in the sky. My fingers run along the gritty brick, scraping lightly as I tried my best to seem unafraid of falling. In truth, I am terrified of falling, of losing control, even over the five feet between the ground and I. When I was younger, I had nightmares about falling—always falling, never feeling the smack of the pavement—and they come back now, in the night, on the fence, next to Carter. I listen closely, because that’s all he’s said, and surely there must be more. I wait for the fidgeting to be over, for his sentence to finish, for a reason to be here on the fence with him.
“I like boys, too.” I think it was the first time he’d ever said it out loud. Later, he promised it, that he’d only ever said it to me, to make me feel special—it did, and each time he said it my cheeks would flush pink and my hands would itch to touch him, to confirm or deny these claims. If he likes boys, I would prove it.
We spend almost four hours with our legs straddling the wall under us, never noticing the sounds of the party falling asleep behind us, party-goers either passing out or packing into designated driver’s cars. When it is 3 a.m., and thus three hours past my curfew, he launches himself off of the wall and extends his hand out to me. He laughs a tipsy, low chuckle and when I look up to berate him he meets my lips with a kiss.
His lips are sugary sweet, and I would never find out from him that this is the taste of someone else’s cherry chapstick, not the inherent sweetness of a boy’s pink, soft lips when he kisses another boy for the first time. Before I could fully realize that we were kissing, his hands were on either side of my face, and I was wrapped in him and a fading buzz and the early August air, which was not cool per se but which, compared to the heat between us, felt frigid. I push myself against him, to show him that I like it, that I like boys, too, and he wraps his fingers around my arms as if he might push me away. His hands are hesitant, moving from my arms to snake down towards my sides, and migrating finally to my ass. When he is unable to find the strength to stop either of us, he tries again with murmurs of curfews and his teammate. The urgency of Carter’s lips against mine that night is unforgettable, as if he might only do it then and never again, as if it were one last kiss before we both die, because this is the way teenagers kiss—horribly and as if it is their last. When we do part, it is done awkwardly, each of us hiding erections poorly, nervously. He walks me to his car, and I am too enamored with him to wonder if he’s still at all drunk, if I got his last name, if that kiss was real.
On the way home, I realize that Carter was my first real kiss, the kind you can’t take your mind off of, and in my stomach, butterflies do gymnastics. I’d been kissed before, by girls and grandmas and even one or two guys, but I’d never been kissed like that, as if my lips were only for pressing against his and curling into an oafish smile afterward. In the way of sixteen-year-olds, I spent the days after daydreaming of him, of those moments on the fence where my brown eyes met the cloudy blue of his. I spent every heartbeat waiting for him to answer the phone, to text me back, to ask me when I was free. In the last days of that summer, Carter and I spent our moments behind closed doors, learning the curves of each other’s bodies, speaking the language of moans and grunts and yelps and expletives.
On the eighth floor of an apartment complex on Watters Avenue, only six and a half miles from Teresa Cott’s fence, I find myself face to face with Carter again. Not a month after our first kiss, school began—Carter’s senior year and my junior—and at separate campuses; Carter went to the high school on the other side of town, and only made brief appearances at Monroe Senior High for lacrosse practice. When we saw each other, it was in desperate waves from across the football field, in sentiments shouted that made his teammates shoot questioning glances at each other.
We find quiet places to be with each other, unbothered by the rest of the world. He takes me to a cemetery to introduce me to his mother, and I hold him while he sobs there, next to her grave. He spends hours with me in the yearbook room, watching me pore over pages and distracting me with his wandering hands and lips. This is the year of longing to be touched, because when we aren’t together, I feel desperate to know him. Nights are spent on the phone confessing everything to each other, leaving nothing unexplored; we trade our secrets in sweet, hushed tones. Classes are cut in favor of meeting friends and teammates, of exchanging love notes and prom boutonnières.
