Guys I Wanted To Fuck in High School is a series of short essays about growing up frustrated in small-town Pennsylvania. (This is the last entry in the series, and will be followed up later this year with a series of limited edition print chapbooks, each with a different cover by a different artist.)
Senior year is the year time gets all fucked up and also the year I fall in love and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
See because at the end of this year, summer won’t be summer anymore, it won’t be a break between school and school, like the place you go after you die but before you’re kicked back into life. It won’t be a way station, it’ll just be hot and hotter and then collapse into red leaves and puffs of breath you can see and everyone will say, hey, it’s Autumn now.
And morning won’t be morning, no rushing to get ready, to hurry through the park, across the bridge, up the hill to the school, where the kids congregate and tease each other and tease me and hide their cigarettes till the doors open and swallow us all up. I’ve known most of those kids since I was four or five, and they’ll all be gone and morning will just be the time when I wake up.
And I won’t be me, I’ll be this person with a mark, an empty little square of loss inside of me that never gets filled in. That’s love. Everything will change.
Which is how I know that almost everything I thought was real is arbitrary. I figured out some of this early on – like why do we have to raise our hands to go to the bathroom? What’s a “grade” and why should I care? Why do we have to raise our hand to ask a question? Or sharpen our pencils? When you see through all that haze and there’s nothing behind it, the teachers don’t like you much. But now I’m starting to see that even more of it makes no sense, it’s all like a tight coil, unraveling. You know, like how you twist up a straw wrapper and then let a drop of water fall onto it? That’s what this year is like, what the right questions are like, what love is like. A knot turning into a snake, slowly coming to life.
His name is Thom and he spells it it with the h and he’s new. He has a vaguely Canadian accent, like he transferred here from a high school on a Nickelodeon show.
In the cafeteria, a few weeks into the year, he’s standing there lost and unfamiliar to everyone, with his pale blue lunch tray. There’s an empty seat at out table, where I sit with Becky and Gwen and some boys, and I wave him over.
He’s taller than anyone else at the school, I swear – six two? six three? – so it seems like it takes longer for him to sit down, to bring his body into the seat. When he gets there, I really see him. He has brown hair and plain, unintentional clothes. His face is sort of…sad? Like he’s a little tired. Sad and handsome. And you know? I’m not excited about him right away. I think he’s handsome, but it’s not love at first sight. It takes a few minutes.
He looks at my lunch – I’m mostly vegetarian so I don’t eat much except the Tasty Klair pies, which are like eclairs but made out of pie crust. I bite off the ends and shove Cheetos in the custard. I drink ice tea from a carton.
We don’t eat anything that has a face, Gwen says to him. Except chickens, because they’re ugly.
What year are you, I ask.
Senior, he says.
But you’re not in any of my classes.
That’s because I’m in with the dumb kids, he says.
You’re not dumb, I say. Or at least, you’re different. I can tell.
How? he asks.
There’s just something about you, I say.
Thanks, he says, and then touches my shoulder, just for a second. His eyes are green or blue; lake-like. He smiles, and he has a smile that makes me smile too. And that’s when I fall in in love. Not quite first sight, but only a little late.
I walk Gwen home that day – it’s out of the way, but I want to talk with her. She’s been one of my best friends since this whole school business began twelve years ago. If anyone knows I like guys for sure, it’s her, even though we haven’t talked about it. You can’t just say it, because even if everyone already knows, once you say it, they’ll feel different. No matter what you do, they’ll never forget that distance between you.
It’s just like how I know better than Gwen does that she’s a lesbian, but she’s never told me. How did we find each other all those years ago and become friends before we knew? See? Time. It’s bound up in ways we don’t understand, so we just make it all up.
Thing is, I think she’s started taking drugs or something. She’s out of it, she’s around less in our last year. She’s skinnier. I don’t maybe, maybe it’s just in my head. Everyone suddenly starts taking drugs except me. People do cocaine at parties I’m not invited to. People shoot heroin. This is still the suburbs, but something weird is going on. We’re all growing up in wrong ways.
Do you know where Thom moved here from? I ask her.
No, she says. She’s thinking about something else.
Why do you think he moved? Does he seem sad to you?
I don’t know, she says.
Are you okay? I ask her, and she stops and jumps a little, like she’s been shaken awake.
On the sidewalk, right there at our feet, is a squirrel with broken bones, pulling itself across the cement. There’s some blood and it’s straining with each inch. I can see its teeth, how long its teeth are.
What should we do? I say. We can’t just leave it.
