It was the hottest day so far of summer and one of the last days, too. I sat on my porch practicing writing about what I saw and crossing out every other word. I tilted my head up at the sky, trying to think. It was so hot there weren’t any birds in the sky and the clouds barely moved. I wrote that down and crossed it out.
My phone rang. I glanced at the screen, rolling my eyes a little as I saw Emily’s picture pop up. Emily was my best friend or whatever, but she’d been calling way too much lately.
“What’s up?” I said, grabbing the phone before it could go to voicemail. “What? Nothing much. I should go look at colleges online or something, I guess. Mom keeps getting on me to get a head start. I guess I’m pretty behind since I don’t have any idea where I wanna go, just as long as it’s not here.”
A big truck pulled up to the house next door. I sat up straight and squinted into the sun, watching while a boy jumped out of the passenger side. He was about my age but a little taller than me, with dark curls that bounced off his forehead. When he went to open the back of the truck I saw his arm muscles, which were like a wrestler’s or a bodybuilder’s or something. I couldn’t help but wonder what his chest looked like. I raised my hand to my eyes and kind of waved. He glanced at me, then away, and went on moving stuff like he hadn’t seen me.
“Whoa,” I said under my breath. I hurried into the house and watched him through the window while I finished up with Emily.
A while later, the boy came over to the chain link fence and stared out. I stared too, from the window, but he didn’t go away. Sighing, I grabbed some lemonade from the fridge and went back outside.
“Hey,” the boy said. He stood still, letting the word hang in the air between us ‘til I had to say something.
I ran my hands through my ash-colored hair, wishing it was shiny and gorgeous like his. “My name’s Arthur.”
“Mitch,” he said, and grinned. Then he walked away. I squeezed the links in the fence ‘til my palms hurt.
I woke up in the middle of the night. A dream I couldn’t remember faded away to nothing but a warm feeling. Something crinkled the air; glass breaking, maybe. I thought Mom had dropped a plate doing the dishes—she’d been doing that a lot since Dad left—but it was pitch black so it was way too late for her to be washing anything. I rolled over, too tired to solve the mystery, but sleep wouldn’t come back. A slurred voice echoed through the open window and I couldn’t tell if it was real or a dream.
I pulled myself up and went to the window even though half of me wanted to stay in bed. I saw a shadow, someone crossing the street maybe, but nothing else. It was so dark I couldn’t even see how tall they were.
Since I was up, I sat down at the computer and logged into Facebook. I did this a lot, when I couldn’t sleep and nobody was awake but me. I liked to look at my guy friends’ profile pics, or sometimes just the ads on the side. Like right now, there was a hot guy on the side of my screen. He was grinning into the camera, showing a perfect shaped tongue behind fake white teeth.
The ceiling lights blinked. I glanced up and swirled the mouse round the screen. That’s when I saw I had a new friend request.
I opened it. It was from Mitch.
My mouth dropped open as I stared at his profile photo. He looked like he’d just stepped out of the shower; his hair was wet and sticking to his head and I could see the top of his bare chest. I could hear Mom’s voice in my head, saying, What kind of boy puts a photo like THAT up for everyone to see? I ignored it, letting a stupid grin paste itself on my face while I slowly moved my mouse to the “approve” button.
After a while -- a long while -- I made myself stop staring and check out Mitch’s profile. My stomach dropped, seeing there wasn’t a whole lot on his page except for stuff about football games. He was a jock, and that meant he wasn’t my type. I clicked on his “about” section anyway, but it wasn’t filled out. That was cool. Being mysterious was kind of attractive. But saying his relationship status was “complicated” wasn’t so cool. I swallowed hard, staring at that and wondering what it meant. Usually “complicated” was code for having broken up with some girl who you kind of wanted back. I didn’t have a chance.
I heard Mom’s bed creaking and hurried to minimize Facebook, just in case. Mom didn’t like me doing social media cause sometimes the news had crazy stories about people disguising themselves as teens or kids running away to be with some guy older than their parents. It was bull designed to get people to tune in by scaring them half to death, but Mom believed it.
Sure enough, no sooner had I hidden the screen than Mom came in without bothering to knock.
“Mom!” I said. “What if I’d been half naked?”
“You shouldn’t be, at this hour. In fact, you shouldn’t be up.”
“Yeah, well, I couldn’t sleep.”
Mom pushed a strand of dark hair out of her eyes. “You’ll never sleep if you don’t go to bed, Arthur. But if you’re going to insist on staying up, at least turn your light off. I can see it all the way down the hall.”
That was a lie, and I knew it. When my door was closed you couldn’t see or hear anything that was going on in my room. I’d checked it out a while ago when I’d got this urge to click on some videos that would have made Mom ask too many questions if she’d ever stopped blushing.
Why was my mom lying? Was she scared of weird noises in the night too? Whatever. She was never gonna tell me and I didn’t feel like starting a fight. “Yeah, okay,” I said, staring at my screen and not moving to turn off the light.
I could feel Mom staring at me. I turned and looked at her over my shoulder. Her mouth hung slightly open like she was about to say something and couldn’t quite get the words out. Then she slapped her hand against her thigh, turned, and walked away.
I closed my door behind her before turning off the light. Feeling weary more than actually tired, I crawled back into bed. Ordinary sounds kept bothering me: cars driving too fast down the street, cats meowing, a tree branch scraping against my window. I rolled over, but it didn’t make a difference. I was still wide awake.
There was only one way in the world to get back to sleep. I hated myself for needing it, but it couldn’t be helped. I reached into my shorts while letting myself see Mitch in my mind. At first he was fully dressed, then he unbuttoned his shirt and let me see that gorgeous chest . . . then he unzipped his pants… and then. . . I was asleep.
The rest of the summer kind of trickled away like rainwater after a storm. I talked to Mitch over the fence sometimes, but that was about it for interesting stuff. A couple more times I heard glass breaking again, and once there was a loud argument over the fence, but it died away to nothing before I could even wake all the way up. The day after that, Mom found beer bottles on our lawn. She called Mitch’s dad an old drunk and marched over there with them. I don’t know what she said, but it never happened again.
