Oh! I could barely contain this joy, this excitement spilling poetry from the edges like molten lava of a volcano; on hearing your voice through this corded universe coded. My heart here knows today, such tremendous explosion, like the sudden boom of an underwater sea bed. Sending those ripples of zeros and ones across the sky surface, I decipher them in the space between us, to a bottled note of love, music in the ring of that call; and there is a voluptuous eruption of joy in my bosom as I taste your hiccupped laughter over the line, like bubbles in my cappuccino, my latte. Ha! The words flow nearly noiseless like honey from a dipper, smoothly dripping from your lips, shhh! reaching my ears too far away from your tongue tracing its curvatures, yet piercing my innards you go on talking. Oh! Your voice, so rich so intense cutting across this silver network of signal, fails to make believe me; how far a kiss is homed, and there I curl my fingers over some lately cut bangs, cuddling to a leech in the gaps between your fingers, I try to knot you in my tangles, a screenshot here, click! A souvenir until we meet.
Artist Bio: JGeorge is a 26 year old writer from Pondicherry. Her poems have appeared in several online and print journals, most recently in “The Martian Chronicles”, “FishfoodMag”, “Muse India”, “Madras Courier”, “Spark the Magazine”, “VerbalArt”, anthologies of “Boundless”(Rio Grande Valley International Poetry Festival 2019) and “Love, As We Know It” (Delhi Poetry Slam). Currently, she is pursuing her research at Pondicherry University.
Thank you for being with me on this journey over the past three years. TROU has grown and I hope has made a difference in your lives. I know it’s made a difference in mine.
Starting soon, I’ll be able to share two posts a month with you! For that I am thankful and excited. I love sharing your work with the world, to carve a space for those who need to be seen means so much. Please, keep sending in your pieces for consideration. It is a joy for me to read them.
To be honest, I was not sure if I should be celebrating this anniversary, this milestone, that was otherwise so important to me, until March and Covid arrived. And now with the trouble in the United States, and to a lesser extent, in Canada here too, I don’t know if I’m in a celebratory mood. However, despite the virus, and despite the hate that can over run our world, TROU has always been about love, inclusion, diversity, and being heard. If we don’t celebrate that when we can, it may never get celebrated.
Here’s to another year of amazing stories that change the world a little at a time.
If you’d like to support TROU financially, as it is my dearest wish to be able to pay the contributors to the magazine… past, present, and future, please take a look at the shop and the cool TROU swag I designed just for you!
Now, as is customary on every one of TROU’s anniversaries, I give you the very first story I published here, written by the wonderfully talented, Chael Needle. “Birthday Cake”
Birthday Cake by Chael Needle
The remains of the cake looked like a clock. Two pieces were left, where 11 and 4 might be, or 8 and 2, depending on where you placed midnight.
Even without its pedestal, it had been a tall cake, layered with lemon curd and knife-swept with pink frosting, topped with roses and birthday wishes to Will, the red-jellied cursive now reduced to the top of the ‘H’ and the double ‘l.’
The cake had seemed out of place in the 7 p.m. quietude of Hank’s kitchen, whose cold draughts had for once been dispersed by the waves of heat emanating from the oven, hardly ever used, and never for baking, a pastime which he had given up in 1984 after he had made too many loaves of peasant bread for hospital visits and too many pans of banana bread for wakes.
It had seemed out of place on the fourteen-block trek down Second Avenue into the East Village, as Hank, carrying the gift and sweating, his thumbs slipping on the opaque white plastic of its cover, dodged the New Year’s Eve revelers who lurched and laughed and nudged him.
It had seemed out of place in the elevator, where Hank had stood among men, younger and much better groomed friends of Will and Sean that he barely knew but recognized, who cradled gold and silver beribboned bottles of wine and liqueur in their arms like babies, perfect angels who never cried.
The cake had seemed out of place on the table that had been laid out for the party guests, a rich tower of sugar amid the bowls and platters of kale-topped this and star anise-infused that. The guests had complimented Hank on his baking as they ate their polite slices, thin as minutes. However did he create such deliciousness?
Hank misread the question as a true question, and he began explaining about this first try at baking after many, many years, how it all came back to him, the secret extra scoop of lemon zest in the curd, the closely monitored mixing to the right fluffiness, how his grandmother had taught him that the temperature dial rarely measured the true heat of the oven.
No one was listening, except Jeremy, there in the back, he noted, so he stopped. His baking seemed like a triumph only to Hank. It was. He was the only one who cared. He was not a child anymore. He thought of his grandmother’s kitchen and its branches of blinkless owls, always judging him—a boy in an apron—with their glossy ceramic disdain. He quietly pivoted away from his pride.
As he had with a tray of glasses and chip-and-dip carousels, Hank carried the mostly eaten cake to Will and Sean’s kitchen, rooms and rooms away from the study, where everyone (everyone who remained at 1 a.m., that is) huddled around Cards Against Humanity, their laughter a moat. At Sean’s bidding, Will bounded up, tried to stop him from cleaning up. Hank was a guest. He should relax. Hank kissed Will on the cheek and returned him to the game with a nod.
“I don’t mind.”
Hank wanted to leave, but all that awaited him was a tour of desire. As he did every night, he would scroll through the unlocked profiles of all the young men on Silver Daddies who had marked him as “Hot” and nurse his penis into plumpness. He never interacted much with them of late—some wandering chats, some messages to stay in touch. He rarely hooked up. They were very often looking for what he was looking for, someone to take them in hand. He wanted to play son, but he looked like a daddy.
He had wanted to leave since the first moment he figured out that he was the only single man at the party, except for Jeremy, there in the back. He did not mind being unmarried, not usually, but, these past ten years, he had found himself in a stretch of late middle age where seemingly all of his friends were disappearing, disembarking from all of the carousels of New York to pair up, to grab at different rings. Miriam said “I do” to Robin. Joel spoke the same to Kenji. Will to Sean. The list went on. He and they still met for readings at the Y, for coffee and crepes, for the odd rally in Union Square, but across each friendship, something had changed. It was as if their happiness had displaced all the old commiserations they had used to share. He and they had once balanced each other, complaint for complaint, struggle for struggle. Now, in the face of their new joys, Hank thought he should spare them his sadder worries.
Like when Will had cornered Hank for a brief aside that night, and asked how he was doing, Hank had assured him that everything was okay. He told him he was glad to be there to share his birthday, and he was, but he had squelched the reason that had truly motivated him—he did not want to spend New Year’s alone, thinking about all the dry, bitter champagne of the past.
In the empty kitchen, Hank set the cake down on its pedestal and paused. Instead of covering it, he brought it over to the nook with a fork he snatched from the drawer.
He began eating. The four o’clock piece. It was luscious and sweet, overly so, as he had always remembered it to be. Those blinkless owls on the branches of his grandmother’s kitchen had never understood—that with every tart, every kringla, every cake, every sweet creation, he had been able to make his own pleasure, and that had given him the power to resist the ready-made hate of the world that had named him pervert, poison, plague-bringer.