There, in the apartment he shared with his father, tangled in his navy sheets, I struggle to take my eyes off of him. I am afraid, inexplicably, that he will disappear when I do; I have never woken up at someone’s house, not like this, and I have never loved someone like this either. I now realize how terrified I was of losing him, the person who picked me, and also of the person I was becoming, a person in love. There are pictures that litter his room, pasted randomly with scotch tape on pale blue walls—shots of him on the lacrosse field, as a baby in the arms of his mother, among friends from school who I would never know, but who he spoke about constantly. I fantasize about meeting them and guessing each of their names correctly, based on his description, like the perfect partner would. I would say something like, “I’ve heard so much about you!” and “You must be Bailey” and Carter would squeeze my hand just a little bit tighter. Lost in the pictures on his wall, I didn’t hear the front door unlock, swing open, or lock again; it was the vague sounds of thumping cabinets and pans clattering that roused me from my spellbound state, and I prodded Carter’s rib with an insistent finger as I desperately tried to remember where my jeans had ended up the night before.
I’m so dizzy from nerves that I nearly pass out when I’m shaking his hand: Dr. Dan Fork, a surgeon at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, a father on the eighth floor of an apartment complex on Watters Avenue, a widow with the same kind eyes as his son, but greener. Before I can apologize—for waking up in his house, for defiling his son, for encouraging his son to defile me—he is offering me coffee, and then waffles, because he’s been at the hospital all night, like a doctor from Grey’s Anatomy but with significantly less makeup. It occurs to me, standing across from him, that while I had known Carter was out to his father, I had not realized I could be, too, or that ‘we’ would be. There were no secrets in this apartment, at least not between father and son, and my envy of their relationship was closeted—I could not reconcile the shame I felt sneaking behind both of my parent’s backs with the brazen acceptance Dr. Fork gave us and our relationship. Moments after Carter introduces me to his father as his boyfriend, he is across from me devouring a stack dripping in syrup, and when he looks at me his eyes are still hungry, and there is something stirring inside me that likes being the object of objection. I blushed under his gaze, my cheeks the same shade of red as the evidence of his passion which trails across my chest and further down. He calls them ‘love bites.’
It is November, and in Texas that means nothing. The state has no regard for seasons, for expectations, for the animated falling leaves that accompany ‘Happy Fall!’ on banners and in store-front windows. Everything has grown stagnant, including the temperature, which has plateaued at just-cold-enough-to-sting and not-cold-enough-for-the-big-coat. When Carter’s eyes find me, he looks bored.
In the passenger seat of his civic, we make small talk, though we are nearly out of things to say. We have both stopped seeing each other fully, the way we used to in his bedsheets, the way we did on the fence at Teresa Cott’s house. Now, mostly, we see more movies and less of each other, and I finish my homework silently while he writes college admissions essays, and I try to ignore the feeling that he’s all-too-excited to leave me, us.
At a stoplight, girls our age cross the street and I can’t stop watching him stare at them. In the red light, his gaze is nearly menacing; inches away from him, he looks like a stranger. His wandering eyes are either a new habit of his or an old one I am only just now noticing—both of these possibilities scare me. I wonder if he is bored with me, with boys, with this ‘little experiment,’ a phrase that drives him crazy with frustration when I tease him with it. If I say something, it’s accusatory, and if I don’t, I’m meant to watch him eye-fuck girls while I sit in the passenger seat. I can imagine nothing but his lips on theirs, and I’m waiting, watching closely for his bottom lip to curl in, for his teeth to gently sink into it, the telltale sign of his lust. I wish he would give us a reason to fight. The focus of my downward spiral is broken when he turns, and our eyes meet awkwardly, each of us daring the other to say something. I want to ask him what is wrong with our relationship. I want to ask him how to fix this. Instead, the light turns green.
Here is what I know about jealousy: it is a constant thrum, like the sound of construction just outside Carter’s bedroom window. It is always there, letting loose the groans of tearing earth and the grind of metal against metal, and I hear these sounds even at night, too, when I lay with my back against his chest. The noise is always there, becoming a part of me, of my existence, of the symphony of noises which make up the love between the two men in this bed. Phrases and hesitations echo through me like the sound of a jackhammer cracking open the sidewalk; when I reach out to take his hand and he slips it into his pocket, his eyes meeting anyone’s but mine, that relentless beating is a bit clearer.