One morning in the middle of August, Mitch was standing by the fence smoking a cigarette when I came out to move the trash can to the curb for pick-up. Smoke billowed up from the end of the cigarette, but I couldn’t stop staring.
It was wrong, all wrong. Mom probably wouldn’t like me looking at any guys at all, but ones who smoked were definitely out. So what was wrong with me that I wasn’t turning my back in disgust?
“Wanna take a picture?” Mitch grinned. He threw his head back. “This is my better angle.”
“Sorry.” I shuffled towards the trash.
“Hey, it’s cool. I know I’m like, magnetic or something.”
My ears felt hot. I wheeled the trash bin out to the curb as fast as I could, ignoring Mitch sucking on his cigarette. He looked like he was going to say something when I passed back by, but he didn’t, and the only things I’d thought of to say were dumb shit about school starting soon. So I said, “See ya,” and hurried back into the house.
Mom had her back to me as I came in. I hate that cause I can’t tell if she’s in a decent mood that way. “I see you were talking to that boy,” she said, drying a dish with a small white towel.
I stared at the flowers on the back of her dress. “Yeah.”
“Good.” Mom put the dish in the rack. “He could use a friend like you.”
My stomach churned the way it does on upside-down roller coasters. “Mom…” I said, but I didn’t go on.
Mom turned around and raised her eyebrows.
Mom looked at me kind of funny, her head cocked all the way to one side like she was trying to figure me out. I felt bad, but what could I do? If I couldn’t understand me, she couldn’t understand me. That’s just the way it was.
Mom set her lips into a hard line. “I know you’d rather keep to yourself, Arthur. But sometimes you have to think of other people. That boy has nobody. His father’s nothing but a drunk and his mother — ”
“How do you know?”
“Because I do. Trust me, Arthur. When you work in the only hospital in a town like this, you hear things.”
“But maybe those things are wrong. Maybe — ”
“People talk. Get used to it.” Mom turned back to the dishes, her way of saying the conversation was over. I stared at her. Her long, dark hair lay loose and careless across her back like always but something about her was different, and not in a good way either. While she was busy scraping a plate, I slunk away to my room and went to check out Facebook for a sec.
I stayed inside for the most part after that, especially if Mitch was out. We barely talked, and that was fine with me. Somehow Mom deciding we had to be friends made me lose interest.
The last three weeks of summer fell into a predictable routine. I’d wake up when Mom was getting ready to leave for work and just lie there, listening. Water running and doors slamming were comforting noises, somehow. They made me feel like life was still normal. I’d fall asleep again, listening to them, and wake up when the house was totally quiet.. I’d sit straight up in bed, my head full of awesome plans for the day. But somehow I’d get on the computer and everything else would fade to dust. Mom’s kitchen clock would tick away while I stared at Facebook, looking for something without knowing what.
One day, just as I was turning the bath water on, the doorbell rang. I ignored it. There was no law that said you had to answer the door if you were too busy, even if people on TV did it all the time.
Whoever was there knocked hard on the door. I sighed, turning the water off before throwing my robe on and going to see who was there.
Mitch grinned at me through the crack between the door chain and the outside world. The top of the door cut off half of his face, but I’d recognize him and that grin anywhere.
My heart pounded, but I made myself answer the door. “What’s up?”
“You, dude. It’s about time.” Mitch was too easygoing. Something was wrong with him. “I haven’t seen you in forever. Where you been?”
“Busy. You know, getting ready for school and stuff.”
“Oh yeah. That’s what I wanted to ask you.” Mitch came further in. He smelled kind of like pine trees. I wrinkled my nose and backed away. I didn’t like this. I didn’t like it at all and I needed to tell him to go away and forget about him. But instead I stared at him, open-mouthed, sure I looked even more like an idiot to him than he did to me. Mitch shoved his hand into his back pocket, near his butt, to pull something out and I had this weird fantasy about putting my hand where his was.
“Here it is,” Mitch said, handing me a folded paper. He laughed. “Things get misplaced so easy. Listen, I printed out this schedule thing from my email cause I don’t get it at all.”
“Oh, it’s really easy once your eyes stop getting crossed from the way they scrunch everything together.”
“I was wondering if we had any classes together.”
I shifted my weight. “Maybe.”
“You got the email too, right? Print it out or whatever so we can compare.” Mitch laughed again.
“Right. Um, I… I downloaded mine on my phone. Lemme, um, get it from my room.” I started down the hall, then turned again. “I – I’d let you come with me but it’s a big mess in there.” Was my voice shaking? Could he tell? Did he know what it meant and did it freak him out?
“Cool.” Mitch shrugged.
I ran to my room and closed the door hard to make sure it stayed closed. My phone was on top of my bureau, right where it was supposed to be, but I made a big deal out of rustling stuff in my closet like I was looking hard for it before I came back to the living room.
When I finally made it back, Mitch was sprawled out on the couch. His head was tilted back and his legs were wide open.
My tongue suddenly felt too big for my mouth. I licked my lips, feeling like I’d swallowed a piece of sandpaper. “Erm . . . here it is,” I said, pulling it up on my phone.
“Let’s have it,” Mitch said in an offhand way.
“Oh yeah.” I handed Mitch the phone. My hand was shaking despite my best efforts.
“Hey, relax, man. It’s your house. No need to be nervous.” Mitch zoomed in with his fingers and stared at my schedule. I held my breath while he scanned it.
“Wow, look at all these AP classes. Why you been holding out on me that you’re such a brain?”
I blushed. “It’s not that big a deal, I swear. All it means is I have to do like, 10 times the work normal people do.”
Mitch handed me back the phone. “Guess I won’t be seeing you enough to get sick of you, huh?” I shrugged and he said, “Anyway, gotta go, man. Thanks for letting me stop by.” He held out his hand so we could fist bump. It took me a second to get what he wanted. I was too used to hanging out with Emily, and she always wanted to hug.
When my alarm rang on the first day of school, I didn’t want to get out of bed. I kept hitting snooze and falling back on the pillow. I was in the middle of watching Mitch undress for me in a dream when Mom banged on the door. I looked around, realizing I was alone in my bed and I was about to be late for school. I rubbed my eyes, then quickly jumped up and threw on a shirt.
