I don’t know how he figured it was me who told the school he had AIDS, but he found out—and finds me under the bleachers, smoking a cigarette. He even throws the first punch, which I think is out of character for the rich bitch star of our high school track team, headed to Yale come fall. I’ve been in a couple fights, but Jason Kemp can hit hard, and as I eat dirt, I wonder how many fights he’s been in.
Lucky I have my pals with me to pull him back, so by the time I stand up, Vince and Timmy are thrashing on Jason like they want to break his ribs one at a time. I taste blood in my mouth as I wipe my lip and watch. Jason barely makes a noise, just calls me a “son of a bitch” over Vince’s shoulder. Vince punches him again, and this time Jason lands on his knees in his perfectly pressed school uniform.
Timmy shoves him over and joins him in the dirt. He thumps Jason in the side of the face. I think I should tell them to stop—scream it even. Instead, coward that I am, my boys keep going until they see blood. Then, they fall back. They yell about catching Jason’s “gay disease,” named by some mad scientists a couple years back in ‘82. My best friends drag me away.
Jason rolls onto his side in the dirt and wipes at the split skin below his right eye. He doesn’t look up at me, but I keep watching as we hurry from the scene of the crime. I keep watching Jason and think I’d like to wipe his blood all over me.
* * *
He showed up earlier this year, a senior at a new school. Nobody wants to change schools their senior year, so I could have felt bad for the guy. Instead, I hated him the moment he walked into Mr. Harvey’s trigonometry class.
Harvey was one of my favorite teachers. He was this big bald guy who told everyone, first day, “Nobody gets above a C in my class,” which just made kids want to bust their asses even harder to prove him wrong. I had a solid A- when Jason Kemp walked in the first week of class. My grades started dropping soon after.
Jason was the pretty boy hero in every John Hughes romance. He had curly blond hair and blue eyes like some Nazi recruit. He was tall, basketball tall. His school uniform—navy blue slacks, white dress shirt, blue blazer, and red and yellow striped tie—all of it looked perfect. He introduced himself and didn’t sound nervous. A girl behind me giggled.
When Harvey said, “Take the empty desk next to Shawn,” I hid behind my hand and sneered like Billy Idol.
Jason wasn’t discouraged, because when he sat, he greeted me and even introduced himself as if he hadn’t just told the whole class his name. I ignored him, but it was hard not to notice he wore cologne. None of the guys I knew wore cologne.
Word traveled fast that day at Hinckley High. Even though Vince, Timmy, and me tended to sit alone at lunch, it was hard to miss the high-pitched whispers when Jason Kemp walked in. One of the football cheerleaders a table over said he was some kind of track star, won State at his last school. Another girl called him “a dream.”
After school, I met up with the other punk kids under the bleachers. We wore combat boots under our slacks and liked to talk music. We bummed cigarettes off whoever had the fullest pack.
Then, Vince said, “Hey, Shawn. Check out the new stooge.”
I squinted between silver bleachers toward the track field, and even though it wasn’t track season yet, there was one guy running like he was being chased—and there was Mr. Harvey, math teacher and also track coach, with a stopwatch.
Out of school uniform, in shorts and a t-shirt, Jason looked even taller, and man, the dude could move. I’d never seen a guy run that fast, and after he did a couple loops, Harvey looked like he wanted to build a golden idol. Even the football cheerleaders crowded around Jason with their pompoms. Beatrix Waters, the hottest girl in school, squeezed his upper arm.
Jason Kemp: what a tool.
* * *
I can’t taste blood anymore, but I’m still wiping dirt off my clothes when I break away from Timmy and Vince and tell them to buzz off. They always listen when I give orders.
I go back behind the bleachers, but Jason isn’t there anymore. I head to the next best place: the locker room, where I find him. He has both hands planted on either side of an open locker. His head is tilted down, and he’s breathing hard. There’s dust all over his trousers. His tie is gone, and his shirt is unbuttoned. There’s a cut under his eye that’ll end up a bruise.
I stand there until he notices me, and when he does, I swear to God, his eyes glow red. He slams his locker. “Want another round? Won’t be so easy one-on-one.”
In my head, I want to apologize, but the words taste like my Pop’s moonshine in the back of my throat. I let him grab me by the lapels. He slams my back against the lockers so hard, my teeth rattle.
