Bruce knows he's not supposed to be feeling the things he feels.
The trouble is he doesn't know what it actually is that he ought to be feeling.
All his friends like girls.
That's fine. Bruce likes girls just fine. He likes the way they curve, the way they tuck a curl of hair behind their ear, the way their eyes flutter when they look away like they're shy but they're really laughing at you just a little bit. He likes plenty of girls.
He's just kind of scared of them. They want things. They expect things. They expect a particular kind of person out of a boy with long hair and a guitar, and somehow, Bruce isn't that person. He tries. He tries real hard to figure out the things girls want.
Bruce is starting to think maybe that's not quite normal. There are some gaps in his worldly education. Girls is one of them. Sex. Rock and Roll.
Music he could figure out. Music, he listened, and he learned, and his fingers found the frets found the chords over and over until he could've done it blindfolded.
Nobody had told him about girls. Nobody told him about how his body was gonna change, gonna up and rebel at him, how he was gonna start growing and sprout hair and how he was gonna start dreaming different dreams and wake up with his dick stiff and something he was pretty sure was desire coursing through him. All kinds of stuff he didn't have words for. It was just there, like a song on the radio he couldn't quite catch the melody of, a song he'd sit trying to pick out for hours and it just wouldn't come together. The song was there. The music wasn't. He was looking for the music. He didn't have the words.
So girls, girls were kind of a problem, and Bruce dealt with all his problems pretty much in the same way, which was by taking his guitar and finding some quiet spot where no one could bother him, and not thinking about it for a while.
The guitar couldn't make his body stop, couldn't make his brain stop, couldn't hold up all the feelings long enough for him to sort out what was supposed to be and what wasn't, but he kept trying anyway.
He was fifteen, in his sophomore year, when he first had Mr. Hussey for English, and he was fifteen about the time he couldn't hold back from touching himself anymore, about the time the wanting started overwhelming the guilt, at least long enough for his hands to stray. And he was fifteen when he first dreamed about a man in that way.
Dreams didn't care about what you actually knew. They just wove together pictures from the the things you wanted.
And Bruce dreamed about Mr. Hussey. His voice, reading poetry. Names he'd never heard before. Whitman. Wallace Stevens. Prufrock, who had a love story, which didn't seem like a love story at first, until Bruce had borrowed (stolen) a book and read it again, and again. And he dreamed of it, "Let us go," his teacher's voice, "let us disturb the universe," and in the dream there was kissing, and hands on his body, and Mr Hussey was young for a teacher but old to a kid, a kind of in-between, like a snake that hadn't sloughed its juvenile skin, but you could see the grown eyes peering out. A kind of in-between, that warm-dark place between dream and wake, and his voice would say, "Bruce, come here," and in the dream he was already there.
Bruce knew the other teachers weren't sure whether they liked Mr. Hussey or not, mostly because he did for Mr. Hussey what he wouldn't do for anyone else, which was show up, awake, attentive, and sometimes he even did his homework.
Bruce saw girls in the class giggle and blush and tuck their feet up nimble under their chairs when Mr. Hussey walked down the aisles, and he felt his own stomach flutter when he read the comments on his poems and his stories. Some wordless guilt he couldn't grasp sat on his shoulders like a cyst, fat and tender with shame. It was wrong, he knew it in his guts, wrong, but he kept writing, he kept feeling his face hot and itchy when Mr. Hussey looked at him, and he kept having those thoughts.
He'd touch himself. Nobody'd told him about that. The nuns were vague. He knew it was bad. A lot of things about him were bad, he knew that just looking in the mirror. Nobody needed to tell him.
Girls were a problem and Mr. Hussey was a problem and masturbating was a problem and the guitar wasn't a problem so he kept at that.
He joined a band. Got kicked out. Joined another.
He met Steve. At a nightclub in Middletown. Steve was skinny and had mischief in his eyes and he was a fucking encyclopedia of rock and roll and he had a guitar that he could play, really play.
The first night he met Steve something swelled up in his gut and socked him hard in the lower parts of his brain. The upper parts went offline about five minutes while the deeper parts took hold and walked him right over and made his mouth say, "Hey, you play pretty good."
Steve grinned at him and his insides felt like a steel trap had closed on them.
The first night he met Steve he invited him back to Freehold.
They hung out in the club trading minutiae and guitar riffs until it was almost dawn and Bruce would've invited him back to Freehold even if it was a schoolday he didn't care he just wanted. Just needed. Just. Just please, Steve, say okay.
Steve said I have to help my stepdad out today, I promised -
His heart thudded and sank, like a battleship getting torpedoed.
- but you come back tomorrow, well I guess tonight, you come back and bring your guitar and you can stay over at my place, said Steve.
They were sixteen then. Actually Steve was fifteen, almost sixteen.
Bruce stayed over at his house.
Steve made him feel the way he did when he looked at himself in a mirror with his guitar.
Like somebody he liked.
They argued. God. Steve loved to argue. And it wasn't a knock-down, drag-out kind of argument where Bruce just wanted to run off, and hide, and be somebody else. It was fun. They shared music. They scraped up the money and took a bus to New York City and watched real musicians play and came home and spent all night trying to make those sounds, or the ones off the radio, and sometimes it was awful, a lot of times it was awful, and sometimes it was magic, because Bruce could play what he heard and Steve could play the song exactly as it was, and somehow, together, it just worked out right.
Bruce wrote songs and Steve coaxed his voice out, his still-tentative and still-adolescent voice, still breaking, and Steve coaxed him out, as if he were on stage and it didn't matter. Steve sang with him. Sometimes it sounded awful. It didn't matter. Bruce had somebody singing with him, and it shook him up so much he let the fantasies come to him when he was awake, all he could think was how close he wanted to be with Steve, how he wanted their skin to touch the way their voices did.
Bruce doesn't think of the first time they got each other off as The First Time, the first official time. It was kind of like a prelude, like a movie trailer. It was kind of like a rough draft.
He likes to think of the second time as the first, because they did it with the lights on, still shy and new like voices breaking all over again, and Bruce kept getting lost in the way their bodies touched, in the way Steve's hair was thicker, how he had more of it on his body, how his arms gangled and his shoulders were broad across but skinny, and how his hands were too big and callused, and how his torso fit into his hip, the curve of muscle and bone, and the way his fingertips moved on the darker flesh of his dick, how Bruce had so much time to catalogue because they'd both come stupid-fast and Bruce took the time to recover and to stare.
Inside he felt awful. Inside he felt wonderful. Inside he didn't know what to feel. Steve looked sated and happy, eyes lidded, an almost-smile on his face, just lazing back in bed like he owned the town or even the whole state, and reaching up to touch Bruce, wherever he could reach.
"That was real good," Steve murmured, close to his ear, "we gotta do that again."
Oh, yes, oh, yes, oh, yes.
When he got up to go to the bathroom he looked in the mirror with the faucet going and looked at his eyes and the way the skin fit over his bones and the way his hair fell and couldn't look anymore because he couldn't stand himself, scrawny and naked and touching a guy like it was right like it was what he ought to do.
Steve had told him (after the first time) that he was being an idiot (for being scared) and he thought of Steve sprawled in bed next to him like it was the most natural thing in the world and he thought what makes him different.
What makes me different?
He didn't know.
He stuck his hands under the water running brightly cold, and tried to stop himself from crying.