“I’m not waking you every day,” Mom said when I opened the door. “You have to learn to be responsible.”
“Yeah, good morning to you too,” I said.
Mom was halfway to the steps, but she turned around and put her hands on her hips. Her hair hung down limply from her temples and there were wrinkles around her mouth. She looked like an old lady.
“Don’t be a smart ass,” Mom said, and walked away.
I sighed and hurried to get ready. My hair wouldn’t flatten out on top the way I wanted. I gave up and ran out of the house, ignoring whatever it was my mom was saying now.
Mitch was heading down the street as I pulled the front door shut. He was wearing a gym shirt or something. It had no sleeves and it showed off his muscles, plus he had a ton of hair on his arms and I could see some of his chest hair where the top of the shirt ended. His jeans were tight, too, and I had to swallow hard and make myself stop staring at his butt as I felt for the keys in my pocket.
“Headed for the bus stop?” I called.
Mitch made a face. “Sure wish I had a better ride,” he said.
I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. We came up to the bus stop and stood, waiting. Some ninth-grade boys were chasing each other around. I smiled and glanced at Mitch, trying to say with my eyes how glad I was that we were so much more mature than the freshmen. My phone buzzed. It was Emily texting to ask which bus stop I was at. The bus came while I was answering her. I followed Mitch and his super-tight butt all the way to the back.
Mitch slid into his seat. I was about to plop down next to him when Emily called, “Hey, there you are, Arthur! Come sit with me.”
I turned around. Emily’s eyes were very large and blue and her she had put dye or something in her hair to soften how red it was and make it catch what little light there was in the bus. She looked really pretty today, not that it did anything for me. “I’m gonna, um…” I gestured towards the seat next to Mitch.
“Sit down back there so we can go,” the bus driver snarled. I stared straight ahead as I threw myself into the seat next to Mitch, my heart beating ridiculously fast just from being near him.
“That your girl?” Mitch asked.
“What?” Stuffing oozed out of a crack in the seat. I pushed it back in. “No.”
Mitch didn’t say anything back. I didn’t look, but I was sure he was grinning.
“S-She’s single if that’s what you’re asking,” I stammered. “But I wouldn’t bother, dude. She’s not gonna…”
“You saying I’m not good enough for her?”
I glanced at Mitch. His jaw was set and he had a determined look in his eye. My chest felt so tight, looking at him, that I could barely breathe. The bus rounded a corner sharply and I almost fell into him. “It’s not like that, man,” I said, feeling a headache coming on. “Emily, um… she…”
“You trying to tell me she’s into girls?”
I rubbed my temples. “Not exactly. She, um… honestly, dude, I don’t think she knows what she is. All I know is she doesn’t date.”
“Huh.” Mitch turned and looked out the window. I stared at the back of his head, wishing his dark curls weren’t so easy to get lost in. Stop it! I told myself. The guy was clearly into girls -- what was wrong with me that I couldn’t stop thinking about him when he wasn’t even gay? The bus stopped to pick up some more kids and I quietly got up and slid in next to Emily. She smiled at me and I made myself smile back.
The first half of the day slid by quickly. Homeroom, announcements, some dumb assembly about dress codes, and math. Then the bell rang and I gathered my stuff—again—and went outside to make my way to the English building. The sky was very blue and a breeze knocked leaves off the trees even though it wasn’t even fall yet. Soon it wouldn’t be the first day of school anymore. I shivered as a flock of geese getting a head start on winter honked at me and glided away. I made myself keep walking.
Emily slid in next to me as I went into the English building and shuffled down the hall. “I think I might actually try out my locker for once. Come with me?”
“Yeah, okay.” I was only half paying attention since Mitch could be anywhere in this hall. I couldn’t remember if he was taking an English class or not, but if he was it would be now -- all senior English was fifth period.
“I’m not gonna let any freaking bullies scare me this year,” Emily said. “No more carrying a backpack that weighs more than I do or sitting at the corner table in the cafeteria hoping they won’t see me.” She looked over her shoulder at me as she approached her locker. As she twisted the combination lock, she said, “You’ll help me out if it gets to be too much though, right?”
“Yeah. Of course.” I was still looking for Mitch.
“Awesome.” Emily slammed the locker shut and we went across the hall to room 602. I followed her automatically.
Emily kept going on about how excited she was and stuff, how this year was going to be the most awesome year now that we were seniors, or at least, I was a senior, she was just a junior, even if she was taking senior classes. “But we’ll see,” she said as the bell rang.. “Maybe I’ll have enough credits I can graduate early and blow this joint!” I didn’t answer and her smile faded. “Come on,” she said, and the shrill tone in her voice annoyed the hell out of me. “That was a joke. Laugh.”
The door creaked open just then. I turned towards it, waiting to see what this new teacher, Jasmine or whatever their name was, was gonna be like. I wasn’t impressed with the way she tiptoed in or what she looked like. She was short, way shorter than me and shorter than Emily too. Her dark hair was tied back into a ponytail, but some of it had escaped and was going every which way. She looked more like one of us than the teacher and she looked over her shoulder when she came in like she thought she was in the wrong room.
Emily and I raised our eyebrows at each other. Just like that, everything was okay between us.
“Good morning,” the new teacher said. Her voice was way soft and nobody heard her cause we were all still talking, except for me and Emily who were making faces at each other. The teacher cleared her throat. “Let’s try that again,” she said, louder. “Good morning. For those who don’t know me, which I guess is all of you, I’m Ms. Jasmine, and I will be teaching AP English this year. So let’s get started.” She picked up a bunch of papers and handed them to the front of each row. As she passed my desk, she smiled at me. I was glad I wasn’t straight, because she was pretty enough that half the boys stared at her. I just thought she was weird.
I’d planned to spend free period in the library writing in my journal, but as soon as English was over, Emily said, “Come on. Let’s get some fresh air.” and it was easier to go along than argue with her. I followed her through the cafeteria and out through the heavy doors to a wall where there were a bunch of people standing around. “What are we doing here?” I said under my breath. “This is where all the bad kids go, remember?”