I think, there must be people who take care of problems like this; they take animals in and usher them back to health. I imagine a woman with a house full of little bottles to feed the animals by hand. Cages that have hawks with broken wings, rabbits with smashed feet.
I’ll call the police and see if they know, Gwen says, and she runs to her house.
You’re going to be okay, I say to the squirrel. It’s terrified and doing its best to move, flat on its belly. You’re going to be okay. I don’t like anything that comes next.
A boy, Jonathan, that I used to be friends with when we were boys – because we were all friends when we were children – walks by and sees me kneeling.
What are you doing, he says. Praying on the sidewalk?
Then he sees the squirrel.
Jesus, he says.
I have to stay here with it, I say.
Jonathan laughs and walks away like nothing’s happening. But before that, he says, You know this isn’t the kind of thing you do if you want people to like you.
I don’t even know what that means, but I know it hurts when he says it. Just like, when Gwen comes back, a cop shows up and says he’ll take care of it, go away now. We linger for a minute until he tells us again to get out of here, and there’s no note of thanks or mercy.
Did he call a…I don’t know, a wildlife protector person or something? I ask.
Try not to think about it, Gwen says.
We wait for the time-stopping pop of a gunshot, but we don’t hear anything.
I really thought there was a person who took care of that sort of thing, I say to her.
Maybe there isn’t anyone though, maybe I just made that up.
I’m confused about what’s real and what isn’t. All the real stuff, the stuff that’s not arbitrary, comes out of nowhere. Like Thom, like falling in love with him. Last year, I started automatic writing and it scared the shit out of me, but I couldn’t stop. It’s this thing I do now, almost every day. I have notebooks filled with phrases that don’t make much sense, phrases that sound like they’re channeled from somewhere else. I AM A PERFECT BLANK AND WILL FOLD UP TIME one says. GIVE ME YOUR LEGS AND KNEEL IF YOU WANT MERCY says another one. And there are stories too – one about a man who is crucified to to the ground, one about a woman who falls in love with a glass statue. All of them have that frantic gesture. I close my eyes and get this sort of overheated feeling and words come out in huge excessive loops across the page, the ink gathering into pools so heavy and the pen pressing down so hard that the paper tears. I’m always in a sort of wavering trance when I write them, like I have to blot myself out so they can come through. They all feel true, but writing them is scary.
Do you want to come over? Thom asks me.
School’s just let out and I’m talking to Becky near my locker. Becky’s a year younger than us; she has blonde hair and wears vulgar plastic jewelry, and uncomfortably red lipstick, but somehow it looks good on her.
At first I think he’s talking to Becky, but she looks over at me like, well? Then Thom puts his hand on my back again.
When we we get to his house – an apartment in a huddled complex on the hill near the high school – his mom is smoking a cigarette. She’s looking at her Dungeons and Dragons map, spread across the table. She looks happy that Thom has made a friend.
Do you play? she asks, gesturing to the map and the little pewter figures.
When I was a kid, I say. With my brother, I say.
You have a brother? Thom asks.
I do, but he’s my half brother and thirteen years older than me, and I don’t see him that much.
We just did it normal style, I say, no figures or anything, it was all just in our heads.
Well we’d do that too, Thom’s mom says, But Thom forgets everything.
Then she laughs and whips her hand out to smack his butt. I realize she’s also chewing gum. Chewing gum, smoking a cigarette, smacking Thom’s ass, this place feels weird.
This is it, he says, when we go into his bedroom.
There’s a mattress on the floor and a pile of clothes. There’s one window with a white venetian blind. We talk, and later, when his mom leaves, we watch TV. But even though she leaves, the entire time it feels like his mom is in the room with us. The whole apartment smells like smoke and it’s so small. Only poor kids live in apartments in my town. In my house, in my other friends’ houses, someone could call your name on the first floor and you’d never hear it up on the second. In an apartment, you’re always close to someone else, but I bet you never feel like you can hear your own thoughts.
The kid who gave me a blowjob when I was thirteen lives in this complex. We were best friends, but we’re not really friends at all anymore. I still see him in homeroom and stuff but after the blowjob, I don’t know, I couldn’t talk to him anymore. I think that officially makes me a terrible person. I came in his mouth and it was like I wasn’t even there. I didn’t feel it, I almost want to say it didn’t happen. He’d already had sex with plenty of guys by then; he used to have a card that said “escort” on it, and the number on it was his home phone number! Old men would call his house and his mom would answer and he’d say, “Mom, get off the phone, it’s work.” They’d fuck him, I guess, which I’m sort of envious of. Thirteen and getting fucked! You might see that kid now, and you might think, “just a kid.” But he knows more than most of us about a lot of things.
