"Jerry?" asked a little voice from my doorway. I rolled over to see little Amanda peeking at me through a crack between the door and frame. "Are you hurt?"
In my mind her words triggered Brandon's voice. 'I'm sorry. I didn't know you were hurting.' I rolled away as fresh tears coursed from my eyes. "Go away," I told her, breath hitching.
Minutes later my door closed and I felt the weight of someone on my bed. A hand landed on the back of my neck and squeezed lightly.
"Jer. Talk to me, bud." Cal. I rolled my head in the negative and he stayed with me, squeezing my neck rhythmically and waiting. Cal could out-wait any of us. His patience was almost supernatural and was either a comfort or an annoyance depending on the situation. I wiped my eyes and took a shuddering breath. Cal's hand moved off my neck to rub my upper back, just like he did when I was a kid. I didn't want to talk. I kept saying that in my mind for about a half an hour, but I finally cracked.
"I'm all fucked up," I told him haltingly.
"Yeah. Seems like something's got you in knots. What's his name?" he asked jokingly.
I rolled over and looked up at him miserably.
"Oh. Oh, man. Tell me."
Tears welled up and I squashed them. "Fucking Brandon fucking McCall," I said in a scratchy voice.
"That's quite the name. Do you think it's an old family name they hand down or is he the first of his line?" he asked teasingly and I chuckled unwillingly.
I struggled to sit up against my wall, my bed lacking a headboard. I sniffed hard and looked down at my fingers. "I've hated him since fourth grade. Remember?" I asked, glancing up at him.
"Yeah. The day the rest of the world found out you like the uglier sex," he said and smiled at me.
The corner of my mouth curled up. "He's not." I sighed and thumped my head against the wall, my eyes rolling back in my head as I looked at the ceiling. "When Zack showed up at the house that weekend, he was drinking for a reason." I glanced at Cal and said, "His best friend had just come out to him and he had all kinds of weird issues coming to terms with it."
"He thought drinking would, what, turn the clock back? Change his friend's sexuality?"
I shook my head. "I don't think he got that far, honestly. He's a super nice guy, but I guess...he felt like his friend had been keeping things from him. Like, letting him believe stuff that wasn't true." I jumbled my fingers together. "We had a really good talk about it."
"Well, sounds like you straightened him out." He paused a beat. "So to speak. Pretty good, for a gay guy."
"Stop," I said to him and smiled unwillingly.
"So why does that have you upset?" he asked gently.
I sighed. "I've hated Brandon for so long. That was the day I learned other people didn't think I was normal. I feel it like a cut, you know? The day I got separated from the other kids at school."
"That has to be a shitty feeling," he said, nodding in agreement. "The problem is, everyone is separate. You've always felt like that because of who you're attracted to, and that wasn't changing. Others feel that way, but it doesn't always feel permanent. Like if they drop the game winning pass or let a group down, they can feel pretty alone. Eventually, though, they can recover and get back into their idea of who they are." He patted my forearm and I met his gaze. "You grew up knowing who you are and just doing you. I've always admired that in you, never pretending for someone else. Some kids might have tried to date girls and 'fit in'. You very loudly said 'fuck that' and kept being yourself."
"Hasn't gotten me anywhere," I muttered.
"Sure it has." He smiled and said, "The difference between those things I described and your situation is those people had to learn to get over something. You had to wait for other people to get over something. It takes time for people to change, for them to mature. It just sounds like that's starting to happen with some people, like this Zack guy. Is Zack the problem? You like this guy?"
I shook my head and let out a deep breath. "No. Like I said, he's super cool and I would totally give him a try if he were gay. I'm cool that he isn't, though. Our friendship isn't based on who we're attracted to."
"See? Maturity. I like this kid already," he said and chuckled.
"You would like him," I said with a nod. I hesitated and plunged forward, "but he started to call me J instead of Jerry."
He tilted his head in question and waited for me to continue.
I stared at my tangled fingers and struggled to push the words out. "Brandon used to call me that."
Connections formed in his head, I could almost see it as comprehension dawned. "So Brandon is gay?"
"What? No!" I said. "Brandon is talking to Zack about me. It can't be anything good!"
Cal frowned. "Um, come again?"
"Brandon isn't gay," I said slowly. "He shoved me in the dirt, got the whole class laughing at me. Ring any bells?"
Cal smiled and then it grew wider. "You have the hots for Brandon."
"What?" I asked, my voice trailing into voice-cracking range.