“They don’t scare me any. Not this year.” Emily opened her purse. I stared at her as she took a cigarette out of a pack and lit up.
Scrunching up my nose, I said, “Ew. Since when do you do that?”
“Since this summer. Not that that you would know since you almost never had time for me.” Emily took a puff of the cigarette. I thought about how hot Mitch looked when he smoked, not like Emily. Her smoking bothered me way more than his did for some reason. I looked over my shoulder to see if he was coming out of the cafeteria. He wasn’t.
Emily threw her head back and let out smoke. “So . . . who’s the lucky guy?”
“The one you like. Who is he?”
“Not so loud, first of all. And who says I like anybody?”
“Oh, please. I’ve known you since we were too little to know what the hell we were. You’re all nervous and distracted and keep looking for someone. Is it that guy you were sitting with on the bus?”
Just then a group of guys walked by. I recognized them from last year. Emily and I had nicknamed them the Jackal Pack because they always shouted stupid shit at us all through lunch and they were never alone. They all looked alike, too: tall and muscular, brown-haired, sneering. If they weren’t such asses, their muscles would definitely have turned me on.
I turned away.
“What do you know?” one of them called. “Someone actually doesn’t mind how ugly that bitch is.”
My throat felt tight. I balled up my fists but the guys were gone before I knew how pissed I was. I looked back at Emily and mouthed, “Sorry.”
“It’s okay.” Emily’s back was to me, she was lighting another cigarette. “This year things are different cause . . . well, I don’t care.” Her hand was shaking and I knew she was lying.
“Just so you know, I don’t think you’re ugly.” My words came out in a rush.
Emily smiled, but her eyes got bigger and I could tell she was thinking, Big deal coming from the gay guy. All she said was, “Thanks. Excuse me.”
The bell rang as she pushed her way past me. I shuffled into the school. Mitch was coming up to the smokers’ wall now that I was gone. Figured.
Last period was Art. This was a good thing for two reasons. First, in our school you got a choice of art or music, and Emily chose music so she could play her trumpet in the band. So I got a break from her staring at me and turning around like she wasn’t been every time I looked up. Second, I loved drawing and painting. I was no good at either so the teacher usually gave up on me pretty quick and on every assignment I got an 80 for effort. But still, at least I’d get to try and maybe this semester the teacher would actually be patient enough to show me something.
The room was already set up with long tables when I got there. I sat down in the front, hoping the teacher would actually pay attention to me if I was under his nose.
This guy Ben came in the door as I sat down. He was real cute, with brownish hair that would curl up if he let it and sea-blue eyes. He always showed up in art and gym, and whenever I saw him my heart beat real fast and I had to remind myself to breathe. But this time, I felt nothing when our eyes met. Weird..
Ben passed my table. I waved but he walked on like he hadn’t seen me and walked all the way down the aisle to the back.
The class filled up while I was watching him. Most of the people I didn’t know. The ones I did ignored me like Ben. No one came and sat with me.
I was turned all the way around in my seat, staring into space, when the bell rang. The chair next to me scraped the floor and someone plopped into it. I turned slowly to see who it was who couldn’t get a seat anywhere else.
It was Mitch.
“Hey,” he said. “Forgot you were taking art.”
“Me too.” Between my heart pounding and the voice in my head telling me I was an idiot, I could barely speak. “You, I mean. Of course.”
“Yeah. They wanted to put me in some retarded music appreciation class instead but I wouldn’t let them. I have to be creative, man. I get enough useless facts crammed into my head in all my other classes.”
Mitch’s eyes danced. “Anyway, uh, I was hoping to run into you.”
I wondered if he meant what I thought he meant. My head buzzed. I looked away and grabbed onto the table.
It didn’t matter anyway. Someone was already passing out pencils so the class could start.
After school, I sat squashed against the bus wall with Emily. Mitch had already been sitting there and I’d almost but not quite got the courage to ask him if he liked me that way when Emily came along. She didn’t want to sit somewhere else and I didn’t want Mitch to move. He was going to slide over towards me and sit three in a seat, which made me happy, but the stupid bus driver said she wasn’t going anywhere until we were all seated the right way. So Mitch went across the aisle cause he figured Emily needed to talk to me.
I leaned against the window and barely answered when she asked how my day was. Petty and immature, I know, but I was that pissed.
I could half see Emily’s reflection in the window. She was biting her lip. Her eyes were wide and full of tears she wasn’t letting spill over. She reminded me of a little kid, which annoyed me. I looked over her shoulder at Mitch, but he was staring straight ahead and fiddling with his bookbag.
“I was right.” For once Emily’s voice was low. “That guy’s the one you like.”
“Is it that obvious?”
“I like him too. Not like that. You know I don’t. He’s just… he’s different and I can tell he’s cool.” Emily bit her lip again. She was thinking hard about something. “You should go for it.”
“Come on, Arthur. You never go for cute guys. You just pine after them ‘til they’re gone.”
“Yeah, well, he’s a lost cause. I mean, he’s not gay.” My ears were hot. I sneaked a glance at Mitch to make sure he hadn’t heard.
“How do you know? Wait, it doesn’t matter. Even if he is, who says he won’t experiment? I mean, it didn’t stop us summer before last.”
“Don’t start that. It didn’t work, Emily, and it never would have, okay? So give it up already.”
Emily sighed so deep I felt bad. Her face trembled. For a while she was quiet. Then she said, kind of casual like, “So, when you gonna ask him out?”
I wriggled in my seat. “Don’t you hear anything? He’s. not. gay. I can’t — ”
“Fine. I’ll ask him then.”
My throat felt tight. I looked from Mitch to Emily and back again. “You?” I said, keeping my voice steady. “Yeah, right.”
“Yeah, you’re right. It’s not like I actually like him or anything.” Emily sighed deeply. “It would feel so good to know he’d be interested, though, cause, well, you know....”
