You took me by surprise.
Then more than now. Now you’re a ghost. Your specter takes up space in my memory, in the parts of my brain reserved for late nights alone in the dark when I remember what my life was like back then. And maybe when I think of what it could have been.
Back then you were everything. You were life, you were vibrancy. You were sunshine, warmth and light with black hair and eyes like the sea.
But sun can burn if you get too close. I let myself get close. I wanted to feel your heat, and in the end we both were left charred and smoking.
I’m surprised when I see you now. We pass each other in the street, and you look different. I guess we both do. We’re not the kids we were back then. You look into my eyes and I know you see me. I know you remember.
You remember getting drunk in the middle of the day in an empty cinema. You remember that night in the hotel room. You remember those hazy summer days and the freedom of having time to kill.
You remember telling me you loved me.
It felt like a dream when you said it. I wished I was dreaming, and that I’d never have to wake up. I wished I could dream forever of being loved by a person like you, by a boy who was almost a man, by someone so good I was reminded that life wasn’t always a wash of monochrome.
I wished I knew how to say it back.
I wasn’t ready when you first kissed me.
It was the summer I turned seventeen. We were friends, and I hated everything. Everything but you.
You came to my house and had dinner with my family. You told my mum the cake she baked was good, even though it really wasn’t. You didn’t ask why my dad wasn’t there.
We went to my room and you gave me a CD you burned with all my favourite songs. I put it on and you laid on my bed, so I did too.
We stared up at the ceiling and listened. The window was open and the air was warm, and I was thinking about how every song on that CD was one we’d sung along to together at one point or another. You knew me so well, like no one else did. My mum hadn’t even gotten me a gift, just shoved a few fivers into a card and signed her name.
You turned your head on my pillow and looked at me. My heart was beating too fast. I knew something was going to happen. I’d been thinking about it. Thinking about you.
I turned my head. Your eyes were so big and blue as you looked into mine. You said, “Happy birthday,” and then you leaned in and kissed me. You kept your eyes open and looked at me as if daring me to kiss you back.
I did. I kissed back. Your lips were softer than mine. I didn’t know another guy’s lips would be so soft. I wasn’t ready to know that, but it felt so good that for a moment I forgot. I forgot that we were both guys and guys don’t do that, because I’d always wondered what it’d be like to kiss you.
You rolled onto your side and kissed me again, harder, and I grabbed your face and kissed you back. Again. Harder. My favourite song was playing in the background and we kissed until the song ended and suddenly I remembered that we were both guys and guys aren’t supposed to kiss each other.
I pushed you away. I said, “What the fuck?” and you said, “I’m sorry,” but I knew you weren’t and neither was I. I wanted to kiss you again, but instead I said, “You should leave.”
You were my best friend. I stayed up all night listening to that CD over and over and trying not to think about your mouth.
You weren’t the first person I ever kissed, but after that night I realized I never really knew what kissing was until your lips met mine.
You rang me a few days later, the longest we’d gone without talking in ages. We both pretended things were normal. You said you’d knicked a bottle of Malibu from your brother and you needed help drinking it.
It was hot outside, so we went to the cinema, where there was aircon and the smell of popcorn and big cups of coke to mix with your rum. We sat in the very back row, all the way to the left. We didn’t have a good view of the screen, but it didn’t matter because we were too pissed to pay attention anyway. We laughed like hyenas about how you’d managed to sneak the booze in by shoving it down the front of your jeans.
We snuck into another theater without paying for a second ticket. We were proper drunk, and the film might as well have been static for how little I gave a shit. My inhibitions had been drowned out by coconut spirits and all I could think about was the way you smelled and how our knees and shoulders were pressed together.
I leaned in close to you and whispered, “What are you doing?”
You looked at me and laughed. I was looking at you and I didn’t look away even after you stopped laughing. Your face went serious and even in the darkness I could tell that it wasn’t just a mistake, that birthday kiss. You wanted to do it again.
I wanted to do it again and with that much alcohol swimming in my blood, I couldn’t think of a single reason not to, so I leaned in again and did it.
You were ready for me. You tasted sweet and you turned your whole body to face mine. You held the back of my neck and I got hard when you put your tongue in my mouth. Even drunk off my ass, that scared me. I’d never gotten hard from kissing.