"You like Brandon McCall. What's the big deal? He screwed up in fourth grade? Really?" He placed a hand on my shoulder. "He was a little kid. Did what he did hurt you, big time? Yes. I totally get you being sore about that. But, Jer," he said, shaking his head and my shoulder as one. "You have to mature, too. You have to forgive that little boy that reacted badly in a new situation so you can spank one over the hottie he's become."
I blinked at him a few times and then started to snicker. "You're such an asshole."
"I know," he said with a happy nod. "But it's the same thing for me. I used to pull Liv's hair in third grade and call her Pippi Longstocking because I was too stupid to say she made my chest feel warm and my pecker all wiggly and stuff. She had to forgive me in order to get a piece of me," he said and laughed at my expression of shock. "It's true! Hey, girls mature faster than boys and they are smarter. Liv knows I wouldn't pull her hair now, unless she wanted me to." He winked lewdly and I covered my mouth while I brayed with laughter. Cal could always make me feel better.
"Listen, Jer," he said, his tone more serious. "Does Brandon even know any of this? I mean, have you addressed any of this with him?"
"I...kind of lost it on him in the coffee shop," I admitted.
"What did he say?"
I sighed deeply. "He said he was sorry, that he didn't know I was hurting."
"Okay. So he's not the evil person you thought. He's sorry, he's got enough balls to say he's sorry. Right?" he asked. I nodded dumbly. "Now, about him being gay-"
"He's not, though," I said softly.
"Well, let's look at the evidence. Zack has a friend who he thought was straight come out to him, yeah?" he asked, holding a finger up. "Then he patches things up and starts calling you by this hot guy's pet name for you, right?"
"Yeah. That doesn't mean he's gay, though."
Cal scrunched his mouth off to one side. "Yeah, there is room for doubt. Anything else that could be, you know, used to lean toward Brandon being gay?"
I thought for a moment and then jolted.
"What?" Cal asked.
"Um. It's just..." I glanced at Cal and licked my lips as my heart rate tripled. "I work with this guy from school. Seth Kilgallon?"
"His sister had the second biggest set of tits in the school until she graduated," Cal said and smiled widely at the memory. Shaking himself he asked, "So is Seth gay? You think he's the one Zack was talking about?"
I shook my head. "No. Seth was on a date with Malina...Williams I think? You know her?"
"Know her brother. He hates the curly hairs that are coming in on his face. I guess black guys can have problems with ingrown hairs on their faces because they are curly and they turn back into the face instead of growing out." He grinned. "We told him he has pubes on his face and he beats people to death for it. Kid is a monster."
I shook my head. "Anyway, Seth was on a date with this girl. He wouldn't be doing that if he'd just come out, but he also told me at work that one of his friends had come out and that another friend had reacted really badly." I looked meaningfully at Cal and we both said, "Zack."
"That kind of adds up to Brandon," he said.
Zack texted later and we talked a little. I didn't ask him about Brandon because if he was gay, that was up to him to tell people. I know if I'd just told my friends and it had been kind of bumpy, I wouldn't appreciate them spreading it everywhere, so I'd respect that. I reluctantly agreed to go out with them, though. It made me feel good that Zack wanted me there, that he was making an effort when so few ever had. That made me think of Cal's advice that I had to mature as well and if Zack was making the effort, then I would too.
The fact that I could stare at Brandon the whole time was just a bonus, awkward as that might be. As I settled in, as I expected, my mind turned to Brandon. The feel of his hand on my shoulder, the softness of his hand as we'd shaken the other night. The amazing green of his eyes as he'd looked on in concern, his lips maybe ten inches from mine. I wonder if my balls will malfunction, ejaculating with this kind of velocity consistently? What kind of disease would you even call that? Sprained balls, like an ankle but in your sack?
I picked up Cathy in the morning for school. Naturally, Julie and Hunter were the hot topic.
"She is so mad," she told me as we pulled away from the curb. "He doesn't think it's that big a deal. He's talking it's like watching porn, only he has to trade a pic to get one."
"That has a twisted logic to it," I conceded.
"I don't think so. I mean, in porn it's all scripted and you don't really know the people. Like, you're not going to see someone on the internet and go hook up, right?"
"Probably not," I agreed.
"But then he let it slip that he's got a lot of pics on his phone. Like he doesn't always have to trade. You know whose cootch he's got on his phone?" Before I could answer she said triumphantly, "Vanessa."
I glanced at her and an involuntary smile spread on my face. "Vanessa, your cousin Vanessa?"
"The teacher's aide with a kid Vanessa? Yeah, that's my cousin. On a high school boy's phone."