When he dug into eleven o’clock, the kitchen door swung open. Jeremy shuffled to the sink, his long arms burdened with trays stacked at angles.
“Oh! Why are you eating the cake?” he asked, alarmed, as he set down the load gently.
“I never had my slice.” He ate faster, mouthfuls fit for a giant.
“They were saving it for the kids. Remember? They came out and wanted a piece and Will promised it to them?”
“I must have been on the balcony having a smoke.” That pleasure was killing him, even as his all-natural additive-free cigarettes coaxed him to believe he was doing something good, communing with the Native American smoking a peace pipe pictured on the box. “Anyway, children should learn early that life means disappointment. You can’t always get what you want.” He set down his fork, but it was too late. The eleventh hour had been reduced to a crumble of seconds.
Jeremy stood over him, glowering. “That’s a cruel lesson. ‘Happy New Year, kids!’”
“I’m sure they’ll have forgotten by morning.”
“Do we ever forget—what we want? What did you want when you were that age?”
“To love whom I wanted.”
“And have you achieved that? Have others?”
“You’re right. We’re all still fighting.”
“So you would tell them you don’t always get what you want? Deal with it? Stop fighting for liberation?”
“You were there when the kids came out wanting cake.”
“You know that for certain?”
“Yes, I know that for certain.”
“And how is that?”
Jeremy softened, slightly, leaning against the counter. “Don’t you know that I’ve been staring at you all night?”
“I can’t imagine why.” He herded the cake crumbs with his fork if only to have something to do besides face this beautiful man.
Hank laughed. “You’ve barely spoken to me all night.”
“I was waiting to—you’ve been avoiding me as if I’ve done something wrong.” Jeremy twisted half-round, fiddling, moving an espresso cup from one stack to another. He wondered what had happened to the man he had met, the one who wore an “Ask Me” button on the lapel of his pea coat at the anti-racism rally, such mystery, such openness, all at once, like the twinkling and the sadness of his blue-gray eyes.
“But apparently I haven’t done anything right.” He still didn’t look at Hank. The cups needed restacking. He hoped the tinkle of the cups would distract from the crackling, cracking sound of his frozen tears.
“I don’t know what you want, Jeremy.”
“Some respect, for one. Return my phone call? A text? An acknowledgement of what we shared?”
“We had a wonderful, beautiful night together. I didn’t imagine you wanted more.”
Jeremy looked to Hank, hoping he would meet his gaze. “No? You don’t want more? That’s right. You believe you don’t always get what you want.”
Hank shrugged, wishing he were drunker or drowsier so his body could shut down his mind. Until Jeremy, he hadn’t made love to another man for a year and one month (and four days).
Jeremy continued, “You’d rather sit in friends’ kitchens and steal cake out of the mouths of children? You saw their faces. How they begged.”
Hank thumbed a tear out of his eye. Sweet bile fountained up his throat and then subsided. “I’m sorry.”
“Are you? I don’t understand how you could be so cruel. Or at least, so careless. It doesn’t seem like you.”
“You barely know me.”
“True, but I’m usually a very good judge of character.”
“I’m a selfish prick.” Jeremy at first thought Hank was kidding, but when he saw that Hank had fixed his eyes at the blank wall of the nook, looking at nothing, he realized that he was serious.
He thought to leave, impatient with grand pronouncements that were meant to scare him away.
He thought to stay. He was not so easily dismissed from the connections that he sought. He remembered their night together, how Hank had suckled each one of his toes, making him twist and squirm and yelp as he reclined on his back, the sensation making his hard penis swing like an unbalanced metronome, counting some unknown zigzag beat against his tummy, sticky thunking time.
He stayed. Hank needed a friend, a shoulder, someone in the corner he had painted himself into.
“Well, let’s not be so absolute,” Jeremy offered. “You had a moment of selfish prickishness. It’s not like you’ve led Hansel and Gretel to their fiery deaths!”
Hank laughed, turning back to Jeremy, which made Jeremy glad.
“You’ve been a little down all night. Why is that?” Jeremy perched on the banquette across from Hank, like a wrestler at the ready. Hank pulled the cake plate to the far side of the table.
“Oh. I don’t know. I don’t know why Will insisted I come. We could have just had the birthday brunch I always treat him to. I fear I’ve become the odd man out everyone feels sorry for around the holidays.”
“That’s why he invited you? Because he felt sorry for you?”
“I imagine it’s something like that. All these couples and me.”
“Will hadn’t planned on inviting you, in fact. I pressed him to.”
“I don’t know what Will was thinking. No offense, Jeremy, but you’re thirty-eight years younger than I am.”
“So? I’m good enough for a fuck but not for a date?” Jeremy masked the seriousness of his import with flippancy, but not very well.
“Come on, you know it was a pity—You felt sorry for me.”
“Wow. Give me some credit.” He was tired of assuring men that they were wrong about themselves. Babies! With egos as soft as marshmallows! But sometimes he found the strength to cradle them.
“You had the chance to leave after we kissed that night, before we went upstairs. You wanted to leave. I saw it in your eyes. You hesitated. I have no delusions about my—Look at me.” He brushed crumbs off of his belly.
“Yes, look at you,” Jeremy said, his voice laced with the shiny sea-green ribbons of desire.
Hank looked up. He wanted to be the man that Jeremy saw but he knew that he wasn’t. He had long decided to retire from romance, collecting a thin pension of memories.
“I think perhaps you are selling yourself short. Look, I have a similar problem. You think men see the glorious alpha-sissy dom that I am when they look at my slight frame?” Most white men cast him as a boy or a geisha or a boy-geisha.
“But you so are a glorious alpha-sissy dom!” Hank had never heard the term before, but he never argued with someone’s self-description if it fit, and this fit perfectly.
“I know. But you wouldn’t have known that unless we had made love.”
“No, that’s not true. When Will and I ran into you at Pinkberry and introduced us, I knew straight off you were—commanding.” He let the word alight on him like the touch of a paddle before the first spank.
Hank remembered Jeremy, his dark eyes in all that gleaming white, how one long strand of his black hair had unspooled from his high-and-tighted pompadour and touched his cheek. Jeremy had given him spoonfuls of attention, prodding him until he had dislodged his voice from the rock it had been stuck under.
“It’s closed now. That Pinkberry,” Hank added.
“You went back? I thought—what did you call it? The death knell of the East Village?”
“I did not go back. Just passed by.”
“Hmm. Just passed by my neighborhood?”
“I walk. For exercise. It’s not that far out of my way.”
“Was that going to be your excuse if you had run into me?” Jeremy grinned.
Hank chuckled, owning the truth he had not admitted until then. He longed to be with Jeremy, in his strong embrace, eager to match his moves, pleasure for pleasure. “That was a good night. What did you have? Something decadent—blood orange yogurt and pineapple toppings and peanut butter cups.”