Here is what I know about jealousy: I want to open the window—first to watch them, the construction workers, to revel in their temporary destruction, and then to beg them to stop—but there is little I can do. The hum and rev and roar of it is constant and deafening, as loud as the sound of Carter’s breath in my ear, as loud as the sound of his phone going off, as loud as the sound of the door slamming when he answers someone’s call in another room. Lying on his bed, alone with the sound of the apocalypse outside, I wonder if this is how my mother felt at the end of her marriage—as if knowing that she and I feel the same in this moment might confirm that Carter had ruined us, not me. I am still not sure what came first between Carter and I: the suspicion or the act, but I do know that I had convicted him of his crime before he could prove to me otherwise; in my eyes, the same almond shape and color as my mother’s, he was guilty of this or of something else. Still, I wonder why I always find myself repeating her actions, why I insist on performing this watered-down version of my family tragedy, why I always cast myself as her. Are either of us really that innocent?
There is the regular beeping of a machine moving in reverse when I am walking through the halls of Carter’s apartment building after work. When I reach the front door, it’s unlocked, which is typical. When I reach his bedroom door, it’s shut, and it occurs to me that I’ve never been on this side, the outside of its closure.
My hand never leaves the knob. First I hold on to it, twist it to open the door slowly; I felt like a detective opening a case file, the door of a crack den, a locked freezer.
Twisted in the navy sheets I’d slept in, the ones that I’d washed before and sometimes even bit into, was someone I was not supposed to know; when she turned to face me, the intruder, my recognition of her was stuttering, but there she was again, on the wall, in a picture taped just above his headboard. Under her was Carter, who hardly registered my grand entrance. I think her name is Bailey.
“You didn’t have to leave, I would’ve—”
“I sure as fuck was not going to stay, you fucking…”
I keep losing my words. When I take in a breath to berate him, to lay into my anger, it betrays me and melts into what feels like a vomit of sobs, the uncontrollable moan of someone’s heart being lacerated.
“I never meant for you to see anything… I was going to tell you. I swear… I—It’s not about you. I couldn’t… my mom…”
He can’t find words either, and I hate him for that, too. He stumbles through excuses, and I feel my eyes roll at the mention of his mother. I was wrong to do that, I knew even then, but I could not see past my own parental afflictions to realize his. The expression on his face is stony and unmoving until I meet his eyes, when he flinches away from me like he’s afraid I might slap him. He should be afraid, I think, because my anger is backed by an unjust righteousness, the fury of an adulterer’s son, an anger that feels ugly but tempting.
I want him to say, “I love you.” Then I would remember I could never hurt him. My heart feels cut again because I can feel myself starting to forgive him and I hate myself for that.
“I knew you would do this to me.”
The minute I begin, it flows off my tongue like prose, inspired by the meanest bullies faced, hateful things my parents had slung at each other, the way he looked in bed with her.
“I knew you would do this to me. I knew you were a piece of shit, and I let myself fall for you, and you fucked me over. You fucking piece of shit. I… I can’t even look at you. I hate you.”
I regretted what I said next before it was even fully-formed in my mouth. Before I even really thought it, it was flying out of my mouth like a bat making its hissing escape from hell.
“Fuck your mommy issues—you’re fucking pathetic.”
My relationship with Carter is punctuated by the sound of his fist against my face, the smack of skin against skin with speed and force. This memory comes to me as easily as his knuckles, knocking me back just as far. I had never been hit before. I had never been in a fight, not the bodily kind—my family used words like poison darts instead of fists, and the bullies at school were mostly the same.
Again, I am plagued with near-perfect recollections of the moment before they met, my cheek and his rage, but the actual happening, and the moments after it, are hazy. These memories throb with pain, they feel hot and swell, turning red quickly. When I think of it, this memory clings to all the other times when our bare bodies collided; the flashbacks of his hand holding mine, of the warmth of his sleeping body, of his lips, everywhere. I long for those hours we spent on the fence, and a part of me wishes we’d never crossed that line. How do I cut those memories free of the ugly, sticky mess we made of our love?
This moment is the declarative end of us—it is our period, or maybe an exclamation mark if I fail to put it all behind me.
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