It wasn’t easy being queer, not in the early 2000s, and certainly not in a conservative Christian family. I sighed, adjusting my cropped sweater over my long white cami as I lay down on the dock, ignoring the splinters that pricked my bare calves. The breeze over the Chesapeake bay was cool, but the late afternoon sunshine warmed my skin. I smiled as the next song by Anberlin came on, the CD skipping occasionally. High school had been rough, but my graduation party was the next day. For now, I was alone, with no siblings to annoy me and no parents to badger me. As tough as I was, the past two years had been hell on earth. The music bled out my frustration, sorrow, and loneliness. No one knew how close I had come to ending my life that winter, and that’s the way I wanted to leave it. By some miracle, I was still here, on a perfect May day, and nothing was going to bring me down. I closed my eyes and drifted.
A shadow fell across me, immediately blocking my source of warmth. I shielded my eyes and looked up. I yanked my earbuds out and jammed the stop button on the Walkman. It was just Noah glaring down at me. At least mom wouldn’t know I had been listening to ‘the devil’s music.’ I pushed myself up on one elbow, wincing as a shard of wood pierced my skin. I twisted my arm around and searched for the offending splinter while my brother droned on.
“Alex!” Noah barked at me. I looked up, wide-eyed.
“What?” I asked, a little afraid. If I had managed to piss him off, things could go south very quickly. Noah had a temper that was explosive and unpredictable.
He pointed back towards the house. “I tried to tell you, Leah is here, and she brought some dumb Italian kid with her. Mom wants us back at the house.” Our sister-in-law was always bringing kids around, and I frequently ended up babysitting. There were worse jobs, I mused as I came to my feet. Noah didn’t offer to help, just turned around and stalked back the way he had come. I followed, determined to be happy no matter what.
The screen door squeaked open and crashed shut behind me. I winced at the noise. That thing was a menace. In the kitchen, the family was busy with food prep. Leah was chopping carrots, and a tall, dark-haired boy was pitting olives next to her. He had glossy curls that fell to his ears. The “dumb, Italian kid” turned to say something to my sister-in-law and I felt my eyebrows rise in surprise. He had a strong brow, intelligent hazel eyes, an aquiline nose, and dark rose lips. They were so perfect that I wondered if he was wearing makeup. The rest of his outfit was so ordinary–basketball shorts and a sports t-shirt–that I knew it wasn’t the case. Italian boy turned those eyes on me, and I got the distinct impression that he didn’t really want to be here, playing sous chef to my mom. I stuck my hand out anyway.
“Hi, I’m Alex. It’s nice to meet you.”
When he said his name, rolling his r’s, it sounded like a poem. I smiled and looked down at my hand. Belatedly, Aurelio must have remembered how to shake hands, because he stuck his hand in mine with an embarrassed look. It was a bit wet from the olives, but I felt a zing when his large, warm hand enveloped mine. We stood there for a moment until I blinked and withdrew my hand with a laugh. I suddenly felt cold, using that as an excuse to escape the odd atmosphere around Aurelio.
We ate pizza all together, and Aurelio was introduced to the family. Apparently, he was a foreign exchange student that was staying with my brother and sister-in-law in Philadelphia for the summer. My brother was a budding entrepreneur, so his wife had driven Aurelio down for the weekend, since there was nothing else for him to do. After dinner, we stayed up late playing cards. I tried to figure out the foreigner, but he was so taciturn. When I teased him, trying to get a rise out of him, he stayed quiet. At some point, I felt Aurelio’s annoyance grow sharp with my sarcastic wit. That’s what I did, push people til they showed their hand, and I knew their weaknesses. It was a twisted insurance policy.
We were sitting on the couch, and no one else was around, so I turned and lay down, my head on his thigh. It was taught under my head, and his jaw was clenched. I sighed. Aurelio seemed like a smart, interesting person, but he was way too uptight. He answered my questions evasively, and he took forever to take his turn in Uno. I lay there for a moment, trying to define his smell, like lavender and spice. The moment had gotten awkward, and I felt a twinge of frustration that nothing I did let me past his facade. I smacked him in the side of the head with the throw pillow I’d been holding to my chest. His face flashed anger, and I backed off, retiring to my room for the night. Nobody could say I hadn’t tried.
The next morning, I stretched and dragged myself out of bed, excited to wear the new white pencil skirt and electric purple button down my mom had bought her. It was my first new clothes in two years. Our family had always lived under the poverty line, and every cent I earned went towards my college fund. I sighed, thinking of how many houses I’d have to clean this summer just to be able to pay for one semester. I tamed my wavy brown hair, not taking the time to straighten it. With the encroaching summer humidity, it wasn’t even worth it. Besides, I looked great. Usually, girly clothes made me feel deeply uncomfortable, but I really liked the way the deep purple shirt made my blue eyes shine. I minced sedately downstairs, the pencil skirt restricting my movement in an unfamiliar way. Aurelio was sitting in a chair with a full view of the stairs, and our eyes met for a moment. Feeling on top of the world, I twirled.