I pushed you away again. My arousal felt like a giant arrow pointed at me saying this is what you are. It was what I was always afraid of. It was what I told myself wasn’t true ever since I was five years old and some kid at school pushed me to the ground called me gay.
You didn’t apologize this time. You leaned in again and kissed me in a way that made my insides feel like they were exploding. I knew if you’d been sober you wouldn’t have done that, and I was glad you weren’t. I was glad neither of us were, because I’d never felt that insides exploding thing before and I really really liked it, and I knew we’d have never had that moment without the liquid courage.
Then someone was laughing and my heart was in my throat and I pushed you away roughly. It was only someone sat closer to the screen laughing at the film, but it was enough to turn my stomach. I got up and walked out, headed straight for the toilets to splash cold water on my face. My whole body was vibrating with adrenaline and fear. I looked at myself in the mirror and I could swear my lips looked different, and I was convinced that everyone who saw me would know exactly what I’d been up to.
I went outside and you were waiting for me there, leaned up against the wall with your hands in your pockets and I knew then for sure that I was exactly what people had always called me.
We pretended nothing happened. I came round to yours and we played video games in your lounge. Your mum made us coffee and sandwiches and we pissed ourselves laughing at how hard we were trying to keep from her that we were drunk. She must have known, but she didn’t say anything.
When I got home that night I went straight up to my room and listened to your CD. I didn’t want to think about the kissing, but there was nothing else inside my head. I got hard thinking about it, so I touched myself. Your face was in my head when I came, and then afterwards I cried.
It became our new normal. We’d hang out, you’d kiss me, eventually I’d push you away, usually when the urge to pull you in closer became too strong to ignore. We wouldn’t talk about it. I’d think about you at night and touch myself, digging myself deeper into a hole I knew I’d never be able to climb back out of again.
One night you were at my house. We were in my room, lying on my bed and listening to music. I was looking at you out of the corner of my eye, noticing how long your legs were, how your feet dangled over the edge of the mattress.
You broke the rules then. You said, “Are we ever going to talk about it?”
I said, “No.” Then I rolled right on top of you. I kissed you hard and put my tongue in your mouth because I didn’t want to ever talk about it. Nothing made it more real than words, not even when I could feel you getting hard underneath me. Words were the thing I knew I couldn’t handle. If we kissed, if we started to touch each other, I reckoned I could be alright. It wasn’t real if we didn’t talk about it.
Something changed that night. I could feel you and I knew you could feel me. My door was locked and my blood was on fire. It was me who changed the rules. I really only ever had myself to blame for all of it.
But I wanted you, and at seventeen it’s hard not to follow the whims of your heart and your hormones, so I opened your jeans and touched you for the first time and my name sounded so sweet on your lips when I made you come. I’d never seen anything so beautiful.
I felt like I’d died and gone someplace far away when you touched me back. I hadn’t even known pleasure like that was possible.
I didn’t push you away after, but I rolled off the bed and zipped up my jeans and said that I was hungry. We didn’t talk about it. Instead we ordered pizza and watched a film downstairs. I drove you home in my mum’s car, chewing and swallowing all the words I was too afraid to say.
It was a hot summer. We spent a lot of time outside acquainting ourselves with the parks with the biggest trees to give the best shade. Your nose was always burnt and I had new freckles popping up every other day. My skin went tan and yours just went pink. I stopped straightening my hair because the sweat was always making it curl right back up anyway.
One night we stopped ignoring our other mates and went to a party. You looked amazing in a dark blue button up, and I was trying so hard not to look at you for more than a few seconds at a time. I got too drunk. It was easier to take shots than it was to be around you in front of other people, knowing that just the day before I’d tasted you for the first time.
There was a girl there. She was pretty, in that way girls are, a way I noticed but didn’t really care much about. She attached herself to me that night. She took shots when I took shots and she laughed when I tried to make jokes and it was easy to lean into what I thought would make me look normal to the other guys at the party.
I didn’t stop her when she stood on the tips of her toes and put her arms around the back of my neck. I leaned down and did what I knew she wanted and her lips were soft but the taste they left in my mouth was sour. I heard someone whistle at us and I hoped there was a way you wouldn’t see. I didn’t want you to see.