"Wait, her face was there? This isn't just a chain jerk or something?" I asked, stunned.
"Nope. Julie made him delete it, but she should have reported the skank. Spreading her legs for a high school jock is what got her pregnant the last time," she said and snorted for punctuation. We arrived at school and headed toward the doors.
"See you at football practice?" she asked.
I came to a stop and she halted a few steps after, fixing me with a questioning look. I blushed slightly.
"Zack asked me to join them for pizza. I said I would."
"Then why are you blushing? Have you been getting some and lying your ass off to me?" she asked, her voice a little hurt.
"No," I said with a shake of my head. "He's asking Amy out today. But, um." I didn't want her to know my suspicions about Brandon because I didn't want her to repeat them or interfere.
"I'm not sure why you're so weird about wanting to look at what you like as opposed to what I like. I mean you said you're not hooking up with him, right?" She paused and then took a half step toward me. "You would tell me if you were dating, though, right?"
"Of course," I said.
"Good. If you date, I have to bite the bullet and wrestle one of these linemen for myself. I have my eye on Malik Williams. Something exotic about him!"
I just shook my head. I'm not sure why the Williams'es had named their kids Malina and Malik; they were too similar. Who really understood people, though?
I skated through my day. My English teacher was very happy with my poetry paper, and surprisingly I did very well on my math homework. Even better, I aced a pop quiz in social studies. By the time the final bell rang I was flying high. I waited by the side door for Cathy and Ginnie, flipping through shit on my phone while I waited. My phone shook with incoming texts.
Perky Tits: Coming tonight? I'm driving Amy. I smiled at Zack's message.
Me: And miss watching you being a lovestruck idiot? Not missing that!
Perky Tits: Yes! She's coming! Can you believe it?
Me: Totally. She's lucky. I smiled to myself. It was the truth. I didn't know much about Amy, but she'd gotten a catch whether she knew it yet or not. Tabbing back I saw I had another message, but this was from a number I didn't know. Muscles on my body randomly clenched as I read the note.
J I hope you come tonight. Zack is really happy you guys made friends and I wouldn't want to ruin that for him. I...I'm sorry if I sounded like it didn't matter, what happened with us when we were kids. I didn't know how hard it hit you. That it still did. I'd really like a chance to apologize in person. Hope to see you later.
Fuck me. I was sweating thinking of Brandon being nice to me. He didn't know about my talk with Cal, of course. Cal had been right, I needed to forgive Brandon, and I'd tell him so. I had no right to hold this against him. I guess because I was so attracted to him it all felt worse than it should have. The question of his sexuality...I hadn't forgotten. Couldn't. I don't know how I could shift gears from being conflicted about him for so long, for that hurt little boy inside me to finally be able to get over the embarrassment and hurt so I could...what? What did I really expect? What did I want? I tapped my screen to wake it and replied.
Me: I shouldn't have held it against you for so long. I guess nine-year-old me couldn't figure out how to tell you I liked you. I know I shouldn't have kissed you; maybe you were embarrassed too. I'm done punishing everyone for that so, apology accepted and let's move on. If that's cool.
I let out a breath and it felt damn good. I'd been carrying that for a long time. I guess I could at least try to be civil and get to know Brandon. He must be a decent guy - look at his friends. I liked Ginnie and Cathy, and more importantly I was comfortable with them. I had to admit, it was fascinating for me to be around guys in a friendly way. I craved more.
"Okay, so let's just swing by the football field before we watch the-"
"They are not emaciated," I interrupted. "They are hot, slender, agile, and seeing their skin is way better than the pelt that so interests you."
Ginnie raised an eyebrow. "Wow. Someone is defensive."
"I like what I like. And what I like is on the soccer field, but fine. We can go look at the guys who are missing vital chromosomes, first." I grinned at Cathy and she flipped me off. I laughed and they joined me. Having people that get you is pretty cool. We walked to the football field and sat on their bleachers for a bit. Cathy grew speechless as Malik Williams ran to the sidelines and pulled off his pads and shirt, revealing a ripped chest covered in ebony skin. He was fiddling with the straps on the pads when my view was obscured as Cathy walked over to the bench.
"What is she doing?" Ginnie whispered to me as we watched the scene from afar.
"I don't know, but if I had to guess, I'd say she was magnetically drawn by her crotch. Dude is stacked!" I told her and snickered.
"Jer," she said, taking on a playful tone. "I didn't think you noticed the stacked ones, as you put it."