I played with loose stuffing oozing out of the seat in front of me. I didn’t know which was worse, that Emily was so pathetic or that Mitch might actually do something for her. “Emily, stop,” I said. “You’re a great friend and someday when you meet the right - “
“It’s not about meeting the right guy and you know it. What we had came close but it… even if you weren’t gay I wouldn’t have wanted what you wanted, not exactly.” Emily bit her lip. “Anyway, are you asking him out or not?”
I shrugged. “I’ll send him a Facebook message, I guess.”
Emily rolled her eyes and pushed her lips together. I could tell she thought I was being ridiculous. “Best I can do,” I said. “I have to take small steps.”
The bus stopped. I looked out the window. When I saw a white house with the porch supported by columns and the huge American flag, I was able to breathe easier. This was Emily’s stop.
“Promise you’ll do it, then,” Emily said.
“Don’t you have to get off here?”
“Not ‘til you promise.”
I sighed. “Okay, fine, whatever.”
Emily got off the bus. I watched the back of her blouse fan out in the wind while she ran down the road. I could hear other kids on the bus laughing at her. I swallowed hard and shook my head.
There was a tap on my shoulder, making me flinch. I turned to find Mitch standing there. “Slide over before I get yelled at for standing,” he said, flashing me one of those grins that made things happen that I wished wouldn’t happen while I was on the bus. I played it cool, sliding over slowly and hoping he didn’t notice that my eyes were level with his crotch.
Mitch threw himself into the seat. “So…” he said. “What was up with her?”
I shrugged. “Long story.”
“Yeah, with girls it always is. Sure you don’t like her?”
I stared at the seat back. “Sure you don’t?”
“Maybe. I’m just not sure she’s my type.”
The bus pulled away while I played with my backpack strap and tried to figure out what I was supposed to say. My heart was pounding and making it hard to think. Mitch leaned back and said, his voice low, “Aren’t you gonna ask me what my type is?”
The bus stopped again and I said, weakly, “This is where I get off.” My face got hot, realizing what I’d just said. Mitch stood to let me out and I asked, “You too, right? I mean, unless you have something better to do.”
“Nope. Let’s do this.”
I could feel Mitch’s eyes on my back as I went to the front of the bus. Everyone else was staring too, I was sure, but I didn’t care about them, only about him. I was freaked out and excited and confused all at once cause I just wasn’t sure whether or not he’d actually been flirting with me.
The bus let us off at the corner by Mitch’s house. “School wasn’t so bad,” Mitch said as it pulled off. “I’d rather do without, but if I have to go, at least this one’s laid back. People give you breathing room, you know?”
He glanced at me. My stomach felt tight and I had to look away, but not before I made myself smile at him like he’d said the funniest thing in the whole world.
“You have an okay day, man?” Mitch said. “You’re awfully quiet.”
I could feel my ears turning red. “I’m always quiet.”
“Stick with me and that’ll change.” Mitch grinned. We passed a green truck in his driveway and his grin turned to a scowl just like that. “What the fuck is my dad doing home so early? I bet he didn’t even make it to work. Bastard!”
The word rang in the air. Mitch slammed his bookbag down to the ground and grabbed onto the fence post in front of his house. He squeezed it the way I wished he’d squeeze me (why the hell was my mind going there?) and stood still, breathing hard. I stiffened, not knowing whether to run or to put my hand on his shoulder.
After a while, Mitch let go of the fence. He picked up his bookbag and dusted it off. “Sorry you had to see that. Listen, is it cool if I come over for a while? I just can’t take my dad right now.”
My heart pounded. A quick glance over my shoulder confirmed that my mom’s car wasn’t in the driveway.. She didn’t like me having people over while she wasn’t home. But how was she ever gonna know? Besides, I wanted Mitch so bad it was making me sick.
Somehow I managed to say, “Yeah, sure.”
“You sure? ‘Cause I could find someplace else to hang if . . . ” He didn’t finish. Instead he moved closer to me.
There was no mistaking it, he was flirting with me. Wasn’t he?
I had a sudden vision of me grabbing him and kissing him hard. But instead I just smiled and made myself say, “It’s no problem.”
We walked across the yard single file, not speaking. My hands were shaking so bad I dropped my keys opening the door and again when I went to pick them up. Mitch laughed and got them for me. Then somehow I managed to let us in.
“I always fix myself a snack first thing,” I said, walking into the kitchen. “Want anything?”
Mitch smiled slightly. I blushed and began opening random cabinets.
“You got anything to drink?” Mitch asked.
I breathed a little easier. “How about hot cocoa?”
“Cocoa? In this heat?”
I froze, the package of instant powder halfway out of the box. “Never mind.”
“No, it’s cool.” Mitch laughed. “I just never heard of anyone doing that before, but don’t apologize for being one-of-a-kind. More people should try being themselves once in a while. It would make the world a better place.” I blushed. Again. What was wrong with me? “Anyway ,” Mitch said, “I, um… you don’t drink, like, alcohol, do you?”
My shoulders fell. I felt as deflated as a day-old balloon. As far as I knew, only bad kids drank. I should tell him to go and never come back. That’s what Mom would want me to do. But instead I shook my head and stammered, “I . . . I don’t . . .”
“Good. I don’t either.” I raised my eyebrows and Mitch said, “Come on, dude, why would I mess up my life like my dad’s messed up his?”
“What’s the deal with your dad anyway?” I asked.
Mitch was quiet for a long time. “Nothing worth talking about, believe me. There must have been something good about him once cause my mom, she wouldn’t have had a kid with some loser, right? But all I can say about him now is, she deserves better.”
“But you live with him?” My heart beat fast. I never asked people personal questions, ever, especially not a guy I really liked. It felt weird.
“Yeah, well, that’s on me. If I hadn’t screwed up… anyway, where’s that cocoa?”
“Oh. Yeah. Right.” I turned my back to Mitch so that I could fill the electric kettle and set it to boil. I could feel his eyes on me and I didn’t like it.
I turned away. One of my textbooks was sitting on the kitchen table. I know, I know, it was the dumbest move ever, but I opened it and flipped through it, pretending to care about calculus while Mitch kept staring at me.
“Dude!” Mitch said, and I realized he’d been looking over my shoulder. “That’s one complicated mess. I knew you were smart, but wow. Guess you’re way out of my league.”