“Yes. And you had a mango smoothie. And then I walked you home.”
“Like a good boy scout.”
Jeremy stood and grasped Hank’s hand, nearer to him. “Like someone who didn’t want the night to end.” His voice grew louder, grew softer.
“Then you kissed me at my gate.” Hank felt anew Jeremy’s nimble hands on hips as he drew him close, gently rocking him into a kiss. The memory lingered close as if to whisper something like “yes” or “you’ll be okay” to him. “Then—you hesitated.”
“I hesitated because I thought I might be coming on too strong, too fast.”
“You were very strong.”
Jeremy flexed his smile. “I was, but you went the distance with me, huh? Your legs didn’t buckle did they?”
Hank coasted on Jeremy’s breezy flirtation. “No, though my back was a bit wrenched the next day.”
“You should have told me. I would have come over and massaged you. I can be tender.”
“You were tender—that night. That’s why I never called.” Hank squeezed Jeremy’s hand, as if to say goodbye—or not.
“No offense, but you still believe in all this romantic—the illusion. You still have hope that love, the house, the marriage can heal you. That the hearts and flowers and the seven-tiered cake will make everything okay.”
“When you put it that way, you make me sound like a simpleton.”
“No, I’m sorry. I know you’re not a simpleton. I know it’s just because you are twenty-five.”
“I’ve been disappointed in love. In life. My mother and father did not make my childhood one long fairy tale.”
“No. I disappointed them at every turn. So they claimed.”
“I don’t want to disappoint you, Jeremy. I want you to have your optimism. I don’t want to ruin that with my—bleakness. You believing, and me not believing. Why would I ever burden you with that?”
Jeremy let go of his hand, tamping down his exasperation as much as he could. “Could you please let me decide what I feel? Could you please see me as someone who knows a thing or two and not as some fragile—child?”
Hank looked to his eyes. “I see someone who is very wise and very headstrong.”
Jeremy accepted his apology. He pressed for more. “Anything else?”
“And very beautiful. You know that.”
Oh—how Hank loved that swagger. How Jeremy knew he loved it, too.
Jeremy quieted. “Life’s been that bleak?”
“Yes,” Hank said. Jeremy decided to take him at his word, for now. Hank continued: “Let me put it this way. I’ve never truly had a New Year’s kiss that brought me any peace. Every man I’ve ever loved has put me second and by that I mean put our relationship second—to careers, to social status, to sex, to porn, to drugs.”
“Sounds like they were too busy trying to survive the traumas of their youth.”
“I wanted to scream at them: ‘Why can’t it be about us? Just us?’” Hank blubbered, and then, taken aback by his own outburst, blotted his eyes.
“Maybe they were attracted to you because they saw how much you believed in the ‘us.’ Maybe they wanted that too.”
“They always ate the cake and saved you none?”
“Yes, but then—oh, why am I crying?—when does someone nurture me?”
“Maybe never. Maybe right now.’” Jeremy knelt and grasped his hands and kissed them. He had a big proposal. He had a small proposal. He had whatever Hank needed.
“Most likely never.”
“Maybe never,” Jeremy corrected. “Maybe right now.”
“Maybe right now?”
Jeremy stood and straddled him with the weight of his answer. He brushed his cheek with the back of his hand. He bent and pecked his lips. He waited, like a boy on a doorstep asking for his friend to come out to play. And when he saw a blast of glittery confetti flash across Hank’s glassy eyes, Jeremy kissed him deeply. Hank kissed him back.
Jeremy pressed his forehead to Hank’s temple, his eyes closed, his voice soft. “I can handle disappointment. What I can’t handle is missing another chance to give you pleasure. How many chances will you give me?”
Hank wanted to say a thousand. Hank wanted to say none. Hank wanted to say the truth. Hank wanted to lie. He feared everything would come out wrong. So he said what he had repeated all night long but which he hadn’t meant until now. “Happy New Year.”
“Happy New Year, Hank.”
They kissed again. Nothing could break their kiss. Not even Will and the two or three other guests who had swept into the kitchen and began to tease them as they dropped off whatever clinked and clonked in their hands. “If only my vacuum had that type of suction.” “Midnight ended two hours ago, fellas.” “And everyone says we don’t care for our elderly!”
Jeremy and Hank did not notice they had left. The world had enclosed them in the deepest forest of their deepest dreams, where no blinkless owls dared to fly.
Hank was first to break the spell. He smiled as preface. “This is lovely but—lift off me. Please.”
“Why?” Jeremy dismounted him and watched Hank, his lover, rise and start opening cupboards and selecting out sundries—baking soda, flour, vanilla extract, spring-form pans. “What are you doing?”
“I need to bake a cake,” Hank said crisply, crouching and turning the temperature dial with the slowness of a safecracker. The power of this heat was unknown to him. He would have to watch it closely. Jeremy could help.
About the Author:
Chael Needle is a writer, editor, and teacher living in Astoria, Queens. He serves as managing editor of A&U: America’s AIDS Magazine, and he coedited, with Diane Goettel, the anthology Art & Understanding: Literature from the First Twenty Years of A&U (Black Lawrence Press). His fiction and poetry have been published in Callisto, The Adirondack Review, Owen Wister Review, Blue Fifth Review, Lilliput Review, and bottle rockets.
Somewhere between Virginia and North Carolina: Find slips of her wit igniting weeds between the concrete slabs of the city sidewalk or in the worm-hooked smirk of a crow in the Blue Ridge sky.
Tiffany Chaney’s poetry chapbook Between Blue and Grey (Amazon, 2012) won the Barnhills Books & More: Mothervine Festival Award for Best in Poetry in 2013. Her writing has been featured in such publications as Thrush Press, Moon Books, Moonchild Magazine, Pedestal Magazine and VQR’s Instaseries. Follow her @tifchaney on Instagram and visit www.sassafrassoothsayer.com for more.
Maybe it was at your surprise 40th birthday party two years ago when your eyes sparkled and danced, warning me mischief was soon to happen.
Maybe it was at our picnic beside the lake. How you giggled when that earnest young man stood in the canoe, courted his girl with a half-decent version of Ed Sheeran’s ‘Perfect’ and then fell awkwardly into the water.
Maybe it was when we left the others and walked to the playground. ‘I want to sit on the swing,’ you said. ‘Push me,’ you said. ‘Higher and higher like I’m flying free.’ Your hair, tossing wild in the wind, caught in your eyes and mouth. I wanted to brush it away with my breath and many light kisses. But didn’t.
We laughed at silly things, much like new lovers do, but weren’t. At least, not then.
Maybe it was when we watched the swans along the river. We shared a soft cone, daring long gazes at each other, then glancing away. But not embarrassed. I remember how your tongue made shallow smooth grooves in the fresh white cream. I wondered what you’d feel like on my skin.
Maybe it was when you came into my dreams. Just us, no commitments to others. Always together in the quick flashes of my thoughts. Nothing to pretend or fake. Just us.
