When you watch someone walk away—when he looks back at you, saying later and his eyes spark with a promise for tomorrow—it’s like seeing yourself splitting apart, peeling away, your skin stretching without breaking, transparent like a film of plastic wrap.
It unrolled, he unrolled away from me, my Jackie, leaving me more than alone, waiting on the tear and rip and slow curl around my own skeleton. Not with a snap or pop or fizzle, it smoked back, invisible, the final snag on a sawtooth edge cutting us apart.
I wished it was clean, like before. But clean was for when I had hope and trust to wrap me up and keep me and him safe. Safe as we could be. For now.
But now was gone gone gone, and it wasn’t coming back. We was out of time, Jackie and me, out of our own little world. The thing keeping us tethered, the shared thing we’d discovered, got stripped and balled up in a fist, God’s fist, and he tossed it, tossed us like trash. Hurled us, me and him, the two of us bound in a wad of hurt and care, glued together and apart.
It made no sense. It made every sense.
I knew a word I shouldn’t. I felt a way I shouldn’t. Couldn’t. But there it was, us wrapped up in each other. Rolling on the ground, him shivering and shaking and wanting, me taking mostly, except lately it’d been him leading the way, exploring and saying when and how and how much.
The light show dipped down beyond the treeline on the far rise. The ground rolled some to the west, enough to lift the eye higher, to tease a bit, make you believe there was more or different or mysterious just beyond the tippy tops swaying in the breeze. It wasn’t. Just more fields, more corn or wheat or oats. More of the same, more of us trapped wide open, the dirt below, the sky above our floor and roof. North, south, east, west was more, more hardscrabble, more forever that never came close.
We was jailed up tight, me and Jackie.
I stood. It hurt, I hurt in that achy way makes you feel old and spent and I understood Ma when she groaned like she did, coming down the stairs, and I wondered on that. What makes a person moan in a way that speaks to more than pain?
More, it was always about more, never about enough. Or maybe it was about too much…
We’d cleaned up like we did … after. Slipped on jeans, tees balled tight in our fists. Shoelaces lay knotted, strung out in knobs on the dried up, broken stems. I sat on the towel to pull my sneakers on. It was wet, leaving a round circle of remembrance. Jackie rubbing me down, the slime and droplets filming on my skin. He said I shined up good.
We laughed at that. Mostly he did. He was trying hard not to think on us, the after part we dreaded now. The after part that killed us slow at first, then faster and faster, and now it was out-of-control. Inevitable. So he teased to make it better, to make it normal, though us and normal wasn’t ever how it was gonna be.
The weight of knowing was in the bark of the old oak, me touching the bits of rough, peeling away enough to take it into the toughest part of me, the hard, worn bits of skin that had brought him and me close enough to not care about being more, wanting more, earning more, deserving more.
I sucked up the weight and strength and folded it into my fist, knowing it’d never be more now, not ever again.
I wondered if it would ever be enough.
I was afraid now. Fear bit me, stung me like a mosquito swarm, like when you don’t feel the landing so it’s kamikaze, raping whatever floated near the surface, sucking down your life’s blood.
A single one, trapped like you in your room, zeroing in on the hottest bit, the bit that was you lying there in your sweat, soaking the sheets and listening, listening hard for the zit and biz and air moving so slight it spooked you to your core.
Ma said it was anticipation what done it, kept you eyeing the dark, waiting on it, ducking under covers even when it was like hot coals in there. Until you couldn’t stand it and you threw them back, the covers, you kicked with a foot, then the whole leg. Defiant, Ma said it was an act of defiance, how your brain wished one way but your body said another.
And even when you knew it was coming, even when the anticipation tasted like grit and a dare, it still shocked, and your neck and shoulders snapped awake in retaliation. You reached for the light. You stopped, knowing it might roust the others, alert them to the feast.
Then you buried and burrowed and cowered down lower. Tearing at the spot, bloodying it up more than what was already there, tearing at the tingly itching spasms that spun out, out and away and you scraped at your whole arm. Wrist to elbow, then other places, places still virgin, pristine territory you nailed clean through with hummocks and bits of flesh streaked with anger or desperation or just plain old irritation at being had once more.
Anticipation. It worked a treat every time.
The house was dark. That was good. That was not so good. Sometimes Eddy waited up when he figured out I’d snuck away. He didn’t care about that part, he just cared about the waiting bit. Like the sting and what followed, he tore himself up, working up a rage on me being late.
He’d been the lucky one, the one with the porch roof just under his window. It left him free to come and go. Of all the things I wished right then was for me to be the older one, the one with a room facing front, looking onto the street, not the puny back yard and the tall privacy fence and trees too far to be much use.
Some days I thought on how they were right, about me being slow, ’cause I never come up with a get-around. It played out the same every damn time. Mostly he’d shove me against the wall and hiss something but I’d be turning away, not wanting to taste his hate and his spite for having me tarnish his good son reputation.