I turned towards him, not sure what he meant. “Um, no,” I said, uncertainly. “You’re not.”
The switch popped up on the kettle to tell us the water was ready. I glanced at it, then back at Mitch. “You gonna offer me a cup or what?”
“Oh. Yeah. They’re, um - “ I opened the cabinet door harder than I meant to and had to jump back so I didn’t hit myself in the head. “Here,” I mumbled, handing Mitch the cup. Our fingertips touched as he took the cup and helped himself to a packet of powder. I looked away, shoving my hands in my pockets.
“You’ve really got to learn to relax, man,” Mitch said as he stirred his cocoa.
“Who, me? I’m relaxed, I swear.”
“Yeah, right. Come on, dude, if that’s you relaxed I’d hate so see you nervous. Sucks having a nice house like this and not feeling comfortable in it. Is it me? Cause I can go if you need some space.”
“It’s not you, I swear.” I sounded like I was begging. I was so embarrassed I couldn’t look Mitch in the eye.
“You’d better give me an explanation, then, cause I’m starting to get a complex.” Mitch grinned at me, then threw his head back and took a sip of his cocoa like it was soda or something.
He had to be flirting with me. He had to be.
“E-Emily thinks… um…” I swallowed hard. What if I was wrong and I totally embarrassed myself, or worse he turned out to be one of those guys who hated gay guys?
“Emily? Seriously?” Mitch’s face fell. “Okay, out with it. What’s the deal with you and her?”
“What? There is no… there’s no deal, I swear. We’ve been best friends since I was eight, but that’s it.”
“Uh huh.” Mitch looked me up and down. “Keep telling yourself that, dude. Every time I turn around you’re either talking to her or freaking out about what she says. I didn’t think she was your type, but I guess I was wrong.” Mitch gulped his drink. “Listen, I’m gonna go.”
“You have it all wrong,” I said. “I’m not - “
“It’s cool, don’t worry. We all got that crush we wish we didn’t have, right?” Mitch turned on the sink full blast and filled his cup with water. “Looks like my dad’s gone,” he said, but there was no window near the sink so I knew he was lying. “Thanks for having me over.”.
I watched Mitch swing his backpack over his shoulder, wishing there was something I could say to keep him in the kitchen. “Mitch, listen - “
But he was already out the door.
I walked over to it, pressed my nose against it, watched Mitch walk away til he was out of sight. My head hurt so I stopped doing that and closed the door, then poured the rest of my cocoa down the sink.
I took my calculus book and everything else up to my room after Mitch left, figuring doing homework would make me forget everything, but I couldn’t concentrate so I got on Facebook instead and clicked on Mitch’s profile. It was still exactly the same. Same profile picture that made my heart beat too fast, same “it’s complicated” relationship status that hurt so bad. I hovered over the “Message” button, wanting to explain everything. In my head, he read it and wrote back that he was secretly totally in love with me and afraid I didn’t feel the same way. But in reality Facebook told me he’d gone offline so I didn’t bother to write anything at all..
I closed Facebook and opened a textbook after all. My phone buzzed and I grabbed it, hopefully. Maybe Mitch had beat me to messaging him.
Nope, it was Emily:
U asked him out yet?
“Mind your own business!” I yelled at the phone. I started to slam it down on my desk but stopped myself. I couldn’t afford to break my phone. I told Emily I was doing homework and turned my notifications off so she couldn’t bother me anymore. Then I opened a new tab and started checking out pictures of hot guys while feeling bad that I wasn’t doing anything worthwhile.
Around suppertime, Mom came home. Her engine was loud as she pulled into the driveway. It irritated me. I closed everything and went downstairs to get started on setting the table.
Mom held two large plastic bags to her chest as she came in. “I got Chinese,” she sang. She did that sometimes—just picked something up I really liked as a surprise so we didn’t have to worry about making dinner. Usually I got all excited over it. But tonight the best I could do was force a smile and say, “Great.”
“There’s a lot so I thought maybe you could run across the yard and see if the boy next door wants to join us. What’s his name again? Mike?”
My heart pounded. “Mitch.”
“That’s it.” Mom went into the kitchen to start the dishes. “Did Emily come over after school?”
“Emily? What? No, why?”
“Just wondering. There were two cups in the sink and I know the dishes were all done, so someone had to have been over, and you know the only other kid I want here when I’m not home is Emily.”
“Right.” My voice was flat.
Mom stuck her head out from the kitchen and beckoned me to come in. “Arthur,” she said when I did. “Who was here this afternoon?”
I looked at the ground. “Mitch.”
“I see.” Mom’s eyes were wide and full of disappointment. “Who decided to have him over and not tell me about it? You or him?”
“Nobody.” I was getting annoyed. “Why are you being so ridiculous, Mom? Nothing happened. We got off the bus and he didn’t feel like going home yet, so I said he could come over. But we didn’t do anything except drink cocoa, so what difference does it make?”
“It makes a difference,” Mom said, “because you knew the rules and you acted like breaking them was no big deal. Your heart was in the right place, Arthur, and God knows that boy could use a friend, but you don’t know what he’s capable of.”
I crossed my arms. “Do you?”
Mom’s lips were a thin line. “I’ve heard things.” She turned her back to me to scrub the dishes.
“I don’t like your tone.” Mom slammed a cup into the dish rack. “If you’re going to talk to me like that, you might as well go to your room.”
I picked up a container. Mom grabbed it out of my hand. “I mean it. Go to your room.”
I felt like saying a lot of stuff. For one thing, I was seventeen, not ten. And for another, Mom was being a real bitch for no good reason. But I didn’t dare say any of that. My throat felt tight. I mumbled, “Hypocrite.”
I pulled a container off the counter and stomped away before Mom could stop me. Instead of going to my room, I found myself outside on the porch. It was hot and sticky, and the warm food box didn’t help. The wind blew but it didn’t do any good. It was hot too.
Mom was in the doorway calling me but I was going the other way, walking fast, not knowing where I was going until all of a sudden I was at Mitch’s house.
