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tell me a place where this is real

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No matter how many people from Leyland Eric knew, he knew he would always feel alone. He had met the team, practiced with them, and even went to one of their parties. It was easy to learn their language. He had always been a chameleon. This time, though, he doesn’t blend in, the shade is off. He would never be able to talk about girls convincingly enough, it felt fake even to his own ears. He wonders what they think. The thought of them knowing makes him breathe too fast, like he can’t get enough air. It’s like drowning on land. He feels like a foreigner when he speaks like them, and he's desperate to lose his accent. It's too early to feel this way, yet he knows it. Just another time his feelings have disappointed him.

Eric expects to feel alone his first day at Leyland, but the feeling never comes. Kevin comes up behind him and asks, “Why do you look so scared?”

This jolts Eric out of his head. Kevin has ruined his plan for the day: sleepwalk through morning classes, eat lunch with the team, sleepwalk through afternoon classes, shoot around at the rec center, then go home and try not to think.

“Uh, I look scared?” he says, blinking to reorient himself.

“Yeah, man. You got them rabbit eyes.” Kevin bugs out his eyes to show him. Kevin is Eric’s favorite among the Leyland boys. But that was to be expected since he was everyone's favorite. He is a sophomore but he’s tall and acts older than he is. He is no doubt going to be the captain next year, Coach Dan would have given the title to him this year if he wasn't afraid people would think he liked Kevin best. Eric has only known Leyland for a short time but he didn’t think anyone would mind too much.

Eric wishes Kevin’s captainly instincts would tell him to go on with his day and let Eric figure out where to go. But somehow he has gotten hold of Eric’s schedule and is looking it over.

“178? I'll show you.”

“It's okay, I got it. You've probably gotta get to class.”

Kevin waves him off. “She won't mind.”

He says it like he could do anything and get away with it. All the Leyland boys talked like that but Kevin most of all. A bunch of rich boys that were good at basketball and got everything they ever wanted, never worrying about a damn thing. Anyone else Eric would hate for that. But he only wanted to be like them.

Kevin can't get through a hallway without being greeted with “Kev!” and “Kevin, my man,” and “Lacroix, how you been?” and more handshakes than Eric could count. Eric smiles a little at the way they talk. White boys in uniforms talking the same as the kids at his old middle school. Like they'd grown up just the same.

Kevin doesn't say much to any of them, just flashing his trademark smile and moving on. Just a glimpse of it makes Eric feel strange. He averts his eyes. It's like the sun. If he looks too long, it will start to hurt.

They get to room 178 and Kevin smiles. “Bro, freshman year was the best. Ms. Sanchez has a fat ass." They both laugh.

"Good luck.” And then he's gone, striding down the hall like he isn't late. Like he wants Eric to watch him. And Eric does, until he disappears from view. Eric slumps against the wall. The second late bell rings but he doesn't move. Kevin has ruined everything and he doesn't even know it.

*

Kevin doesn't stop doing that. He watches out for him and doesn't let the older boys bother him. Eric doesn't understand why Kevin wants to be his friend. They were exact opposites: Eric, a white kid attending Leyland on a basketball scholarship, barely a step above the white trash; Kevin, a rich black kid with a house that looked like it should be on television. But Kevin always invites him over, lets him stay the night. At first, Eric thinks Kevin wants something from him. But he realizes Kevin genuinely likes him and that is the strangest thing.

Eric finds himself leaning in to Kevin too much when Kevin walks with his arm over his shoulders, which he does too often, and staring at Kevin’s lips, his eyes. He tells himself he will get caught. So he devotes much of his time to flirting with girls, getting dirty pictures from them so he can spread them around and brag about it. He gets used to girls hitting him, yelling, “You’re a dick, Eric!” He always laughs it off and so does the team. The boys like him now but he still feels he's on the fringe, an outsider. His fraying Leyland sweater reminds him of where he comes from.

He doesn't like the intense fluttery feeling in his stomach whenever Kevin touches him. He wills it to go away and it remains. It feels like a betrayal.

*

Before the season starts, Eric shaves off his curls. The barber asks him if he likes it and he does. He looks like a real Leyland boy.

“Nice cut,” Kevin says.

“Yeah, I didn't want to look like a bitch anymore.” They both laugh but Eric feels a little hollow.

*

Leyland is unbeatable. Being a freshman, Eric mostly rides the bench but it’s amazing to be apart of something like this. He gets used to team dinners and playing with Kevin feels like a dream. He’s never known something so sweet.

They win state that year. Eric ignores everyone yelling and cheering around him and looks for Kevin. Kevin is running towards him and Eric rushes to meet him. Kevin grabs Eric’s arms and they stand there yelling at each other for a moment because it feels right. He hooks his arm around Eric's shoulders and Eric’s head is ducked against Kevin’s chest. For the moment they are like that, Eric imagines a world where they are together and nobody cares.

“We did it,” Kevin whispers against Eric’s ear, breathy and hot, so close it almost feels like a kiss. Eric’s grin grows wider, something he didn't think was possible. He hugs Kevin tight, finally having a reason to. It’s as if the team only consists of the two of them. No one else matters.

He gets to hold the trophy. Hoisting it into the air, he wonders: Is this all there is?He can't help feeling like Kevin’s arms around him was almost better. He thinks of all the athletes kissing their girlfriends and wives after winning and how he'll never get to do that. Why can’t he have the trophy and the boy? He is so greedy, he tells himself. He always wants more than he deserves.