“What do you think?” I smiled, but Aurelio gave a noncommittal grunt and looked back down at his laptop. My heart sank. He didn’t think I looked pretty. Seriously?! His apathy stung worse than his anger had the night before. I left in a hurry, determined to ignore him for the rest of the day. My real friends were coming for the party, anyway.
Four hours later, I’d changed my mind. My “friends” had pranked me nonstop, ambushing me with airsoft guns and silly string. I was sore all over, and my lungs were still burning from an asthma attack. Apparently, I was severely allergic to silly string. I watched from behind the curtains of the darkened library. They were still at it outside, spraying each other like I hadn’t just left my own party, hacking my lungs out. I had no idea where Aurelio was, but I’d only seen him in passing, chatting up the adults. He didn’t seem indifferent to them, I thought with a bitter pang. A small part of me wondered why I cared so much. Perhaps because I wanted to make a good impression. Screw that. Melancholy had sunk its claws into my chest, and I couldn’t shake it. Today was supposed to be happy, I berated myself.
I sat down at the piano, running my hand over the smooth cherry wood. The first notes of the Moonlight Sonata wrapped around me, pulling the pain out of my chest. All my sorrow over being unseen and unloved, all my self-loathing and self-lacking poured out in the piece. I knew everyone was outside, and the thick carpet deadened the sound so I could play just for myself. A door creaked open, and Aurelio slipped quietly into the room. I faltered for a moment, then shut him out and let myself breathe in time to the final slow fall of the Sonata. I held that last note until it faded into the darkness, my anger emptied out and left with the familiar hollow, hungry ache. I searched for my smile and came up with a fake. I painstakingly plastered it on, anyway, directed it at Aurelio, and left the room. He raised no objection, so I returned to my party.
Again with the regrets. Everything with my friends started well. “Let’s go down to the docks,” someone suggested. Somehow that turned into “Let’s push Alex into the water and if she resists, let’s hold her down and throw her in and if she fights and screams, let’s gang up on her and do it anyway until she freaks out and has a total panic attack.” That’s how I ended up having a full-blown panic attack, while five of my friends struggled to pick me up off the dock and throw me in the disgusting bay. I could hear the panic in my voice as I screamed and kicked: “No! No! No!”
There was a gap, and the hands gripping me suddenly let go. Aurelio shoved his way into the circle, pushing everyone back. “Stop!” He glared at them fiercely. “Can’t you hear her? She said ‘no!’” My jaw dropped as he stooped down and offered me his hand. “Are you okay?”
I nodded, but my face probably betrayed the traces of my terror. Aurelio pulled me to my feet, and a small and hard lump in my chest unwound. The party died down quickly, and everyone left, including Leah and Aurelio.
That very evening, I checked my Facebook and found a friend request from Aurelio. I answered it and shot him a quick message thanking him for coming to my party. I had barely pressed send when I got a message thanking me for welcoming him and letting him crash my party. I smiled, and the conversation was off like a shot. Turns out, Aurelio really was friendly. We found that we saw the world much the same way. He had traveled so much, and I dreamed of traveling. We talked about his experience of the States, and my nieces, and all the people he was meeting. Every day the length of our messages grew. I worked my summer job, but every break had me scarfing down food to have time to message him.
The next weekend he came down to visit Baltimore. I had never met a nicer person, someone who heard me when I spoke. He was a little distracted, wide-eyed at all the disheveled glory of one of America’s most crime-ridden cities. Frankly, I was concerned we would lose him as we walked the length of the harbor. Watching Aurelio go full tourist made me laugh, and he even started smiling. We had to cross a street and I grabbed his hand, towing him along behind me. When we were safely on the other side, I sort of forgot to let go. The calluses from his saxophone rubbed against my skin, sending a shot of heat up my arm. There was something familiar about his hand in mine, like the smell of pizza on a Friday night, the piano keys, or a good run. I felt home. This is what friendship should be like. All the barriers, his facades, he dropped them all. I had felt there was so much he hadn’t dared show at first.
In those long messages and the long conversations, I learned about his pretty violent life with three brothers and a very ill mother. He was mind-blowingly smart, and he never made me feel bad for my geeky, nerdy self. The best was playing the piano. He would invariably drift into the room. At first, he looked at the books, then I’d feel him standing right behind me. Then he sat next to me and turned the pages for me. Our shoulders would brush and my whole body would relax. This boy had turned my life upside down, and I felt so comfortable with him. He never judged me, never asked anything from me that I couldn’t give. He was like the ying to my yang. My very best friend.