I shrugged. "I don't want to date one. I don't care for bundles of muscles, not like you two. Doesn't mean I can't be impressed."
Cathy wandered back a few minutes later as Malik ran back onto the field, once more fully kitted out. She smiled brightly, color in her face as she sat.
"I have a date for homecoming," she said demurely.
She grinned widely and told us about her conversation with Malik and how she'd boldly asked him to the upcoming dance. I'd never gone, nor cared to, but I'd always thought homecoming was for the first home game of the year. Apparently they just picked a home game that worked for whatever reason. The girls descended into talking about a dress and I tuned out. I'm not sure how long they talked about that, but I eventually decided I'd watched enough football players.
"I'm heading over to the soccer field," I said to the other two. They nodded but stayed in place and I left them behind. First I went to my car to dump my book bag, then walked past the end of the football field and around the side of the school. The soccer team was engaged fully in their practice, spread out across the entire field. I quickly spotted Zack and Brandon, though I could probably spot Brandon nearly anywhere. I liked watching them out there, doing whatever it is that they did. They looked natural, like running and kicking things was just in their nature.
Glancing at my watch I was surprised it was almost five. I was pleasantly surprised when Seth joined me with Malina, who had flat ironed her hair into shimmering dark sheets.
"I was looking for you earlier," Seth said. "Do you know Malina?"
"No, not really. Hi, how are you," I greeted her and she smiled warmly. I looked at Seth, "This thing runs until six?"
"No, only five today. They have a game tomorrow; they don't work as hard the day before," he said with a chuckle. "Oh, look!"
We turned and got on our feet as Brandon was streaking down the field, kicking the ball and heading for the opposing goal. The goalie tensed, hands spread as he waited to try and block the shot. Brandon adjusted and looked as if he were going to pass. The goalie shifted as if biting, then settled in front of Brandon.
With a nifty move, Brandon passed at the last moment to a semi-open teammate and they scored! We cheered, probably a little too loudly for a practice, but we were sort of caught up in the moment. I smiled at Brandon holding a fist up and bumping chests with the player who'd gotten the goal. The players wandered over to reset, with the coach hollering about something or other.
"Those guys will run home and shower. Usually they'll meet us by six. See you there?" Seth asked.
"Yeah, that sounds good," I said. I took a seat on the metal bleachers, the most uncomfortable seating surface in the world. I glanced over at the soccer team, huddled around their bench. I spotted Zack and Brandon, then pulled my phone out as something to do while I waited. I'm not sure why I was still here. I mean, we were meeting later for pizza, I didn't need to watch their practice. Usually I went with the girls to to ogle a little, but they were probably still talking dresses. Winter sports got me pulled between the huge guys that wrestled, which got Cathy all hot and bothered, and the slenderer basketball players that I preferred. I was shaken from my thoughts when I heard a loud clanging on the aluminum bleachers and looked up to see Brandon walking toward me, his cleats making the racket.
"You came," he said with a smile. I couldn't help but smile back. He stood before me and I felt kind of weird. He hadn't stopped smiling, but I couldn't seem to stop returning it. "What?" I asked nervously.
"I owe you an apology."
"No," I said and stood up awkwardly, making myself a bit taller than he was. "Seriously. Let's just...leave it."
He shook his head slowly. "J. Can we...is it all right if we just talk for a minute?"
My gut squished around. I suddenly felt warmer, but I don't think there was a lot I'd say no to when he looked at me like that. I had to remind myself that he wasn't perfect. He was flawed, like everyone else, and he'd pushed me away. If he wants to say he's sorry, just let him. Hell, maybe it would make me feel better to hear him say it.
"Okay," I said and slowly sat back down. He turned and sat beside me. The scent of his cologne, aftershave, deodorant, soap or - that couldn't be, like, just what he smelled like. Could it?
His knee bounced a bit and he cleared his throat. "J. After you kissed me I didn't know what to do. People started to laugh, and I guess my lizard brain thought pushing you away was the right thing to do."
"Like you said, we were nine," I said quietly.
"Back then," he said slowly, as if I hadn't spoken, "people teased me for having been kissed. I didn't really understand, but the way they said it seemed like it was supposed to be a bad thing. I held onto that for a long time. I thought I had it pretty bad, because these people were all saying things to me and I'd lost a friend."
I looked at him askance. "What do you mean?"
"I mean we used to play together. We went to a birthday party or two. We were cubby buddies in Kindergarten, for fuck's sake." He snorted and shook his head.
"Cubby buddies?" I asked, frowning lightly.