*

All summer long, it’s Eric and the boys tearing things down and never getting in trouble. Eric has never lived like this and it thrills him. He doesn't let anyone go to his house and tries to hide his surprise when he goes to theirs. He does his best to make everyone to forget he's a scholarship kid. It’s probably the summer where he smiles most, but too many of them are fake. He doesn't understand the life he's living, but he doesn't want it to stop. It’s like this: setting off fireworks they shouldn't have in the park, stealing beer, kissing girls, driving far away with their music blaring. He remembers waking up and not knowing where he was, with Kevin’s arm over him, still asleep. It was Wes’ house and they'd all crashed there after a hard to explain night. On the last day of summer, they do something small. He and Kevin buy a ticket for one movie and stay at the theater the whole day, jumping from movie to movie. They buy more popcorn and soda than they need and leave without getting caught. Eric has more fun that day than any other day all summer.

Sophomore year starts off better than freshman year. He has name recognition now and gets to walk around like a real Leyland boy. He makes sure his sweater is never frayed. At the captain's party, the first he gets to go to(Kevin is now officially the captain), a blonde girl won't stop touching him and Kevin keeps giving him drinks. He doesn't remember it too well. He remembers laughing so hard it hurts, even though nothing was that funny. He remembers being in a beer-chugging competition with Kevin, but not the reason why. He remembers red Solo cups and people grinding on each other but can't name most of the people there. He stumbles into a room with the girl and does what she wants. It doesn't help, Eric realizes after. To try it just once. If anything, it’s worse because it confirms what he always knew. He looks at the girl, her freckles, her pleased smile. He doesn't even know her name. He wishes Kevin was lying there, instead. He vomits in the bathroom and doesn't know if it’s from being disgusted with himself or the alcohol.

The next day, it is all Kevin wants to talk about. Eric cringes just thinking about it, but he makes up things about the girl, vile things. His mother would be ashamed. But all the guys are laughing, Kevin, Wes, Lesean, Chris, and Eric smiles in spite of himself. He feels like he has finally learned the right color.

They win state again. No one is surprised.

Eric has two rings now.

"I wanna have enough to put a ring on every finger." Kevin looks at his hands. He's still got seven fingers left to go.

"You got next year, then college." Eric counts on his fingers. "One and done, I bet."

Kevin leans back on his bed and grins. "Hell yeah."

"Five left. You could do it."

"That's the dream, man."

"You gotta beat me, though. And you can't."

"We can't be on the same team?"

"Nah, it's not fair to anyone else." It's easy for Eric to talk about this, he and Kevin always do. What teams they'll play on, what place they'll go in the draft(first, of course). But Eric knows basketball won't take him as far as it will take Kevin. It scares him. He gets worried even thinking about Kevin's graduation. They've barely spent any time apart in three years. He doesn't know how he'll handle it.

Eric's dad shows him an article in the newspaper about their win. It's what everyone has been saying, an excellent school, a record-setting team. He sees Kevin's picture and notices himself in the background. Kevin is quoted as saying, “It was a team effort. I couldn't have done this without Eric.” He hates the way his heart races reading that. It’s embarrassing, this middle school crush on Kevin that never seems to fade. He doesn't know why he can't just move on.

*

In the summer, he and Kevin go to Chicago a few times. Riding the train alone with Kevin feels like a couple thing and he thinks one time people think they are. No one seems to mind but Eric still can't wait to get away from their knowing eyes. Eric sees two guys holding hands downtown and makes a joke about them and Kevin laughs. Though he made the joke, he's still disappointed in Kevin.

Kevin starts dating this girl, Val, and she goes everywhere with them. Eric hates watching them kiss against Kevin’s car and she changes it from the radio station he and Kevin always listen to and takes Eric’s seat. He hasn't sat in the backseat since he was twelve. He knows he has petty reasons for disliking her, but he doesn't have to have a real reason. Everyone used to say Kevin and Eric, and he never asked for it to become Kevin and Val. And every time they have sex, Kevin tells him in detail.

“I think I might...kinda…love her. Eric? You listening?”

Eric stays silent.

Of course Kevin doesn't love him, he never did. Not in the way Eric wants. He always knew it, but he loved pretending.

There are so many other guys out there, Eric discovers that summer. He hides out in his room, sending nasty things to strangers but not meaning anything by it. Just something to make him feel better. He decides to meet them, but only the college guys with muscle cars. Sometimes, he meets ones who are almost old enough to be his father if he gets really desperate. Those ones always make him feel bad. He never does anything with them beyond kissing. He is still scared of what it would mean. He sits in church and listens to the pastor and tries to feel something when he hears the sermon but he doesn't. He really wishes he could.

Coach Dan makes Kevin and Eric co-captains. He hates how after three years Kevin’s smile can still make his insides twist, even though he doesn't love him the same. He is glad they can play Kevin’s last season as co-captains. Together again. Maybe Kevin will tell him he loves him before graduation. Eric laughs at his imagination.

They make dumb jokes in the locker room. It's still not real, it never will be.

It's starting to hurt to be so ashamed of himself. He is angry at himself and everyone else. He doesn't understand why he had to be dealt such a terrible card.

After another day of shooting around at the rec center, Eric checks his phone. Some guy named Taylor has sent him a message. He looks familiar in a “passed in the hallway” kind of way.

The message says hey.