Maybe it was when your dog got killed. You were weeping, its broken body in your lap. I pulled you into me, feeling your beating heart, your warm breath heavy with pain upon my neck.
Was it then I knew I loved you?
Maybe it was our first kiss. Not that ‘hey, how are you, good to see you’ kind of kiss. But deeper, our tongues eagerly exploring. Was it then I touched you? Butterfly touching bare skin beneath the light summer blouse you loved to wear.
Maybe it was your love poem. I opened it, daring not to breathe. I read your thoughts over and over, feeling your passion’s heat. Did I ever tell you I hid your poem so others wouldn’t find it? But I don’t remember where. Not even today.
Maybe it was when we first made love. I don’t remember exactly when. I couldn’t mark it on a calendar. But I do remember the rest of it. At least I think I do.
I do remember when it ended.
You phoned while I was driving to our swings in the park.
‘We mustn’t see each other again. Not ever. It’s complicated,’ you said.
‘Promise me,’ you said.
‘Please keep your word.’
You were crying. I wanted to reach out and pull you close. Tell you it’d be ok.
‘Just give us time,’ I wanted to say. But didn’t.
I don’t remember if I cried. Or if you might have felt my tears.
I don’t remember most of what I said to you back then.
Except for two words.
Artist Bio – Don Herald is a writer with thirty-two publishing credits for his short stories that frequently feature flawed characters who often decide to do the wrong thing for themselves and others. His work has been published online in the US, UK and Canada. A retired social worker and workplace behaviour consultant, Don lives in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada.
“You shouldn’t have to be “perfect” in order to be deserving of self love.” – Bex Saunders
“Self love is a difficult journey but its ultimately the most important journey one can do. It’s not an overnight journey; it may take years or even a life time. Once you love yourself, you are unstoppable. No one can bring you down. You are capable of truly anything. You become the best version of yourself.” – Bex Saunders
Artist Bio: Bex Saunders is a 23 year old multi award winning photographer from the south of England. She specializes in conceptual work, with an emphasis on self portraits. You can follow her Instagram @bexsaundersphotography
Artist Bio: My current work centers on self examination and expression. My influences are many spanning from turn of the century into contemporary. From classic to modern I love artwork in all forms. My three most favorite are Art Deco, abstract, and pop art.
I draw mostly from pop culture and the city I call home San Antonio Texas.
My day consists of tending my home, networking with preforming acts and checking in with good friends. Painting daily and sketching with the odd doodle mixed into a routine of sorts. Early mornings, late evenings, lots of interesting outings make up my life. Photography is another passion for me being a person who observes more than the usual.
Born on the west coast. I grew to adulthood on the third coast. I still have yet to see the east coast. The eldest of a single parent household. College educated and formally trained for graphic design. Growing up I was mentored by my grandmother an oil painter and hobby artist.
My pace is a constant flow of new mediums or art traditions. Switching them back and forth to keep the artwork fresh.
A middle-aged man stands alone on a darkened stage. A bright spot holds him in its cone. He is immaculately dressed in a well-tailored, light grey suit. A silk tie, deep red, nicely compliments an expensive shirt. There is a small flower on his lapel, a lighter shade of the tie. All of it is understated, elegant.
Silent, the man gazes out toward us, occasionally pulling at his French cuffs, more out of habit than nervousness. Several times, he touches his right cheek as if sweeping away an unseen fly.
He smiles. It’s as if he is remembering something important he wants to share with us but is unsure if he should.
He pulls down upon his suit coat and then casually re-folds his hands in front.
He begins to speak to us.
The voice is cultured; his words soothing and confident. It’s a voice each of us has heard before but can’t remember when, where or who.
_________________ 0 _________________
When I look into the mirror every morning, I’m reminded of other times. And, if truth be told, it was both the best and worst of times.
Back then, whenever I entered a room, heads would turn. It seemed that women of all ages wanted to talk to me. Immediately. Urgently. Not wishing to sound too full of myself, I must tell you that more than a few just couldn’t help themselves. They’d find any excuse to lightly touch my arm, perhaps a shoulder. I remember once – a sophomore as I recall – even stroked my hair much like she would have done with a favoured cat.
Olivia, my mother – God rest her soul – often called me pretty.
‘You’re a pretty lad,’ she’d say, ‘Sure to break many hearts in the years ahead.’
She’d always tell me about the latest fashions, showing me photos in gentlemen’s magazines. High style was her thing, that’s for sure. Now you might think it odd for a mother to do that with a son. But I just accepted that’s the way any mother would talk, especially if her son was pretty like me. These days, I guess the more acceptable word would be handsome.
‘Remember this, Vincento,’ Olivia was too fond of saying. ‘Clothes make the man. People, my darling, may not remember what you say, but they will surely remember if your shoes were shined, your pants pressed.’
One day, I think I must have been about nine or ten, I was watching her putting on makeup. I must confess that back then, I was genuinely fascinated by the entire process. It was just magical. My mother – well, she was what you’d call a natural beauty. Anyone who ever met her would undoubtedly say so. But when she had on her makeup, to put it simply, my mother was a knock-out. Strange as it may seem, I remember being very jealous of all that love and attention she attracted.
Anyway, she saw me watching and invited me to sit beside her – both of us side by side in front of the round cosmetic mirror over her makeup table in a tiny space she liked to call her boudoir.
‘What would you like to try, Vincento? Lipstick? Perhaps some eye shadow? Or maybe just a whisper of rouge on those pale cheeks?’ Her fingertips delicately brushed my cheek. I can still feel her touch to this very day.
With each offering, Olivia would hold out the item in the palm of her delicate hand.
I decided on the rouge powder. My heart felt like it was going to burst right out of my chest.
‘Excellent choice, my precious. Here, on one cheek, let me show you just how to do it, so there’s only just a hint of …’ She hesitated, not able to find quite the right word.
‘So there’s only just a hint of…’ she paused again, ‘…invitation.’
Admittedly, it was a most unusual word to use in that situation. But then again, in her life, my dear mother was all about the invitation.
With practiced strokes, she rouged my left cheek then leaned back to admire her handiwork.
‘Now, Vincento dearest, you do the other.’
And I did. As I recall, I didn’t do too bad a job of it either.
‘Beautiful, Vincento. You’re so pretty. Yes, so very pretty indeed.’
She kissed me lightly on the forehead.
‘My blessed heart, you look so handsome. No girl in her right mind will ever be able to resist you.’
Looking back now, I think that was the start of it.
From that very moment, I truly believed I was pretty. ‘Stunningly handsome,’ I recall my mother saying as I innocently posed this way and that – just as I’d seen her do so many times – in front of the full-length dressing mirror.
I chose to believe in my beauty, so it came easily for me to act the part. Confident. In charge. Worth getting to know. And when I was older, definitely worth loving if you were found to be in my favour.