If Thom gave me a blowjob, I know I’d feel it. When we’re watching TV, I rub shoulders and I feel a flush, like I’m going to start writing something.
We start hanging out every day. After school, two boys.
At lunch, I start putting my hand on his leg underneath the cafeteria table. No one can see my hand on his leg, and if I’m afraid they will, I pull it away. And he never pushes it off. I always keep it just above his knee.
And I start imagining him when I jerk off. Not just sucking his dick, but him holding my hand and putting his arm around me at night, him kissing me. I start to imagine what it would be like living with him. Waking up with him in the morning.
One day at lunch, he puts his hand on my head and messes up my hair, right in front of everyone at the table. I smile and smile, right through the rest of the day. If time stopped right there, I’d be okay.
The day Thom asks me if I want to sleepover, I have English class last period, and I’m staring at the clock, black lines in a circle. I don’t usually stare at the clock during English class because it’s my favorite class. Mr. Rothrock, my English teacher, is sort of crazy. Not in necessarily a good way, not in the way caring English teachers are in movies. Instead, he’s sort of unhinged. He has a very, I don’t know…flowery? voice. Some of what happens in his class is ordinary, some of it is bizarre, and you have no idea what you’re going to get.
Today, he’s telling us to make sure we keep an eye on our wallets in New York, because later in the year, he’ll take us to New York to see Showboat on Broadway, and all the jock kids will talk about how they loved it; they were so surprised they loved it, like their loving it is some grand stamp of approval. Really, Showboat is just mediocre, but okay.
You don’t want anyone undesirable reaching into your back pocket, Mr. Rothrock says, Someone desirable, well that’s a different story.
I stare at the clock.
The period is about to end and Scott Franklin says he has an announcement. He just got a new car. Why is he announcing this? Like who cares if Scott got a new car.
But Mr. Rothrock asks him if it has leather seats and when Scott says yes, Mr. Rothrock says, So you like to get naked and rub around on them?
Outside, Thom is waiting; he’s talking to Becky and Gwen and Becky’s laughing too hard at something he’s said. People file past us, and then Gwen and Becky leave and the school looks exhausted and empty.
Do you want to hold my hand? I say. And then, quickly, Like just friends, I mean girls hold hands and they’re just friends, right?
If anyone saw us holding hands, they’d tease us. If Thom weren’t so tall, they’d probably beat the shit out of us. But no one sees us. We walk all the way back to his apartment that way, holding hands. I’ve never done this before, and he’s so tall that I have to lift my arm up a little to meet him, but it feels perfect.
At his place, his mom isn’t home, and he reaches under the kitchen counter and comes back up with something clear, which he drinks a lot of and I drink a little of until we’re equally drunk. I’ve had almost no alcohol in my life.
Where’s your mom? I ask.
Dunno, he says.
Then he takes off his pants. He’s wearing white boxer shorts with thin blue vertical stripes.
I was going to ask her to get movies, he says, but whatever, let’s just watch TV.
For hours, I don’t know what we’re watching. I don’t know what we say when we talk to each other. Thom’s mom doesn’t come home, and we sit on the couch, close. I mess up his hair and he leans his head back onto my chest.
Kiss me on the cheek, I say.
Kiss me on the cheek.
And he does. I expect to be totally immersed when he kisses me. But instead, I think a lot of things. I think about how I was too scared to try to kiss him on the mouth. I think about how he’s taking a risk, kissing me on the cheek, how it’s brave. Mostly, though, I think, did he only do that because I told him to? Or did he really want to?
What do you know about Becky? Thom asks.
Nothing, but she’s one of those girls, I say defensively.
What do you mean?
Nothing, I say. Can we go to bed? Can we lie down in your bed?
We’re both dizzy. We’re both drinking. We’re both in his room, on the bed. His shirt is off, and mine is off too and I put my arm around him and feel his back against me, his chest, his belly, the soft hair beneath his belly button. My dick is so hard up against him, and everything else is soft. I want to say, I love you.
You’re not going to move again, are you? I ask. You’re going to stay here.
I’m going to stay here, he says.
