Third Place Winner of the 2020 Voyage YA Short Story Award judged by Natalia Sylvester, author of the YA novel, Running
He’ll catch you by surprise, believe me. It’ll be subtle, unexpected. When he shows up at soccer tryouts your freshman year, he’ll just be a stranger, a boy you didn’t know you needed until your eyes watch the sweat slip from his bare chest down to his hipbone like oil on the body. His looks won’t be as piercing as the guys in school who all the girls love like Billie DiManos on the track team or the incoming foreign exchange student from South Africa, but to you, he’ll hold that status, that level of physical perfection, and you’ll wonder why hardly any of the girls at your school don’t see him that way.
The words you catch from the other upperclassmen will piece together your knowledge of him. You’ll find out that he’s a senior who will be graduating at the end of the fall semester to play soccer at Miami University. You’ll also learn about his accolades, like how he already collected First-Team All-Conference Awards for three consecutive years, and that he’s the only player in the history of your school’s division to receive that award as a freshman, or how he’d set a record for most goals scored in a match against your rival school East Hills. The guys on the team will talk about how he might be the Gatorade Player of the Year by the end of the season. His prestige will intimidate you at first, and you’ll only see him for his accomplishments until the end of that first day of tryouts. After talking to the coach and seeing that you’re the last one waiting for your ride, he’ll come to you and ask for your name. You’ll tell him your full name: Jay Alexander Holden. You’ll be embarrassed and frustrated at yourself for letting your nerves get the best of you, but he’ll entertain your awkwardness and state his full name too: Graham Tilden Kaine. He’ll offer you a ride home, but you won’t know what to say at first, because you don’t want him to take pity on you for not being able to drive.
You’ll say to him: “It’s okay. My dad is just stuck in Cincinnati traffic.”
You’ll say to him: “No really, it’s fine. I don’t want to make you drive any farther than you have to.”
He’ll ask you where you live, and you’ll tell him on the corner of 9th and Washington Street, and by surprise, you’ll find out he lives right around the block from you.
He’ll say to you: “I don’t mind driving you home. It’s just on the way to my house.”
You’ll wonder how awkward it might be when you’re in the car with him, thinking about the questions you can ask him to fill up the fifteen-minute drive. Luckily, he’ll do all the talking, telling you about The Kooks while they play through his speakers, soft enough that he can share his obsession with them and how he thinks their first album is their best album. Within those fifteen minutes, he’ll play snippets of every song and give a detailed review on each one. You’ll see how much he loves music right away. Eventually, he’ll admit that his dream job is reviewing rock and alternative music for Rolling Stone, but he’ll take the words back as soon as he tells you because he’ll know this is only a dream, that it has no room for the career path his dad has mapped out for him to carry on with the family business and be financially secure.
After the second day of tryouts, you’ll be surprised when he offers you a ride home again. And again. And again. Until it becomes a routine. But after the first day of practice, he’ll turn to you and randomly ask where you want to go.
He’ll say to you: “Take me to your favorite place in town.”
He’ll say to you: “I just like knowing where people like to go to in this shithole of a place. I think it says a lot about them, you know?”
His smile will distract you. You’ll try not to mistake his kindness for flirtation, but you’ll fail from the smile you give back to him, from the blushing you’ll feel itching away at your cheeks. You’ll snap out of the illusion—afraid that he’ll be on to your translation of his kindness—and give him your answer.
You’ll tell him your favorite place is Books N’ Recs—one of the very few stores in the town mall that’s still up and running—and by surprise, he’ll say he loves that place too, how they always have the vinyl of his favorite bands when he goes there. When the two of you arrive, he’ll take you to the music section first. While he builds on his collection of records, you’ll secretly try to find your favorite band, an alternative group whose members are unapologetically queer, but it won’t be on any of the racks. The only thing you’ll find remotely related to your queerness is endless records of an old-school rock singer who’s been recently dragged by the media for his disparaging comments on his son’s coming out video. He’ll see you with one of the albums, express his love for the artist he calls an icon, and add it to his pile.
With a stack of vinyl records tucked under his left arm, you’ll take him over to the books section, and the two of you will walk down the aisle of your favorite genres.