I wore fine clothes; bespoke suits of only the most beautiful cloth. Soft leather shoes, hand-stitched, always polished of course. A gold Rolex. French cuffs, always accented with ebony links, the initials ‘VM’ embossed lightly on the dark bone.
But, as you well know, there’s far more to living the high life than just being a sharp dresser who’s always easy with his words. Sadly, I must report my flattering mother never revealed the secret to me. I had to learn that life lesson the hard way.
Standing here, I do confess to you that over the years, I’ve had many women – passionate, loving, attentive – in my life. For each, I was the irresistible light, and she was my delicate, summer moth. Now you may think that sounds outrageously conceited. But it is the truth of it.
Which, of necessity, brings us to Helen.
She was my soul mate. We spent eighteen marvellous months together. First, in San Diego where she had a thriving practice as a much sought after fashion photographer. Then the final six months when we were living on Canada’s Pacific coast.
Back then, Helen was big into yoga. When a teaching position at the famous yoga centre in one of the Gulf Islands came her way, she joyfully walked away from her glamorous life in California. Of course, I went along with her.
Looking back now, I sometimes wonder if she’d gradually become my light, and I was just her beautiful summer moth.
Of course, someone as attractive and socially adept as me found it easy to mix in with the yoga crowd. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to you that I was very popular, particularly with some of the younger female students.
That said, I’m sure you’ve already figured out how all this is going to end.
In my defence, let me just say that I was well and truly loved. I trust that now you can see that such behaviour was just in my nature. For the most part, Helen was forgiving. Oh, I’ll admit there were tensions between us at times about – what shall I call them – my overly familiar relationships with her students. But in spite of it all, Helen remained my soul mate.
Eventually, Helen had enough. One rainy night in late summer, we had a spectacularly noisy row. Hurtful words stripped bare our very hearts. Hidden feelings were drawn out between us; our relationship shredded beyond repair.
The next day I left on the first ferry out of Long Harbour. I headed for Victoria and a new life without Helen.
One week later, while riding a friend’s Harley on a section of twisting highway up the Pacific coast toward Tofino, I was side-swiped by a skidding Benz. Thankfully, I was swiftly airlifted to the Royal Jubilee in Victoria. The surgeons there did a great job of patching me up.
But my face… well, let’s just say that I’ll never be quite the same again.
_________________ 0 _________________
The man unconsciously touches his right cheek. The fingers linger for several heartbeats then return to his side. To some, it seems that this simple act is innocent, not full of subtle meaning. To others, it seems as if it may be an invitation, perhaps to forgive the man his many trespasses.
The man turns slightly away from us as if to leave, then pauses. It appears as if he still may have more to say. In the white cone of light, a long, jagged scar is faintly visible beneath cleverly applied makeup.
He nods slightly, then steps abruptly into total blackness beyond.
The cone of light slowly fades.
The stage is dark.
Artist Bio: Don’s work has been published online in the US, UK and Canada. His stories often feature flawed characters who decide to do the wrong thing for themselves and others. A retired social worker and workplace behaviour consultant, Don lives in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. He is a co-founder and active member of the Writers’ Group of Peterborough. Don’s published stories are available at www.donherald.blogspot.com.
this was a rebellion created by black trans women throwing bricks at cops
stonewall was a riot
my love is not celebrated by supreme court legalization of monogamous marriage,
or flags held up in business windows to attract money
it is not found
in your rainbow capitalism
when historically those same places have always held us down
beaten us and thrown us out in the streets
he is beautiful like a rainbow
and right now i am sitting on the street where i went
to a nightclub
with my friend from band
and i remember how that night i was reminded for a second
because i am a gay trans white man and she is a straight cis peruvian woman
and together as one gay trans and one latina we made up the three groups that had been targeted
he is beautiful like a rainbow
and when he smiles, my world flourishes
and his laugh can echo its way into my heart
with a love of books and disney and cats
i couldn’t be more grateful to find him
but the truth is
something you care for becomes more meaningful when you have to fight for it
and us gays
have always been fighting harder than you have
yet you complain
because you want your straight pride parade
because you think our world is nothing but a party in a pink triangle
but you never think
of the way that the pink triangle originated in our own genocide
he is beautiful like a rainbow
and my love as a man to other men was never made for your consumption
i was never meant to simply be your favorite porn category
your token friend for whenever you need your full queer resource center
i have my privacy
that you do not respect
but i don’t tendril into your’s
you say you’re not homophobic
but the way that you go out of your way to not acknowledge my partner’s gender
even though i have explicitly stated it numerous times the same way you’d mention your’s
shows me otherwise
the way that you flinch when i mention my relations
shows me otherwise
you visibly jump
at the sound of it
because i didn’t know you were a faggot
that i shatter your hetero world
he is beautiful like a rainbow
and the way that men love other men should not be foreign to you
you think of yourself as strong and intelligent
yet you get so confused and don’t understand
when i say that i’m gay
i really don’t think
that’s a hard concept
that i can be a man
who loves other men
he is beautiful like a rainbow
i walk with him across rainbow crosswalks
reach him miles away
my love fights harder than yours
every activist campaign
is brought in
because we love ourselves and our friends and chosen family
who know the angry police raids
and the gunfire shots
staining our blood in pride month
it used to be believed that blood was blue in your body
and red outside
funny how that mixes and creates purple
when it stains the dance floor
but that isn’t true
blood remains red no matter where it is
every rainbow begins with red
because our rebellion originated with our sorrows
and how we loved something different
every fight for justice is always started by injustices
it’s almost as if
we just wanna have human rights
in its time
is seen as unreasonable
but yet generations later they pretend they were with you all along
he is beautiful like a rainbow
and my love is not easy to find
it isn’t easy to find the right one
but here i have found him
in a mess of everything else
he is beautiful like a rainbow
a man who wasn’t your pride parade gimmick
instead he is another man i never knew i’d know
stronger than the stuff of fairytales
because fact is stranger than fiction
and reality is stranger than fantasy
he is beautiful like a rainbow
the man who i can’t express enough about having found,
a cutesy antique found on the shelf
my love cannot be found in the same space as your’s
it is usually found hidden away in the dressing drawer or cupboard so no one will see
but i would like to use the space you’ve always taken away from me
you give me an inch and claim that’s enough
but you’ve always had the bigger and upper hand
always preferred more
if i have to see another forced unnecessary no chemistry hetero story again
i think i will puke
because you think we see ourselves everywhere
but just for once can at least we be everywhere
because you’ve had a lifetime of everywhere
but we’ve had a lifetime of hidden
he is beautiful like a rainbow
my love is more than just your stereotyped view of grindr profiles and a different home,
my love is men who are gentle and soft
and don’t find straight people romanticization of abuse funny
my love is the man who majors in literature and wants to travel the world in disney parks
and always has a kind ear
and holds me into a safety found nowhere else
my love is beautiful like a rainbow
he isn’t made for your consumption
he is beautiful like a rainbow
a quiet walk in a forest that doesn’t end
winter leaves rot and a world grows from it
he is beautiful like a rainbow
the man i never thought i’d know
who measures his money in how many bags of dollar-store candy can one buy
who tells me not to buy a thirty-dollar crate of gushers off of amazon
because then i’d be called the gushers guy
for the rest of my life
he is beautiful like a rainbow
and now i finally do understand
the songs and stories
i wish i could find myself in the songs and stories
i finally do understand
a thing as simple as the small sketchbook covered in drawings of rainbows and cats
given for christmas
i finally do understand
why all the hardship is so much more worth it
i wish i didn’t have to go through it though but
i finally do understand
he is beautiful like a rainbow
and now i finally do understand.