I have no idea why he moved. All that time we spend together and he remains totally mysterious, like he came out of nowhere. I don’t know what happened to his dad, or where his mom goes, or where he lived before he lived here. I’ve convinced myself that people at his old school found out he was gay, and harassed him, so he had to move. Every time I tried to ask, he changed the subject. Like that weird movie my punk rock friends showed me about the rich people who are stuck in a house. It was black and white and strangely boring and terrifying at once. All these people get stuck in one room of a house and can’t leave; every time they try to, the find out they just don’t have the will to do it.
You never told me where you came from, I say.
What about college? he says.
Fuck that, fuck thirteenth grade, I say. I’m not going to college.
I listen to him breathing and wonder if he’s asleep.
What about your dad? I ask. Does he live around here?
Thom rolls over and looks into my eyes. I can feel his breath on my lips.
Are you hard? he says. He grabs his dick through his boxer shorts and shakes it at me. It’s huge, even though it’s still flaccid.
I think I drank too much he says. Can you roll over?
I roll onto my side, facing away from him, and he puts his arm around me. I think I might start crying but I don’t. Instead, I kiss his arm as his breaths get longer and longer and he’s asleep.
I can’t sleep. I can’t jerk off. I don’t want to wake him up. I lie there for hours, with his long, heavy arm draped over me. I love you, I think again and again, but never say it.
In the middle of the night he mumbles something into my ear, but I can’t make it out.
What? I say.
But he doesn’t repeat it. Whatever he said in his sleep, with his eyes closed, I’ll treat it as if it were totally clear, as if I know what he meant and it was his most alert, awake moment. I tell myself that we only say what we mean when we’re not trying to say anything at all. The light starts to open up through the venetian blind and I can hear the birds.
Thom, I write on a page in my notebook, and I underline the h. It’s cute, that h. Also in my notebook, is a photo of him I took from his house. I took that and his white-with-blue-lines boxer shorts. I know it’s stealing, but I’ll tell him about it. And anyway, he could have anything of mine that he wants.
The photo was in a jumbled pile of photos in his bathroom. Most of the photos were of his mom and people I didn’t know. Maybe one of the guys was his dad, but none of them looked like him. There were a few pictures with him in them, but in all the other ones he’s got one of those weird half-developed dirty mustaches. They look silly. In the one I have, the one I keep in the back of my notebook, he’s caught in mid-laugh, his eyes partially closed. There’s a blank wall behind him. It’s not a great picture, and I want it with me all the time.
In the school stairwell where there’s a giant Jesus painting, I drop my books and my photo falls out and all my papers are all over the place. It’s between classes, so everyone is trampling down the stairs, and I’m holding everything up, clogging the hallway.
One kid stops and takes his gum out and jumps up to stick it on one of the crucifying nails.
Oh shit, someone else says, laughing.
We go to a public school, so that painting shouldn’t be here, but it was done by a student forever ago, so it’s not “religious,” it’s “student art.” On the floor, in front of the painting, I’m on my hands and knees, looking for Thom’s photo. The gum unsticks and falls off the nail onto the floor. I feel weird about the temporary vandalism and I don’t know if Jesus is made up or real; if he’s arbitrary or something else. Maybe there’s a third thing, something that’s not real or fake; something beyond all of that. When I find the photo, I hide it again in the back of my notebook.
Then the night comes when we’re supposed to go to Gwen’s house; me and Thom and Becky, and I have to tell you something, a confession.
You know how else I know time is all fucked up? That time is arbitrary? Because this isn’t me writing this. I mean, it’s me, but it’s weird; I’m not myself. There’s this voice coming through from nowhere, through a black cloud when my eyes are closed. There’s this Future Version of Me that’s messing with my voice, making me tell you this.
Maybe it’s because summer isn’t going to be summer anymore and the morning is over and there’s this moment coming. If nothing matters the way it used to, there’s an absence where all the stuff I used to think was, and now it’s filled up by this Future Me, who just slipped through.
And because it’s from the future? All these words pouring out of me? Well from the beginning I knew everything that would happen before it happens. So when it happens, it’s like I’m not there. Like I’m in the sway of things instead of directing them. Like someone being shown their life, touring around it with a ghost.
Me and Thom and Becky will go to Gwen’s house. Thom and Becky will sit on the couch, and I’ll go upstairs.
Gwen will be in her room, she has to tell me something.
In the room, where she still has stuffed animals, and a book of her drawings on the floor, she’ll be crying, I can see it. She’ll tell me about some girl she likes. I’ll tell her I love Thom, but I won’t cry. We’ll reveal ourselves to each other, even though we already know it all. Even though we could see it coming.
She’ll be the first person I just come out to and tell about any of this stuff to. It should be a big moment, it should be the thing that marks this night. But it won’t be, because then we’ll go down the stairs.