“What did I ever do to you, huh?” he screams.
I’ve never heard him cuss, and I’ve been listening, close, for the past year.
“Is it because I’m gay? Is that it?”
I want to shake my head, say no, but his mouth has never been this close to me before. I can’t think.
He rattles my skull with another pounding against the cold, metal locker at my back and looks like he’s prepping to punch, so I move. I take hurried steps forward, which seems to catch Jason off guard. I keep him from falling by holding onto his suit coat and finally smash him into the lockers on the opposite wall.
Before he can scream at me again, I kiss him. His lips turn to stone. His fists shove at my shoulders until I hold onto the back of his head and tug on his golden curls. I keep kissing him until he’s kissing back. He tastes sort of dusty like maybe he swallowed some dirt when Vince and Timmy pummeled him earlier, but I stick my tongue in his mouth and hold even tighter to the back of his head.
I don’t pull away, not really. I end the kiss but keep my nose pressed against his face, my eyes tilted down. I don’t want to see his expression as my fingers touch his bare chest, his abdomen. He doesn’t move, barely breathes. Do I disgust him?
Beneath the scent of angry sweat and dirt, I smell his cologne. Months back, it took me an hour at Macy’s to figure out which was his: Eternity by Calvin Klein. I stole a bottle and keep it on my desk at home.
As I press one small kiss to the side of his face, one of his hands touches mine. I panic and run. This time, I don’t look back.
* * *
The first time the whole school figured out Jason Kemp was gay was a Saturday night in February. One of our local bands, the High Street Deuces, was playing a gig at the only underage club in town, so there was a great turn out. Vince was with me, decked out in slick sunglasses, and Timmy had his hair dyed black. He said he wanted to look more like one of the Ramones.
In the mid-80s, music was sort of weird. There were kids who still rocked out to that late 70s disco crap. Meanwhile, there was the best-selling pop nonsense—Cyndi Lauper or Madonna. Joan Jett was my newest obsession. The Deuces were somewhere in between, so most of the school turned out to watch them play. Plus, it was an excuse to do something in our boring-as-shit little town.
I saw Jason first. I swear it was like I felt the guy enter a room. The familiar feeling returned, somewhere between pissed off and terrified that he might one day notice me watching. My face settled into a frown, and I examined him from behind my popped coat collar.
He didn’t dress like the other kids at Hinckley High, maybe because he was rich. His parents bought the big Tudor mansion on Front Street, and it had just been announced he was going to Yale—something unheard of at Hinckley. But it wasn’t just the money. He dressed older. He wore fancy looking dark jeans and slim cut sweaters. His shoes shined.
“Jesus.” Vince glared over the top of his sunglasses. “Look at the pretty boy.”
“What a square,” Timmy said, trying to mimic my pose, as usual.
Then it was like the world exploded, because another guy walked in behind Jason. He was older than us by a couple years, probably a college kid. He was almost prettier than Jason, almost, and he had his hand on Jason’s lower back.
“What the …” Vince didn’t say anything else. We all just sort of sat there as Jason took a seat at a high-top in the corner. The older guy said something that made Jason smile. I bit down hard on the inside of my lip, because Jason Kemp had one of those smiles that made you think there really could be peace on Earth. Then, the older guy kissed him, right on the mouth, and headed to the bar. Everyone saw it.
“Kemp’s a faggot!” Timmy hissed.
“Shoulda guessed,” Vince said, which was a lie. Nobody could have guessed Jason was gay. He talked to girls in the hallways at school. He ran cross-country and was about to start running track. He went to school dances with big groups of popular kids and, once, carried a drunk Beatrix Waters to their limousine.
If anyone knew Jason was gay, it would have been me. I knew everything about him. I knew he chewed his bottom lip when doing math equations. I knew he ran his fingers through his hair when he laughed. I knew he had a dark brown freckle just beneath the collar of his shirt on the right side of his neck, and I knew he was leaving me to go Ivy League.
“Dude,” Vince said, “what if he has AIDS like that kid in Indiana?”
“Ryan White,” I said. It was all over the news, how he’d been banned from school.
“Yeah.” Timmy nodded.