Mercury Marvin Sunderland is a Greek/Roman Wiccan transgender autistic gay man who uses he/him pronouns. He’s from Seattle. He currently attends The Evergreen State College, and his dream is to become the most banned author in human history. He can be found as @Romangodmercury on Instagram and Facebook.
Mercury is a 2013, 2014, 2015 winner of ACT Theater’s Young Playwright’s Program, a 2015, 2016 selected playwright for ACT Theater’s 14:48 HS, a 2016 winner of the Jack Straw Young Writer’s Program, a 2016 selected participant for the Seattle Talent Show hosted by Rainier Beach High School, and was hired as a paid representative of Youth Speaks Seattle in 2016. In 2017 alone, he was selected for and won the 2017 Youth Speaks Seattle Grand Slam, and went off as one of the top five youth slam poets representing Seattle at Brave New Voices 2017, an international slam poetry tournament treated as America’s national tournament, and was selected to perform slam poetry alongside former Seattle mayor candidate Nikkita Oliver at the University of Washington. In 2018 his illustrations were selected for While Supplies Last, an art show hosted by Anthony White, a Cornish College of the Arts graduate. In 2019 he received his first literary journal acceptance from Northwest Missouri State University’s Fearsome Critters Literary Magazine Volume Two, his second from the February 2019 issue of Arcadia University’s Marathon Literary Review, his third and fourth from Across & Through Literary Magazine, his fifth from The Dollhouse Literary Magazine, his sixth from University of California Riverside’s Santa Ana River Review, his seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth from The Paragon Press and his eleventh from Not Your Mother’s Breast Milk Magazine. That same year, his art was featured by the UglyDolls company and one of his comics was accepted for Memoir Literary Magazine. He was also selected as a 2019 Editor’s Pick for the Brain Mill Press Poetry Month Contest.
This was PREVIOUSLY PUBLISHED by The Dollhouse, The Paragon Press, and Not Your Mother’s Breast Milk, all given with full ownership to him as the author to republish as he pleases.
Rebecca L. (Torres) Holland is a visually impaired Filipina writer, disability advocate, and ordained minister who lives in Pennsylvania. She holds a Master of Divinity and is particularly fascinated by the intersection of faith, disability, race, and gender. She has published a chapbook entitled, Through My Good Eye: A Memoir in Verse and her work has most recently appeared in Bold Blind Beauty, The Drabble, and Women Writers & Women’s Books. Rebecca blogs about literature and disability awareness at BeckieWrites.com. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @BeckieWrites.
It isn’t that complicated, but kind of is. I mean, we see this kind of thing in rom coms and silly television shows on a regular basis. And we always assume we know how it’s going to end. Until you’re in the middle of it, and there are suddenly all these equations you never considered. It’s just, well, it goes a little something like this: he loves her, she doesn’t even know he exists, and I am crazy for him.
Now this could go one of three ways in my head. They could fall madly in love and make me want to lose my lunch every time I see them together. I could finally become brave enough to admit my feelings for him and we end up together. Or all of us continue living our lives, pining over the people we can’t have.
“Is it a deal?”
I roll my eyes and look over at Kyle, this black haired, blue eyed, snarky bastard who thinks he has my predicament all figured out. See Kyle, he isn’t a regular player in this scenario. I don’t even know where he came from. That’s a lie; he goes to my gym. He’s also lives in the apartment across from mine. And yet, here he is, offering me his unwanted help.
“Let me guess, you like Claire Russo too?”
“Who doesn’t? Anyone guy with a-“ I clamp my hand over his mouth before he can finish. He licks my hand, a completely juvenile move I might add, and I wipe his slobber off on his shirt.
“I don’t want to pretend to date you. You’re not my type and it’s such a played out lie.” I turn to finish unlocking my door, but he jerks me around with a laugh and shakes his head.
“Oh no, not dating. We don’t want to become suddenly unavailable to them. We’ll act like we’re hooking up. Having a little harmless fun.” His hand lands on my hip, and he pulls me closer. “Everyone knows I have a strict no girlfriend policy.”
I smack his hand away, groaning in disgust, and make my way into my apartment. Unfortunately, he does as well. “And how will this make Zack fall for me and Claire fall for you?”
“Claire secretly likes me flirting with her. It’ll put her off if I ignore her for someone like you.” I throw the sandal I just took off at his head. He ducks with a laugh and catches the next one in midair. “Hey, no offense, but you don’t exactly try to impress anyone.”
I look down at my loose tank top and sweats, shrugging a little. Class is too early to try to look cute. It’s not my problem if Miss Morning Person Claire Russo makes sure her hair is perfectly styled and her make up is done up without looking like it’s on, and her yoga wear accentuates every desirable curve on her body. Crap, do I also have a crush on Claire?
“And Zack? How will me supposedly smashing you make him want me?”
“Didn’t think you were into wrestling, but hey, if you are, it’ll make my job way more fun.” He nods towards my bottom half, and I look down at which sweats I chose for today. Sure enough, I am wearing Zack’s high school wrestling sweats. “He seems pretty possessive of you. Pretty sure he wouldn’t want anyone taking what’s his, even though he doesn’t know it yet.”
“You think I really have a chance?” I hate how hopeful my voice is. Like, how much more desperate could I sound? Kyle makes a small grunting noise and nods. His eyes are looking around my apartment, maybe trying to find other signs of Zack’s presence.
Zack is over almost every day, but to be fair, it isn’t always to see me. I live with my brother, Nate, which may sound terrible, but he’s my twin. We aren’t the joined at the hip kind of twins, but we don’t like being too far from each other either. Nate and Zack have been best friends since high school, and I’ve been crushing on Zack for just as long. I almost convinced him to be our roommate, but our apartment is only two rooms. Apparently, he didn’t want to share a room with Nate, or with me. Unfortunately.
“It’ll never work.”
“Trust me. It will.”
I can hear yelling, but not the angry yelling that Old Man Kroger blesses us with every afternoon during his game shows. No, it’s a happy whooping, and I’d recognize that loud laughter anywhere. Nate is down the hall, and it sounds like Zack is with him. I turn in a panic towards Kyle, and choke on the air I take in too quickly at seeing him shirtless and undoing his pants.