I didn’t see you again that night. You left without me. I threw up in the back garden and walked home and cried myself to sleep.
You didn’t answer my calls for a week, so one day I just showed up at your house and your mum invited me inside. She had no idea you weren’t speaking to me anymore. We went to the meadow and sat by the water and there was so much tension between us that I wondered if you were actually done with me.
Then you said, “I’ve missed you,” and I thought I might cry. I said, “Let’s not go to any more parties,” and you smiled a little and nodded. I knocked my knee into yours and you picked some grass out of the dirt and threw it at my face. I threatened to push you into the water and you tackled me backwards into the grass and I thought for a moment you might kiss me, but you just looked into my eyes and your face went serious. Then you got up and started walking away.
I followed you, and we walked all the way back to my house. You followed me up the stairs to my bedroom and as soon as I closed the door behind us you pushed me up against it and kissed me harder than ever before. You kissed me like every moment you spent not kissing me was agony and the meeting of our lips was the thing keeping you alive. I kissed you back the exact same way, because that was what was true. I only felt like myself when I was with you.
I felt like I was floating afterwards. We laid naked in my bed, your arm under my neck and I let myself feel good about it. For a little while I let myself have what I wanted underneath all the layers of fear and shame.
Then we heard my mum and brother downstairs and I rolled away and told you to get dressed. I was too young, too green, too hopelessly mired in the conditioning I’d received since the moment that kid pushed me to the ground and reduced me to a slur. I didn’t know how to separate the world’s hatred for it from the way it actually made me feel. It didn’t matter how right you felt in my arms, I was still convinced it was wrong.
We made it to nearly the end of the summer. We were friends until we were alone, and then we were more. We didn’t talk about it. I got to know every inch of your body, and you mine. One afternoon we were naked on your sheets, sweating underneath an open window and I whispered that I wanted you inside me. It was the most I ever said about us, and it was terrifying, but it felt like a dream. Everything was hazy and humid in the afterglow and for once I let myself ask for what I wanted.
Two days later you rang me up and told me you booked us a room. You gave me the address and said, “Do you want to?” That’s all you said.
I said, “Yes.”
You met me in the lobby and we rode the lift up together. I had a condom in my pocket but I hadn’t thought about anything else. I hoped you were more prepared than me.
We walked down the hall and you put your arm around my shoulder. You smelled so good and I liked feeling like I was yours.
The room was nice. You must have paid a lot. We were both so awkward and nervous that you asked if we should order up drinks and that made me laugh. You were so cute and your nerves made me feel brave, so I walked over to you and unbuttoned your shirt. I touched your chest and you kissed me and before I knew it we were lying on the bed naked and hard. You were on top of me and you had everything we needed and it was overwhelming to see proof that you wanted me as much I wanted you.
It hurt when you pushed inside me, but the look on your face made me feel those insides exploding feelings again and I told you to keep going. It didn’t last long but then we did it again an hour later and I knew I was ruined for anything with anyone else. This was it and you were it and I didn’t know how I’d ever be allowed to keep this. It was too good and too wrong and I didn’t know how to reconcile those two halves of myself.
There were already tears in my eyes when you pressed your forehead to the side of my neck and whispered, “I love you.”
I wished I was dreaming.
I wished the world was different.
I wished I knew how to say it back.
Instead I said, “I can’t do this.”
You didn’t say anything. I got up and got dressed and left you there. We were both crying, and I never saw you again.
We pass each other in the street. Your hair is shorter. There are lines on your face where years of smiles and frowns have worn creases into your skin. You’re not the same as you were, but we pass each other, and for a moment our eyes meet. And I know you remember.
But you pretend you don’t. I stop in my tracks, but you look away and keep walking.
I’m not the same as I was back then either. I don’t keep myself hidden behind a lie anymore. I’ll never be that kid again, the kid who was afraid to be loved by you.
Maybe who I am to you will always be the scared little boy who broke your heart. Maybe you still hate me and that’s why you look away. I wouldn’t blame you. You were brave when I couldn’t be, and in the end all I did was punish you for it.
Then I hear you say my name. I turn around and there you are, stood in the middle of the pavement looking back at me.
You say my name again. You look different, but you sound the same. You still sound like home.