When he shows you his go-to aisle, he’ll ask you not to judge him, will warn you that he knows it’s a bit weird and nerdy. Reading the label “Reference,” you’ll be surprised to find out he loves learning new words, feels satisfaction in building on his vocabulary. He’ll pick a dictionary, flip to random pages, and spit out words such as: fastidious, ubiquitous, idiosyncratic, clairvoyant, desideratum. Each time he reads a word that’s unfamiliar to you, you’ll act as though it’s not, trying to state its definition, but you’ll fail miserably. Your incorrect definitions will cause him to laugh. He won’t laugh at you but rather at a version of yourself you’ll pretend to be. He’ll tell you that it’s okay to not know everything and tousle your afro with his hand without bothering to ask for permission, as if he owns it. But you won’t see it that way. His touch will excite you and that’s when it will all start, that’s when you’ll grow into your addiction to his touch. From that point on, you’ll be too full of hope to realize the emptiness it causes you.
He’ll take you on his early evening drives after practice just to get away from his parents for a bit. By that time, your words will flow freely, never wondering what to say next to keep the conversation afloat. He’ll take you to his second favorite place in Merrymock, a spot that will make you look at your hometown through a different lens. It won’t be a restaurant or a park or any public space but rather a small incline of a paved hill behind an abandoned building. He’ll assure you that the view overshadows the sketchiness of the atmosphere, and he’ll be right about the view of the town from up there, the way the sunset gives Merrymock an almost scenic look.
He’ll say to you: “People always got shit to say about this place, especially the ones who don’t live here. I see it on their faces every home game. Their parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, they all communicate the same stereotypes about us with their facial expressions. I get it. Sometimes I think the same things they do. Sometimes I can’t stand to be in this place either but coming here reminds me of how much hope is still in Merrymock. That’s why I like coming here. I know it’s stupid, but it’s something about the view that makes me think this place isn’t as shitty as everyone makes it out to be.”
You’ll try and convince yourself that you agree with him, but you won’t know why you’re hesitant to do so. You won’t have the language yet to recognize the association you have with Merrymock, how living there feels as though you’re just a body stuck in the depths of sea with no one hearing your cries for help. You won’t know yet how to balance advocating for a community that has historically attempted to silence you for being Black and queer.
When he apologizes for being “too soft,” you’ll follow his lead and begin to mock his tenderness. He’ll push you and tell you to shut up with a slight chuckle. Then the two of you will lean back in the seats of his car, listening to the first album of The Kooks for the sixth time. You two will watch the burnt peach of the sunset melt into darkness, and while he gives you his review another time you’ll begin to wonder how many of his friends he takes to this spot. You’ll convince yourself that you’re the only one, that maybe, for the first time ever, you’ll finally be the only one.
Her name will slip out of his mouth just when you finally rest comfortably in the pit of his lap, when his hands glide gently in the thickness of your hair, when you convince him to let you rub his ears because strangely, it feels relaxing. He’ll say the name Alice and you’ll know why he says it, how every other guy in your high school has her name embedded on their tongue. It’ll make sense. You’ll see how they interact with each other in the hallways. He’ll tell you everything that happened the days he took her to and from school when her car was in the shop after her accident and all the times he’d sneak into her volleyball practices after soccer and wait for her to be done so she could teach him a thing or two about being a setter.
You’ll know right away, as hopeful as he’ll be, that she doesn’t like him. You’ll see it in her eyes, her body language, the way she awkwardly looks to the ground when he tries to flirt by telling a joke that doesn’t and will never land. And you’ll be jealous of her—no matter how uninterested she’ll be in him, no matter how many times she’ll avert her eyes to the floor, he’ll always uphold her to the highest degree of beauty while you’ll strive to be seen in that light.
He won’t play it cool like he said he would. He’ll be too impatient to wait for the right time to ask her out on a date. Instead, he’ll open up to her through text, write a long paragraph of his feelings toward her. You’ll help him draft the message even though you know it’s a bad idea, that it’ll only lead to disappointment. You know the word love will draw her further away from him, but you’ll persuade him to use it anyway because why not, because what’s the point of expressing your feelings if you’re not going to be honest?
You’ll spend the day waiting with him for her to reply. She’ll sit between the two of you until later that night when she responds and says that he’s a nice guy—a really nice guy—but that she doesn’t want to lead him on and they’re better off as friends. He’ll rest his sadness on your thigh, too heartbroken to care how he looks crying in a guy’s lap. His tears won’t just stem from this rejection but from others as well.
He’ll ask you: “Will anyone ever love me?”