"Sure. Remember those little square hole-things they had for us to put our things in? We could put our lunch pail or gloves or something away in our cubbies?" he asked.
"Oh, right. I always thought they looked like a honeycomb, even though they weren't the right shape," I said, thinking of that for the first time in years.
"And you and I, we shared a cubby."
I smiled lightly and glanced at him. "Yeah. I remember, now. At first I got in trouble for putting my stuff with yours, but eventually they seemed to stop caring." It was a good, innocent memory.
He coughed lightly, probably just clearing his throat again. "So, yeah, I felt like I'd lost a friend. People were teasing me, and I guess I got wrapped up in myself and what I was dealing with. I kind of forgot that you were dealing with crap, too."
I let out a sigh. "I...couldn't handle them all laughing. Calling me names. I guess I just shut them all out."
He stayed silent for a minute and then asked, "Was it always like that for you? Were people always...mean to you?"
It was my turn to clear my throat. "Once in a while. An insult that rhymes is too hard for some people to pass up." I smiled wryly.
"I'm sorry I wasn't stronger, J. I had all I could handle, then."
I adjusted my seat on the hard bleacher and swallowed. "Like I said, I've held it against you for a long time. I need to let it go."
He spun on the metal, his cleats making an odd noise and he sat on the riser below me, looking up. "I know I can't make that right. It happened, can't be fixed. But...if there is something I can do to make it better, now...I really want to show you I'm sorry, J. All I've been able to think about since the coffee shop is how you've been hurting and I was too self-absorbed to think this had affected you, too. That it still did."
Fuck. He was edging toward perfection, again. Looking down at him it was all I could do not to cup his face and kiss the fuck out of him - but I'd done that once before. Kind of gotten us to this mess we were in. I guess there was a certain poetic logic to ending the foolishness we were in the same way it started, but I couldn't screw up the courage.
"Anyway. I really am sorry. I embarrassed you. Hurt you. You kissed me and I made you feel like crap."
I swallowed a lump in my throat, but couldn't come up with the right thing to say. "We were just kids. We didn't know better."
"Right. So listen, I have a real apology for you-"
"I accept," I said quickly.
"J," he said softly. His expression was full of intent. "I want to kiss you."
"You...what?" I asked. My emotions splattered. Outrage as I wondered if he were toying with me. Fear of being let down or hurt again. Hope because maybe my solitariness was coming to a close. Fear followed that for the same reasons. A wave of scorching lust because it was not just any kiss being offered. It was Brandon McCall. Maybe if I kissed him, I could get over him. Maybe he'd suck at it.
"I just want to know if that's okay. If you say no, then I'll be embarrassed just like you were and, you know, maybe I deserve a little of that." He swallowed. "But I want to kiss you, so I'm asking."
I stared at him wide eyed. My heart rate was elevated, my stomach tightened just like normal, but the bile didn't rise and the twist in my gut was butterflies rather than stomach acid. Part of me wondered if this was an elaborate prank, but part of me hoped. My heart fluttered like a butterfly testing new wings. My gaze roamed his face, looking for something hurtful to be lurking. I only found the bright green of his eyes, the curve of his cheek and the magnetic draw of his lips.
I flinched, looking into those perfect green eyes. "Yes," I whispered.
His smile bloomed into something beyond beautiful, and he stepped on my riser, his feet beside mine, cupped my face in his hands and gently kissed my lips. Heat flashed through me, my chest contracted and then my heart swelled with emotion big enough to burst. Brandon's hand moved behind my head and I turned a little and grabbed him, deepening the kiss to something obscene. Shit, he didn't suck at this. I pushed my hand into his hair, thinking how it had seemed like it was made to be touched. Our tongues played in concert, both with the same tempo and fervent need. Eventually he broke the kiss and I leaned forward slightly, chasing his lips.
"Tonight? We'll go out with our friends?" he asked, gulping for air.
"Yeah," I nodded breathlessly. My mind had stopped thinking, fearing, hoping and lusting. All the world was gone, for a moment, and the only thing that existed was Brandon. The moment was fragile, filled with the sweetness of life distilled into its purest form.
Zack, as it happens, ended that particular moment by hollering from the bench by his teammates, "Get a room!"
"Why?" I asked him. I studied his eyes as my mind slowly became more functional.
"One thing at a time, okay, J? Let me just try to make this better."
"But why did you kiss me?" I insisted.
He smiled gently, pulling away. "Because you said I could. I have to get my stuff, head home to shower. I'll pick you up?"Next Chapter Previous Chapter