I knocked on the door. The paint was peeling a little; I helped it along while I waited. Finally the door creaked partway open and Mitch looked out through the chain. “Not a good time, man,” he said under his breath, and started to close the door.
“Here.” I pushed the food container through the door. “From my mom, who’s hovering between being a good neighbor and being a real bitch.”
Mitch hesitated, then undid the chain. “Come in,” he said, “but not too loud, okay? My dad’s taking a nap.”
I came in. There were plastic bags and papers everywhere and the air smelled musty, and not good musty either. It was a weird, sickening mix of cigarettes and old food. I closed the door behind me as quietly as I could, but I had to pull it and it made a little bit of noise. Mitch looked up from the papers he was hurrying to pick up and throw away, and his eyes were wide. But all he said was, “Put it on the counter if you can find a space, okay?”
I nodded, but I stood there holding the container like I hadn’t heard a word he said.
Mitch pushed a bunch of crap into a wastebasket, then turned and grabbed the container out of my hand. Our hands touched again and again it made something happen for me that I wished it didn’t. Mitch put the container on the counter dividing the kitchen from the living room and said, “Don’t worry, dude. I’m sure your mom’ll cool down.”
“It’s not that,” I said, slowly. “It’s… look, about before…”
Mitch’s eyes narrowed. “I gotta check on my dad. Wait here a sec.” He disappeared down the hall before I could answer.
There was still crap all over the couch and anyway I wasn’t sure Mitch wanted me sitting down so instead I played with the blinds on the window and hoped my mom didn’t come running after me and making a scene. Mitch came back and tapped me on the shoulder. I flinched, then realized it was just him and turned around.
“He’s out still,” Mitch said. ‘So what’s up with your mom?”
“Nothing worth talking about. She gets in a snit about stupid stuff, that’s all.” I played with the edge of the Chinese food container. “We should eat this while it’s hot. Oh and by the way… I’m not into Emily.”
“Doesn’t matter to me if you are.” Mitch went into the kitchen to rummage around for stuff.. His dark curls bounced up and down and excited me more. “She’s the kind of girl who knows what she wants, and she’s got gorgeous hair and eyes, too. What’s not to like?”
So he hadn’t been flirting with me, after all. He liked Emily. Well, at least one of us would be happy when I told her. “She’s a girl, that’s what,” I mumbled.
Mitch turned around, slowly. It was starting to get dark enough that I couldn’t see what his eyes looked like. He said, “What, you don’t like girls?” and sort of laughed, but it was the kind of laugh you do when you don’t really think anything’s funny.
“Uh uh,” I said.
“Damn it,” Mitch said, and I thought he was upset about me, but then he said, “There’s no clean forks, and I can’t freaking find the plastic ones. If we wanna eat tonight, we’re gonna have to face your mom.”
“So we’re good then?” I asked.
There was a noise just then like a bed creaking. Mitch put his finger on his lips and handed me the container of food, gesturing towards the front door, before hurrying to the bedroom. I couldn’t hear what he was saying or if his dad was saying anything back, but Mitch was gone a while so I gave up and tiptoed out to the porch.
I turned and looked over the fence at my house. My mom was sitting on the porch, hugging herself like she was cold even though it was about 9000 degrees out. When she saw me looking, she got up and went inside. I sighed deeply as she slammed the door shut behind her.
“Hey,” Mitch said, coming up behind me. “Things’ll settle down with her, won’t they?”
“Dunno. I never walked out on her before.”
“Believe me, it could be worse.” Mitch glanced over his shoulder. “The food’s getting cold. Let’s walk back.”
“Yeah, okay.” I stuffed my hands in my pockets so I wouldn’t be tempted to grab Mitch’s.
“On second thought, I need a cigarette first,” Mitch said. “You wanna go ahead or…”
“Um, I’ll wait.”
An awkward silence fell over both of us. Mitch took his cigarette pack out of his pocket and hit it against the palm of his hand. I watched him light the cigarette and put it in his mouth. My heart was beating fast and my mouth was dry and I knew I should just go before I made myself sick inhaling his smoke but instead I moved a little closer to him.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Mitch said. “It’s not like Emily doesn’t smoke. Come on, dude, I saw you with her at lunch.”
“For the last time, I’m not into her!”
“Did I say you were?” Mitch tilted his head back and let some smoke out. “You always so jumpy or is it just me?”
I turned my back to him, crossing my arms. I was tired of trying to guess if he was flirting or not. “Yeah, it’s you,” I said, not daring to look at him. “It’s you and it’s me and it’s… look, I like you, okay?” The words just slipped out before I could stop them. “I like you and I can’t tell if you like me and it’s not the same as if a guy likes a girl who might not like him back because if I misread everything and you’re straight then me liking you is like some huge insult and I have to live next door to you and go to school with you no matter what happens.”
Mitch didn’t answer right away. I turned back towards him, wondering what the hell I’d done, and watched him take the cigarette out of his mouth. He turned away from me and put the cigarette out in an ashtray. “That… um, that’s cool,” he said, his voice so low I could barely hear him.
Is it? I thought, but I said nothing.
“About you and me,” Mitch said, “um, I dunno, man. I… um, I kinda think...” He swallowed hard. “Let’s just walk.”
“Whatever.” My feet felt like they were made of cement. Mitch didn’t have to say he wasn’t gay or wasn’t interested, whichever it was. His silence said it all.
My house was just across one little yard but it felt like the longest walk ever. It didn’t help that the heat hit me hard the second we got out from under the awning over Mitch’s porch. I dragged my feet and tried to ignore how sweaty I was. I hoped I smelled okay to Mitch then wondered why I cared.
We were almost all the way across the yard when Mitch said, “It’s not you, okay?”
“You know, what you said before. I, um, I didn’t know what to say, but it wasn’t cause of you, I swear.”
“No, really. Listen.” Mitch wiped his forehead with his sleeve. I couldn’t help liking the way that looked. “I, um, I think I might like you, maybe, except, um, you know how I asked about Emily?”
Her again. Why did her name have to come up every other second? “Yeah,” I said flatly.