“What the hell do you think-” His hand claps over my mouth, his jeans hanging off his hips a little, and he shushes me with angry eyes.
“I’m making the decision for you.” His hands pull out my pony tail and he flips the strands around. He gently pinches my cheeks and the door opens just as his lips latch onto my neck.
My head flies back in surprise, and I hear two bags hit the floor near the couch. Kyle pulls away from me with a secret wink and fixes his jeans. I am too shocked to do anything but turn an embarrassed glance towards Nate. He has something balled up in his hand and throws it at Kyle, all while glaring at me. Zack is looking anywhere else but us.
“Thanks.” Kyle puts his shirt back on, watching me all the while with his stupid secretive smirk. His hands are back at my hair, smoothing it out a little, and his fingers stroke one strand as if he just can’t tear himself away from me. And before I can smack him, or apologize to the two guys who are still standing a few feet from us, Kyle locks his lips over mine.
Maybe if I had been more prepared, I could say if the kiss had been good or bad. It was unexpected, so there was more bite than softness to it. He kissed me hard, maybe to warn me not to ruin our little charade that I’m still not sure I agreed to. And then, he steps away from me, leaving me breathing a little heavier than I wish, as if his stupid kiss left me breathless and wanting.
He saunters over to the door, nodding to the two guys as if this is an everyday occurrence. Before leaving, he turns back to me with a wicked smile, and I am almost afraid of what he has thought up next. “My place next time, then?” And with that, he leaves me to deal with this mess.
The second, and I mean the millisecond the door closes, Nate is in my face. “You have got to be kidding me, Natalie. Kyle Richards? Really? He’s the biggest player ever. No way is my sister hooking up with that walking STD cesspool.”
“Nathan, you can’t really think…”
“I saw what I saw. What we saw. Oh, gross, I need to go wash the image out of my eyes now.” Nate toes off his shoes and shoots Zack a wary look. “I’m going for a quick shower. We can grab a bite after.”
“Yeah, whatever, man.” Zack jumps over the back of the couch and plops down, grabbing for the remote. “I’m good.” Nate throws me one more exasperated look and disappears into his room. I hear the tv turn on, some basketball game, and shift uncomfortably. Deciding that my humiliation has exceeded capacity for today, I also turn to disappear in my room.
“Hey, Nat!” Zack calls from behind me. I stall for a second, not believing my ears, and turn back around. His eyes rove over me with something I’ve never seen in them before. He smiles softly and pats the spot next to him. I hesitate, for maybe a split second, and all but gallop to sit down. His arm falls over the back of the couch, but I think I can feel his fingers brushing the ends of my hair.
We sit in silence, and every minute that passes feels more charged with something, like anticipation or dread, not sure which to act on yet. I hear Nathan’s door opening and can feel Zack inching away. My heart falls, and I think that maybe I imagined there being some kind of moment between us. Zack moves to stand up, but before he straightens, he bends down towards me.
“Nice sweats.” His lips brush against my ear, causing me to shiver, and I look up at him, my face probably reading in shock. He looks calms as he catches his car keys from Nate, who won’t even look at me, and they leave without another word.
I finger the emblem of the battering ram on the blessed sweat pants and look back at the door, where just outside of it and across the hall is Kyle’s door. By God, he was right. The smug asshat knew what he was talking about.
You can guess what happened next. Or can you? If you guessed that I started hooking up with Kyle every chance I got to make Zack jealous, all I can say is, what the hell kind of girl do you take me for? But if you guessed that Kyle and I went to great lengths to make it look like we were hooking up, well then kudos to you. Because that is exactly what we are doing.
“You have to quit giggling.” This only makes me giggle louder, and Kyle rhythmically thumps the wall harder with his hand to drown me out. “No one giggles while having sex with me. That’s just insulting.”
“How much longer do we have to stay in this closet?”
“I have a rep to protect still. Not exactly a two minute man, alright?” I nod with a sigh and close my eyes.
I’m pretty sure Zack saw us “sneak” off into the closet, but Claire is also at this party and I really don’t want to give them more alone time than necessary. He has been trying to hang out with me more without Nate around this past month that I’ve been supposedly hooking up with Kyle. Though not completely trustworthy, the man’s a genius.
“Okay, almost done. You just need to say my name. Make it sound real.” I try it out, but the few beers I had earlier make me laugh at how ridiculous our situation is, and to shut me up this time, he kisses me. We’ve kissed a lot, have pretty much had to sell this lie in public. But he’s never kissed me in private before.
It starts off hard, but once I’ve quieted down, he softens the kiss. And then his hands are cupping my cheeks, his lips caressing over mine in such a way that I moan for real. My eyes fly open, and his are closed, which surprises me. I would’ve taken him for a creepy, watch you as he kisses you, kind of guy. I close my eyes again to not be that creepy girl, and find myself fisting his shirt, practically climbing him to get a better taste. What the hell is wrong with me?
He breaks the kiss and smiles a little, moving my hair behind my ear. “Good girl. You look good and tousled now. That almost sounded real.” My face reddens as I realize a little too late that I had been making sounds, obvious enjoyment sounds. I shove away from him and run my hands over my jean skirt before escaping the closet.
A few people whistle, and I see Zack looking troubled, but I could care less. I kissed Kyle, really kissed him, and I felt something. I wanted more. Oh crap, I wanted more and he didn’t feel a thing. He all but patted me on the head and congratulated me for a good performance. Beer. I need another beer.
I avoid Zack. And Kyle. And Nate, who might be avoiding me in turn. Even though he accepted he can’t tell me who to date or whatever, he made it abundantly clear that he does not approve. Where to go when you don’t want to be found? Garage, with a stockpile of beers just in case.
“You can’t be serious, Kyle!” I hear a girl’s harsh whisper as light floods the darkened garage. Oh, didn’t I mention I’m hiding in the dark? I shuffle from behind the Cadillac and peer around the fender. Kyle is kissing up Claire’s neck, reaching behind her to shut the door.
“Shh, all the other rooms are taken.” My stomach flips, and the beers feel like a bad idea. I manage to stay hidden, squeezing my eyes shut, even though I couldn’t see them if I wanted to.
“Kyle, no. Just stop.” I hear their feet moving and his heavy breathing.
“What the hell, Claire, you kissed me.”
“What’s going on with you and Natalie?” She sounds angry and I swallow hard. I wasn’t aware she even knew my name.
“A bit of fun.” His voice sound lazy and full of confidence. I want to puke. It’s always been for fun, to win other people. Why am I feeling this way?
“I know what you’re doing. I know what you’ve been doing. Running from girl to girl. Making sure I notice.”
“Paying close attention, huh?” I hear wet smacking sounds, like they fell into a spontaneous make out session. But then out of nowhere comes his cry of indignation, and I crane my neck forward a little.
“I broke up with you months ago. Almost a year now. You have to move on. This isn’t you.” My breath catches in my throat. What is going on? Am I hearing correctly? Mister I Date No One was Claire Russo’s boyfriend once upon a time?