Please Future Me, I don’t want to see it. Please don’t make me watch my life.
On the couch will be Thom. On the couch will be Thom and Becky.
I can see them holding each other, and their faces will be touching and their eyes will be closed and I’ll close my eyes too and that will be the truth of it all. No one’s looking at anything.
You are a fucking whore, I’ll say to Becky. You are fucking bitch and a whore.
The words just show up; even though I don’t like them.
The two of them will pull apart and she’ll have this look on her face. It’s the look of someone who does not deserve to be hurt, who’s done nothing wrong. I know how it feels to have that look on your face.
I won’t look at Thom’s face at all. I’ll run out of the house.
That night, no one will see me for hours. I’ll walk around our little town, in the dark, by myself. It will be cold, and my jacket will be on the floor of Gwen’s room where I left it.
There’s the little bridge in the park that I cross when I walk to school, and I’ll walk down the hill to the creek and I’ll sit under that bridge, right by the water I’m used to crossing over. In the dark, I’ll hear the frosted up edges of the water crack under my feet, but the rest of the creek isn’t frozen yet, the water’s still rushing by. I don’t know how long I’ll sit there, but that’s where I’ll stay and cry. I’ll forget everything except what it felt like to see him kissing her.
When I get back to Gwen’s house, Thom will be gone. I’ll have no idea what time it is. Becky will still be there. She’ll be smoking a cigarette outside in the cold, and I can see the makeup messed up all across her eyes.
I’m not a whore, she’ll say,
I know, I’ll say, although I don’t really know much about her.
Do you love me? she’ll ask.
And I’ll be struck at how ridiculous and unknowing the whole world can pretend to be, even when everything is laid out in front of us.
No, I’ll say. Not you.
Oh my God, she’ll say, figuring it out.
A few days later, on the little bridge, in the morning before school, I tell Thom I love him. I haven’t seen him since that night that still feels like it couldn’t have happened. He doesn’t sit next to me at lunch anymore, he’s moved to a different table with Becky.
I’m too late. I should have told him before. Like we were too late for the squirrel, like I was too late coming down the stairs. Nothing catches up to where it’s supposed to be.
I’m not gay, he says.
But you care about me, right?
Becky’s my girlfriend and you have to accept that, he says.
Where is this coming from? I ask. I turn my head away so he can’t see my eyes tearing up.
Nowhere, he says.
I reach for his hand and he pushes me away.
Do you want to be friends? he asks, and I run away from him, up the hill back to my house.
My mom and stepdad aren’t home. I stay inside the whole day doing nothing, being no one. It’s the day of yearbook photos, and I miss it, so at the end of the year, I’m missing from the yearbook. Or not even “missing,” because there’s no mention that I’m not pictured. All those years in this place, and at the end, there’s no trace of me.
The next day, I go back to school in a dull haze. Thom passes by me in the hall, but doesn’t say hi. I know right then that he’ll never talk to me again. The day unknots and uncoils, and I’m in and out of feeling it.
At the end of it, Mr. Rothrock’s stands in front of all of us and breaks down, crying.
I have Lyme’s disease, he tells us. It’s interfering with my speech. There was a tick lodged in my back, can you imagine?
I feel a hundred miles away from him. Everyone is uncomfortable. We’ve been making lists of all his verbal fuck ups for a couple months now, thinking about how funny it is that he uses one word when he means another.
Did everyone read the boom? he’d say, when he meant book. And when we read Lord of the Flies, which is great, he said Lord of the Lies. And instead of the Mayor of Casterbridge, which is boring, it’s the Sailor of Casterbridge.
I understand there’s a list, he says to us. Is there a list? I need to see that list. It will help me figure out what I’ve been doing wrong, so I can improve my speech.
Gwen, who sits in front of me turns red. She’s helped make the list. Now all these marks against him, these terrible things – he needs to see them.
Do you know what it’s like for a man of words such as myself to be deprived the ability to speak? he says.
Then he starts crying again. Really weeping.
Is there a list, he says again.
But no one gives him the list.
Why would he cry in front of us? He has other classes. Did he cry in front of all of them? Maybe he feels close to us, but no one will ever stop seeing how different he is.
Everyone is still for a second; we have no idea how to react, time stops. Then the bell rings and we know what to do and we’re off. Time’s up.
He’s crazy, one boy says in the hall.
You can’t cry in front of everyone and expect them to like you, says a girl.
Yeah, someone else says, what a faggot.