You won’t know what to say, but you’ll know at that very moment—when he uses your shoulder to wipe his tears and lets you lightly run your fingers through his hair to get him to calm down—that you love him. He’ll tell you you’re the only friend he has cried to and you’ll fall even more in love with his vulnerability. The way he treats you like secrets stored in a diary.
Within the last week, before he goes to college, the two of you will hang out with his friend group who have become yours too. One of the days when they decide to come over to his house, you’ll be there before they come, helping him clean the downstairs basement. Even though he won’t be leaving for another three days, you’ll start to feel the ripples of his departure. At first, you’ll try to shrug off the sadness with a joke, but he won’t fall for it.
He’ll say to you: “Don’t be such a bitch, bro.”
You’ll try to take his advice but instead, you’ll lose it, pulling the tears in your hands and feeling them fall in your palms. He’ll drop the jokes too, closing the gap between the two of you while sitting on the floor against the sectional couch. It’ll be the first time you’ll hear the tenderness in his voice. He’ll drop all the bros, the bitches, the no homos. For the first time, you’ll finally get a glimpse of who he wants to be.
He’ll say to you: “Hey, c’mon Jay. It’s all right.”
From the uncertainty in his voice, you’ll recognize that he doesn’t really know how to console you, doesn’t have the language of emotions, but you’ll love hearing him try and seeing him think about what to say next after every umm and like.
He’ll say to you: “I’ll still be here… Miami is only forty minutes away… I’ll probably be home on weekends or some shit. And we can text every day if you want. I can tell you all the bullshit business classes I’m taking, the people I meet, the parties I go to. I’ll tell you all that, okay?”
Your smile will come as a surprise to him as he’ll ask you the cause of it, a light chuckle escaping from his mouth.
You’ll say to him: “Nothing. It’s just funny hearing you comfort me.”
He’ll say to you: “So you’re making fun of me now? Wow. Okay. I see how it is.”
Acting as though your words offend him, he’ll start to get up and leave, but you’ll catch his wrist to get him to stay.
You’ll say to him: “No, it’s not that. It’s just…I don’t really hear you talk like that, you know? It’s funny but in a good way. In a way that I don’t feel weird crying in front of you.”
Spotting the guilt in his eyes, you’ll watch his smile fade as his eyes avert to the ground. It won’t be the look on his face that’ll let you know he feels the same way but rather the moment he’ll look at you. The moment when he’ll put his cold hands on your cheeks, lean his lips into yours, and hold them there like the tightness of a warm embrace. You’ll follow wherever his lips take you. When he presses you against the floor his lips will tell you that he doesn’t care about whoever is upstairs. His hands will show you that he wants to stay there. Though your bodies will hide behind the furniture, each tough will feel as though the two of you are on display, like your bodies are art in a museum catching all the wandering eyes.
You’ll be grateful for what he gives you and for all the times you’ll spend dressing him in what ifs and fantasies and daydreams, though it will end abruptly from the puncturing sound of the doorbell. His lips will depart from yours, his hands will escape your body, and you’ll be greeted with the realization that you’ll always be on his timeline.
He’ll tell you who he is, but you won’t listen.
It’ll happen later in the night when the two of you and the rest of the group decide to leave his house and ride around town. While driving through the backroads, your friends will bring up the rumor about August hooking up with Donovan, the only openly gay guy in your high school. You’ll empathize with August like your friends will do and feel sorry for all the friends he has lost because of this rumor. Nobody will know the truth, whether Donovan made the whole thing up or if they actually had sex, but people will go with the latter. You won’t know if that is the truth or just a fantasy your straight peers came up with so that they can laugh at August some more, but you’ll believe it because it’ll give you hope—that if it can happen to Donovan, then it can certainly happen to you.
He will open his mouth and say: “That’s fucking gross, bro.”
He will open his mouth and say: “Ain’t no way ima still be friends with August now.”
Your friends will condemn him, especially Whitney who has been going to the pride parade in Columbus with her family for years, but you’ll fall silent. You’ll want to cuss him out, call him out on his bullshit, but you’ll still be in love with his thin, cracked lips and his greasy hair he lets you play with. You’ll try to make excuses for his ignorance, for his words that will feel like he’d known all along, that will feel like you’d been found out about. You’ll still hang out with him that next day. You’ll still wait for his touch against your skin before he leaves, however innocent it may be. You’ll still think that you’re the only, that you’re his only one.