“Well, I’m staying the hell away from him. Gross.” Vince pushed his sunglasses up higher on his nose like he could hide from the way Jason’s date looked so happy when he came back to the table with soda. I’d be happy, too, which was when I got the idea to start the rumor in the first place.
* * *
I brush my teeth twice when I get home, but I still taste him. I smoke three cigarettes in bed over the sound of my mom, drunk again, watching Wheel of Fortune downstairs. She shouts answers at the screen like maybe Vanna will hear. Pop’s out someplace, probably with the girlfriend he keeps on the side.
I didn’t know the rumor would blow out of control, honest. I told one girl on the track team that Jason had AIDS. Next thing I knew, his name was a disease. The school officials went nuts, said he couldn’t run track anymore—right before the state championship, too, where Jason was pegged to clean house. No wonder he came after me today.
I’m surprised when I hear a knock on my bedroom door since I didn’t hear Mom tripping up the steps like usual. I answer with a cigarette in hand, but it’s not Mom or even my asshole dad. No, it’s Jason Kemp.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I say.
He steps past me and into my bedroom. He stands there and takes it in: the pile of dirty laundry, the unmade bed, a new poster of Joan Jett, and my worn turntable.
His golden-blond hair is a windblown mess. He’s in a dark green sweatshirt and jeans with a hole in the knee. He’s got a big, purple bruise around his right eye.
“I love Joan Jett,” he says and nods at the poster. “Your mom let me in.”
“How do you know where I live?”
He shrugs. “Small town.”
“Get out of my room.” I point at the door.
He sits on the edge of my bed with his hands in his pockets. “Harvey had me do a blood test.” He sniffs. “Came back clean, of course, so I can run in States.”
I take a drag on my cigarette.
“I don’t even know you, Shawn. Why do you hate me?”
“I don’t hate you.” I stare at the woman on my wall like she has all the answers.
“Yeah, guess I figured that out today.”
I hope to God he doesn’t notice the bottle of his cologne on my desk.
“I don’t want to sound like an afterschool special,” he says, “but it’s okay to like boys.”
I huff and crush out my cigarette only to light another. “I don’t like boys.”
He leans forward and puts his elbows on his knees. “You kiss like you do.”
I tug at my short, spiked hair. “No, you don’t …” I shake my head. “I don’t like boys. I just like you.”
“But why? Over the past year, we’ve barely said two words to each other.”
“You don’t remember,” I say.
So I tell him about the day I realized I was in deep shit.
* * *
It was winter, and the afternoon before, the letter arrived with my acceptance to New York University. I sat alone in my room and read the letter, over and over. I showed it to my parents. Mom gave me a hug that smelled like tequila. Dad said, “How are you going to pay for that?” I couldn’t. I knew I couldn’t, but I’d applied just to see, and even though they offered me a scholarship, it wasn’t enough. I was going to be stuck in Hinckley forever.
I spent the night drinking my dad’s homemade hooch. I passed out around four, only to have my alarm go off three hours later—time for school. I showed up weaving. It was like I’d forgotten how to walk. People gave me funny looks. I needed Vince and Timmy but couldn’t find them.
Then, I felt strong hands under my arms. Someone dragged me to the bathroom. There was room for two in the handicap stall. I heard the door lock behind me as I tossed my cookies into the toilet and slopped some on the floor. There was a warm hand on my back, rubbing up and down.
“Just get it out, man.” I recognized that voice from trig. It was Jason. He stood by me until my stomach was empty. I heaved out foam and choked. The choking turned to sobs. I don’t know why I reached out to him, but he let me drag him down to the floor. I tried to break his bones with my embrace, and he just sat there and took it. He was as strong as he was fast.
When I let go, he stood. “Stay here,” he said as the class bell rang. I heard water running, and he came back with a damp paper towel, handed it to me. We sat on that dirty bathroom floor together. “My mom drinks,” he said, like that was his reason for helping me. He didn’t say anything else.
We were both late to class. I got written up, but I bet Jason didn’t. He never got in trouble; all the teachers liked him too much. I felt like hell the rest of the day, but I smelled like him. That night, I slept in my school uniform, my nose buried in the collar and pretended he was in bed next to me.
* * *
“I remember that day,” he says. “I didn’t think you did.”
“I memorized your cologne.” I nod toward my desk.
He glances over his shoulder and recognizes the Calvin Klein bottle.