“I’m not me without you.”
“Well, that’s just pathetic.” Light floods the room, and I’m not sure if they both leave, or just one of them. I don’t exactly wait to find out either. Instead, I bolt out and throw up in the bushes on my way out of the house.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that somehow, Zack and Claire ended up together. But, what might surprise you is this happened after he kissed me one night on my couch and I felt nothing. No butterflies or tears of happiness. Instead, it felt like kissing my brother, or close to it. And we both agreed that we were better as friends anyway.
I helped him get Claire’s attention. Figured out what yoga class she attended religiously, and talked him into going. He cursed about his sore muscles a lot those first couple of weeks, but he has her massaging out the pain now. Sometimes on my couch, which I do not care for. I mean, get a room, and in your own apartment!
Also, unsurprisingly, Kyle didn’t seek me out after that party. I haven’t been able to face him myself. And I’m not looking forward to any kind of run in with him, which is why I’ve been coming and going at odd hours. But can you blame me? The guy used me, not to hook up with the girl every guy seemed to want, but to get back with his ex-girlfriend, possibly his first love.
It shouldn’t bother me. Learning that he has a heart in there somewhere, and that heart had once belonged to her, maybe even still does, should not affect me in the least. But it does. And I don’t like it, or even know what it means. When did this happen?
Was it the late night movies we watched to make it seem like we had multiple rounds of mind blowing sex? Or the way he held my hand in public, but softly stroked my thumb with his to help me relax? Or was it that one time he wrapped me up in his hoodie when I complained his apartment was way too cold? Or that closet kiss. The first kiss where I quit pretending.
No, can’t think about this.
“How long are you going to subject me to this?” Nate stumbles out of his room, rubbing his face with the palm of his hand. I look at my watch, noting that it’s only 5:23 am. I’m running later than usual, but why should that bother him? “Go. Talk. To. Him.”
I stumbled on my way to the front door and look back at him in confusion. “What? Who?” Okay, I know who, but I’m hoping I’m wrong.
“Oh, for the love of!” He throws his hands up and walks back into his room, slamming the door closed. I smile, a small insincere thing, because he’s kind of right. But I can’t. No way. I don’t even know why I’m upset with Kyle. I knew where things stood. I can’t like him. Ugh, no.
And as if the universe called out to him, Kyle is walking out of his apartment just as I open my door. And like the coward I never denied being, I go to shut my door. But he’s quicker than I am, and his foot blocks the way. I open my mouth to protest, but his hand finds mine and I am pulled into the hallway with him.
“You’ve been avoiding me.” It comes out as an accusation, and does he sound upset, or could my sleep deprived ears be tricking me? Ugh, I am losing sleep over this guy. I must really like him. Instead of giving in and admitting to my cowardly behavior, I cross my arms and jut out my chin.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, so you’ve always gone to the gym at 5 in the morning?”
“It’s less crowded.”
He crowds me, placing both hands on the wall to cage me in, but I don’t lose my defiant edge. “I don’t believe you.”
“And I should care?” I turn my face away, biting my lip before I can say more. I hate how his body is barely pressed against mine. And how good he smells, even first thing in the morning. I especially hate the way his breath hits my cheek at the same rate of my frantic heart beats.
“Don’t you?” And now I hate the tears that spring to my eyes. I don’t allow them to fall. Instead, I push at him until he backs away. “Hey!” He catches my hand before I can walk away. “Hey.” A little softer this time, and my heart is breaking out of its steely resolve. He reaches up, tucking a stray fly away behind my ear, and his lips press against mine.
I let out this pathetic sound, a cross between a needy whimper and a relieved sob. He groans in return and presses me into the wall, kissing me harder. No. No, the last time I really kissed him, I learned the truth. I can’t forget. I will never forget what I found out about Claire. And about how he really loves her. Only her. God, why do I care?
I shake my head, and shake him off of me. “I know all about Claire. You lied to me.”
“I did.” He looks solemn as he nods his head, but he has a small smile in place that angers me. “But not about that.”
“Oh, there’s more?” It comes out sarcastic, but deep inside, my heart is cracking. I don’t want to know anymore. I’m not sure if I can take it.
“We knew you were in the garage that night. I wanted you to hear that she had been my girlfriend once, that she had broken my heart.” I was right to be wary. He knew, and he never apologized. The tears come without my permission, but I don’t run.
“I needed you to see that I wasn’t this heartless jerk you made me out to be. I’ve wanted you for a while.”
“I am not a hook up kind of girl, in case I didn’t make that clear before.” He grabs my elbow, keeping me in place, and I just wish this weird moment would end. But he won’t let it. Why won’t he just let me leave with the tiny bit of dignity I have?
“I know. I like that about you. Don’t you get it, Natalie? I like you. I’ve liked you for a long time.” My head spins at this new piece of information, and I slump against the wall.
“What about Claire? And our plan?”
“That was all… Look.” He stumbles on his words and scratches the back of his head, as if he can’t figure out how to explain himself. “Yes, Claire and I were together and when she broke up with me, man, it hurt. I got angry, and then sad, and then just reckless. I moved here and drank a lot and slept with a lot of girls. I got sick of that, and I wanted more. I missed being myself. I started working out and that’s when I saw you.
“But you wanted nothing to do with me, and I can’t blame you. I can’t blame you for thinking I was a player. I kind of was at one point. Claire and I talked, agreed to be friends, and she even came up with this whole pretending to hook up thing to make your crush jealous. How do you think she even knew your name back in the garage?”
Okay, process time. Kyle likes me. Has liked me for months, before I even noticed him. And he prefers me to the Claire Russo. Who he dated. And had his heart broken by. And they planned the whole garage thing. But wait a minute.
“You said you weren’t yourself without her. You… how is that supposed to make me want you?” He has the decency to look sheepish now and a small blush graces his cheeks. It is not, I repeat, not adorable.
“I, uh, kind of had too much to drink after you ran out of the closet. I thought you regretted kissing me, like a real boyfriend. She knew you were in the garage, I found out after. But she really thought if you saw that side of me, that you would change your mind. Kind of backfired, huh?”
“It might have been better if you just told me.” I nod in agreement, and wipe my cheeks with the back of my hand.
“I’m not that kind of guy.”
“And what kind are you?” He smirks at my question and leans into me, pressing his forehead against mine.
“The kind that makes the girl he’s crazy about pretend to hook up with him to make the guy she likes jealous on the off chance that she might fall for him instead.”
I close my eyes with a content smile and wind my arms around his neck. “Sounds like you’re just the guy for me.”
“Thank Christ.” And his lips find mine once more, but I don’t fight it or try to read into it this time. No, I savor it. I relish it. Because if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that you should never take for granted the things that go like this.
Stella B James runs on coffee, chaos, and Southern sass. You can find her latest short story at SunLit Fiction. Check out her Instagram @stellabjames, where she shares her writing and inner musings.