The jock with the queer, the strange one, the slow one, the brother too fucking dumb to look up to you when you deserved it. He wore me like what I imagined the preacher meant by hairshirt. A punishment, a threat, a dare. Like having me in the house, hell … like having me on the same planet was a sucker punch he didn’t deserve.
But there I was, cowering in the hall, the creaking and swishing of socks on wood stairs behind me, taunting me with a memory of what waited opposite my room.
Please, please God, please. Let me have this night be perfect, just this one. Me holding onto Jackie, him stroking my back, then stroking more and more, and when it happened, that time I cried from sheer terror and joy and torment.
He come at me silent, touched me silent, not even a breath of air to break the anticipation into small bits I could deal with. He come like that film binding me and Jackie together, the sticky glue of us coating our bellies, drawing us into a bundle, his flesh, my flesh no different.
Eddy knew not to leave too many marks, keeping to the parts Ma wouldn’t likely see, even though she’d stopped caring far longer ago than I could rightly remember. But not always. Sometimes he’d do a sharp thing with his fist, moving too fast for me to know where or how hard, the impact just off my cheekbone, leaving a bruise, and he and Pa’d, they’d exchange a glance in the morning.
That was anticipation too, maybe worse that expecting the sting or the grip on my neck, jerking me into his room, shoving me to the floor, kicking at my ribs, my ass, my thighs. It was worse, ’cause what passed between them hurt like they’d set my skin on fire or pounded bones into splinters that wore up and out, like jagged, ripping thorns snaking under the shell that was me.
Approval like that hurt, it hurt hard and it hurt soft. Soft was bad. Soft was what stayed with you. It filled all the crevasses, it ate up the empty space and made it its own. Soft was the remembering. Soft was what made for anticipation and the surprise and unfairness of it all.
Soft made me soft inside, like every bit of me turned to jelly, wiggling every which way. Eddy had added to the anticipation, the dread, that extra knowing of what he could do if he wanted.
He hissed a word, a mean word. A stinging word. “Get in here, fag.”
I uttered a soft word, a word of anticipation. “Please.”
I used to add no or don’t or I’ll tell Ma and he’d chuckle, a fearsome thing, him chuckling. It was like it caught in his throat, the way razor blades might sound if they tangled together in a blast of air.
“Please? Please what, you fucking perv.”
He touched me, hard, hard enough the tears leaked from the corners of my eyes, hard enough to taste blood where I’d bit the inside of my lip. Hard was good, hard was evil, hard was easy to shut out, let my body deal with it. Make it separate from my brain, make it look inside and pull out a memory of Jackie. The first time, how he tasted, the look of wondering. The trust. And then the demanding way he turned it around and made it his own until we made it ours. Together.
Hard was good, until it got soft, and Eddy turned me around and did the same things, the exact same things that had been secret and special, softer than soft. Slow strokes with one hand, shutting down my air with the other, bending me back into his chest, easing me off the floor to dangle by the throat until the dark swam in long liquid streaks. Pink, purple, flashes of yellow.
Mouthing please, I tried to go limp but I couldn’t. I wasn’t giving in, not this time. I couldn’t live with it, with betraying Jackie, even though it felt amazing, too amazing to let go, too good to remember anything but needing to let it happen.
But it did.
Oh God, why why why why…
The whiplash, my head and neck snapping around so fast it stung clear to my toes, followed the squeeze, relentless on my throat ’til I sunk into a heap on the floor and still he hung on, with two hands, hissing, “That’s what you want, isn’t it, little bro?”
Rocking my head, side-to-side, tongue bulging, I gacked and choked and clawed with dead fingers until he released me, spread me gasping and heaving, out flat. He stood, stood on me, soft turned to hard, hard on the soft bits, the tender bits, the bits Jackie and I worshipped in the night of night.
And he chuckled. “Ma won’t think to look there, will she, pansy? It’s just between me, you and Pa.” He smirked, his face pale in the moonlight shining through the window. “You know what’ll happen if you tell.”
I gurgled, “I won’t tell.” Honest. I wouldn’t, I couldn’t. I’d make a sign but the agony curled me up, spit me out.
“You best not, you pussy. Otherwise…”
My skin crawled. The ache of soft turned rough and rigid and icy cold down my spine, and when I felt the trickle of warmth leak down inside my jeans, I screamed inside my head.
The side of the bed beckoned. I didn’t dare touch it.
“You stink. Get up and get out, you piece of filth.”
That time I managed to stand, swaying and worrying at the feel of hot fluid in a race to soil everything in its path. I limped to the door, paused to hear it again, just like last time.
“You know what happens if you tell, don’t you?”
I nodded. I did know. But that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was the hard and the soft mixing up inside me. The worst part was…