“I think you’re perfect,” I whisper and immediately regret it. My face burns.
He tilts his head left and right, stretching his neck. “Can I have one of those?” He points to the cigarette in my hand.
“You don’t smoke.”
He snickers. “I’ve smoked for three years. Just never gotten caught.”
I pull a cigarette from the pack on my bedside table and hand him one before taking a seat a foot away from him on my bed. I watch him light up and take a long drag. It’s sexy as hell.
“I got kicked out of my last school,” he says. “Wanna know why?”
I inch a little closer.
“I beat the shit out of some kid who called me a fag. I don’t really remember it. I think it was one of those rage blackouts or something.” He chuckles.
“You do know how to throw a punch.”
“Yeah,” he mutters. “I’m not perfect, Shawn.”
“You’re perfect to me.” I’m not embarrassed when I say it this time.
He takes a long drag and exhales white smoke toward my ceiling. He runs his free hand through his hair. I think I’d like to kiss him again and taste smoke on his tongue. I surprise the shit out of myself and do it, just grab him by the face and start kissing. This isn’t like the pointless fumbling with girls I’ve done over the years. This is brute force and lust. He moans into my mouth and somehow finds the nearest ashtray. He tosses his cigarette before climbing on top of me so I’m on my back in my bed—with a boy. Pretty soon, I’m moaning, too, and pulling at the bottom of his sweatshirt, remembering the way his skin felt in the locker room that afternoon.
He laughs a little as I tear the fabric off over his head. Then, it’s like a race to get our clothes off. Jason is faster, of course. Everything is confusing and unfamiliar at first, but he takes charge and makes me feel like he did last winter on the floor of the boy’s bathroom: safe.
When we’re finished, we huddle up under my dirty sheets and giggle, a mess of tangled arms, legs, and lips. I try not to think about how it’ll be summer soon and then, he’ll be gone.
He holds my hand. “Why were you drunk that day at school anyway?”
My eyes linger as he chews his bottom lip. Finally, I say, “I got into NYU.”
“Yeah, that’s tragic.”
“I can’t go. We can’t afford it.”
When I lick my bottom lip, it tastes like him. “I’m not smart enough.”
“What are you going to do instead?”
I roll over and move my body closer to his, if that’s even possible. “Dunno. Work at McDonald’s, I guess.”
“Shut the hell up.”
I lightly run my thumb over his bruise. “I like when you swear.”
“Are you gonna be gay now?” The look in his eyes changes from playful to serious.
I shrug. “I never liked a boy until I saw you, and I hated you for it.”
“That explains a lot.”
I fall away from him and lay on my back, eyes to the sky. I think about lighting another cigarette. “I’m sorry I started that rumor.”
“Yeah, well, it’s over now.” He rolls up onto his elbow and looks down at me. Without asking, he reaches over my body and grabs my discarded cigarettes, lights one. Again, it’s one of the hottest things I’ve ever seen. “Will you come watch me at States?” He takes a puff and hands it to me.
I raise an eyebrow. “What, like I’m your girlfriend?”
He pokes me in the side and takes the cigarette back.
“Only if I can kiss you when you win,” I whisper.
“In front of your bodyguards?”
I think of Vince and Timmy. “They’re not my bodyguards. They’re idiots.”
As if I’ve forgotten the magic of his mouth, Jason leans down and kisses me. I whimper when he pulls back and am scared by the ache in my chest like someone’s drilling holes through my heart. I’m really starting to understand that song “Love Stinks.”
I’m afraid to ask what comes next for Jason and me, but I do anyway.
He looks like he thinks this is a stupid question. “I’ll stay here for another hour. Or two,” he says, which makes my toes curl. “I’ll go home and get ready for the state championship. Probably win some medals. I’ll show you there was music made before 1982.” He smirks at my little stack of records in the corner. “You’ll realize I’m nowhere near perfect, and maybe you’ll leave with me this summer.”
I steal the cigarette back. “Dude, that’s totally an afterschool special.”
He’s quiet for a second. Then, he says, “Or maybe you’ll wake up tomorrow and realize it’s too hard being gay, and your friends will bust my lip under the bleachers.”
I drag him to me until his back is against my chest. We huddle beneath a cloud of smoke. Nobody speaks.