A few weeks later he was staying the weekend, and I was incandescently happy. Then I got sick. The cold medicine helped, so I drank half the bottle, with the stupidity only a teenager can muster. My cousin was there, so we hung out in the guest room with him, Aurelio sitting on the carpet between us. The feel of his arm against mine was like a drug. It’s like the closer I got to him, the less pain I felt. I couldn’t believe I’d found my bosom friend. Sure, maybe I told him that, and then I had to explain to him what a bosom was. That didn’t help in clearing the matter up, so I showed him Anne of Green Gables, at which point he pointed out that those girls definitely weren’t straight. Unfortunately, I had no good arguments against that, so I let it slide. I fell asleep on his shoulder at some ungodly hour and woke up with no idea how I had gotten to bed.
That morning we bundled into the car to tour Washington D.C. with my sister-in-law, cousin, and sister. There were no crosswalks, so I had no excuse to grab his hand. Somehow that really put a damper on the day. I couldn’t figure out my own crappy mood, and Aurelio’s sunshine was gone, too. We moped around the capitol all day. When I asked him what was wrong, he pointed out that we couldn’t hold hands, not with so many people watching. I just couldn’t figure out how something so good could be perceived as bad. We disagreed, and an impossible rift opened between us. We spent that evening laughing and talking with my cousin, but I felt a vague sense of frustration. There was no space for distance with us. It was killing me.
Then the day was gone. I changed into pajamas–a pair of short shorts and an oversize t-shirt. When everyone had gone to bed I tiptoed out of bed and went for a drink of water. I stopped in front of the guest bedroom door, eyeing the band of yellow light. I hadn’t gotten a second to talk to him alone, and that I was in withdrawal from the lack of one-on-one conversation. I turned to walk away, then I turned back, tapping my fingers on my thigh in indecision. Just then, Aurelio’s door opened a crack, and he peered into the dark hallway.
“Hello?” He asked.
I moved into the light. “Hey. Can I come in for a second?”
His face was taught with indecision, then he nodded sharply, stepping aside to let me pass.
I paced back and forth, but he caught my arm, pointing to the floor. “The floorboards, they make noise, no?”
I nodded and stopped my pacing. “You’re right,” I sighed, and plopped down cross-legged on his bed. I patted the spot next to me and he gingerly lowered himself, holding his back stiff the whole time.
“I don’t really know why I came.” I hesitated, certain I should leave, but not certain why. Things had been so easy. Why did everything suddenly feel tense, poised on a knife’s edge? Why had I even come here?
Aurelio was looking at his hands, and I felt a sudden spurt of anger at this new indifference.
“I’m sorry,” I practically spat. “I’ll let you go to sleep.”
Aurelio looked up at me and I recoiled at the shadow of pain I saw there. “That’s not what I want.”
“Then what the heck is going on?” I whispered. An edge of desperation cut through my words. I couldn’t lose this boy. He was my other half. Just being separated like this was agony.
“I’m afraid to tell you.” His accent slipped through, coloring his words, and I smiled.
“You don’t have to be afraid of me.”
“I’m not afraid of you, I’m afraid of losing you. You mean so much to me.”
I nodded, my heart lifting at his words. I put my hand on his arm and felt his muscles tremble beneath my touch. What was happening? He stood up like he’d been burned, facing away from me.
“Whatever it is, I’m here for you,” I assured him. I followed him and pulled him in for a hug, then froze. His eyes were wide with shock, and my mouth went dry, feeling his very big, hard problem against my hip. Aurelio closed his eyes, a muscle in his jaw working as he stood there, waiting for my reaction. My mind raced, putting the pieces of the puzzle together. Suddenly the truth was very apparent, but I still had to hear it from him. The house was still around us, but our bodies seemed to hum and crackle with tension. “What is it you want?” I asked.
He sighed and opened his eyes to meet mine. “You,” he answered, the tenderness and fire in his eyes sending a shiver down my spine. I didn’t move. I couldn’t process what this meant, the rightness as all my questions were answered. I’d never seen him coming, never imagined that he could want me as more than a friend. But when he licked his lips, his chest rising and falling with his rapid breaths, I knew exactly how he felt.
My body was tingling from the contact, and I stretched onto my tiptoes, earning a groan from Aurelio where our bodies rubbed together. His hands came to my waist, and I wrapped my arms around his neck, where I could run my fingers through his silky curls. It felt so good to be here like this, but I found a pit of desire opening in my stomach. I wanted him so badly it hurt. I pressed my body close to him, and it wasn’t enough.
“I want you, too,” I breathed out, and Aurelio didn’t hesitate. His lips brushed mine like a question, and I pulled him to me even tighter, opening my mouth. He instantly deepened the kiss, and I shifted to give him access. It was a kiss from the storybooks; everywhere our bodies met it was like fire burning through my veins. We were so close, but still so far. I pushed him back to sit on the bed, freezing for a second when the hinges squeaked. But all was quiet, so I straddled his lap, rolling my hips against his length.
Aurelio hissed. “You can’t do that, please. Not if you don’t want me to take you right here, right now.” I stilled my movements, aware that my parents were sleeping right across the hallway. “But you can still kiss me,” he suggested. So I did.