“She’s, like, the most amazing girl I’ve seen, like, ever. She’s got her own look and it’s a good one, and she’s totally unique and herself and doesn’t try to be like other girls. And those eyes…” Mitch probably could see that I was glad for Emily and mad at her at the same time, cause he stopped talking about her. I shoved my hands into my pockets, trying to look cool instead of upset. Mitch said, “But the thing is, then I look at you and you’re like a thousand times more amazing than her.”
I crossed my arms. “What are you saying, Mitch?”
“Nothing. Everything. I dunno.” Mitch played with the top of his cigarette pack but didn’t take out another cigarette. “Whenever I run into you, I think I’m lying to myself about liking her. Maybe she’s, like, everything I’m supposed to want.”
“Cause she’s a girl, you mean.”
“Yeah.” Mitch shook his head. “All summer I’ve seen both of you around or whatever and it’s been like, I can’t figure out if I like you or I like her. Mitch squinted across the fence at the setting sun. “Thinking about it gives me a headache. Let’s try to get things right with your mom.”
I shrugged as I went down the hill towards the sidewalk. “Sure you don’t wanna hop the fence?” Mitch asked, grinning. I shook my head and kept going. After a second, he followed me.
When we got back to my house, Mom was standing in the doorway with her hands on her hips.
“Arthur,” Mom said. “Where the hell — ”
“Mitch wants to come for dinner, if that’s all right.” My voice was steady, but I was shaking where no one could see.
“Fine.” Mom’s lips were tight. Her attempt to smile nearly cracked her face wide open. “Come on in, Mitch. Arthur and I will follow you shortly.”
I turned red at how ridiculous Mom sounded. Mitch said, “You sure? I don’t wanna intrude if you guys need your space.”
“It’s okay. Really.” Mom sounded tired. “We won’t be long.”
Mitch nodded. He took the screen door from her and went in. Mom called after him, “There’s a pitcher of lemonade in the fridge. Feel free to help yourself.” Mitch let the door close without answering her.
“What’s wrong with you, Arthur?” Mom’s voice was soft even though her jaw was still tight.
I thought about telling her everything but I’d have to start with telling her I was gay before I could explain the rest, and those two little words made my mouth so dry I couldn’t say anything. I shrugged instead..
“Well, something’s bothering you. It’s not like you to be so defiant.”
“Mom, please.” Mom’s eyes were big and round. I couldn’t look at them, couldn’t see how worried she was. Would it be worse if she knew the truth about me? I looked away, rubbed the back of my neck. “Just drop it. Mitch is here and — ”
“Yeah, Mitch is here.” Mom’s lips were tight but her eyes were still big and soft. “I guess you might as well go in.”
“What about you?”
Mom sat down on the brick wall surrounding the lawn. “I need to pray.”
“Mom - “
“Just go. I’ll be in soon.”
Mitch was sitting on the living room couch when I came in, propping his head up with his hands. I looked automatically, but this time I didn’t have a good view of his crotch. My knees felt weak anyway. “Hey,” I said. “You find the lemonade?”
“I’m good. Everything cool with your mom?”
“Good. She seems cool and everything, don’t wanna ruin that.” Mitch stood up. “Food’s gotta be cold by now. Let’s warm it up for her or whatever.”
We went in the kitchen. Mitch pulled open the containers of food while I watched. A nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach told me something was about to happen. I didn’t know what or if it was any good.
“You got some bowls somewhere?” Mitch asked.
“Um, you can use these.” I felt way short all of a sudden as I opened a cabinet. I stood on my toes to make myself taller, more like Emily, more appealing to Mitch.
“Thanks.” Mitch’s fingers brushed mine as he took a couple bowls from me. He kind of froze, then slowly put the plates down. Glancing out the window, he said, “Your mom’s out there awhile.”
“She said wanted to pray, whatever that means. She’s not religious or anything, really. She…” I sounded like an idiot so I shut up.
“Whatever.” Mitch turned back to the bowls. He spooned kung pao chicken into one. The spicy smell mixed with how I felt about the way stirring the food made his arm muscles go up and down, almost like he was showing them off.
“Hey,” Mitch said, “you ever, like, experimented?”
“Experimented? Like in science?”
“No, I mean, with, you know.” Mitch put the bowl in the microwave. “Guys. Kissing and stuff.”
It was true. Except once I pretended Emily was a guy so I could kiss her.
“It’d be a first for both of us, then.” The microwave beeped. Mitch turned to it but didn’t open it. “It doesn’t mean I’m your boyfriend or whatever, okay? Just… this is driving me nuts and I feel like I gotta kiss you to figure it out. You wanna?”
“I guess.” My dream first kiss wasn’t with a guy who wasn’t sure and my mom in the backyard. But the ache in my stomach told me it was now or never, and the idea of never hurt too much.
Mitch put his hand under my chin. I could feel him shaking. It turned me on.
“Okay,” he said. “Just like kissing a girl. Here we go.” He pushed my chin up and put his lips on mine. There was stubble on his top lip that almost made me sneeze and his lips felt more like sandpaper than they looked. But I still didn’t want him to ever pull away. I held my breath, afraid I’d taste cigarettes on his. My heart pounded so fast I didn’t think I could ever breathe again, anyway.
Mitch pushed hard against me. I thought I felt him rub against me, but maybe that was just cause I wanted it so bad.
Then it was over. Mitch pulled away from me. He ran his hand through my hair just once, then dropped it. “Well,” he said. “Guess I can cross that off my list of stuff I’ve never done.”
“Yeah.” My mouth was too dry to say much else. “Um, so…”
Mitch turned away from me. He pressed the button hard to open the microwave. “You sure your mom’s okay out there?” he asked. “Maybe you should check on her.”
I started for the door. “Arthur,” Mitch whispered, and I turned around again. “Don’t freaking tell anyone, you understand?” His jaw was set and hard and there was fire in his eyes. It scared me, but I liked it too.
I nodded. Who the hell would I tell, anyway?
I went out the back door. The wind blew across my face and that dog across the street that never shut up started barking. It felt like every other day. But I knew that it wasn’t, that the whole world had changed and there was no going back.