The lights overhead cast a circular glow center stage. Voices collected in the living room. Waiting.
A rush of excitement, of unbridled energy raced through my little body like a bullet train.
I hid behind the wooden rolling library ladder, peeking at my audience between its rungs.
I was ready.
“Ok. GO!” I signaled to my grandpa.
“Oh, yes. OK! We’re ready folks!” He got up from the couch where my grandmother, aunt, mother and father sat then walked to bookshelf next to me. “Ladies and gentleman, we have a very special treat tonight. All the way from Pembroke Pines, Florida! Introducing Ryan Heller!”
Applause echoed through the townhouse like a roaring storm.
My first taste of a high.
“Thank you, thank you.” I bowed. “Thank you everybody! I am going to sing a song for you!”
I grabbed the red plastic Fisher Price microphone then stepped on stage, a small wooden stool with my name carved out in colorful blocks.
My father’s tank top draped over my four-year-old body like a dress. I cleared my throat, staring out at my family on the sectional ahead. Beaming faces, laughter.
The anticipation of greatness.
Of a show.
And so it began.
I could count the stars that lined the ceiling. They stretched on as far as four walls can contain. A pale glow wrapped within a sky of blue wrapped in a sea of dark.
Within these four walls.
And I count.
Some large with five pronounced points. Others, small dots that seemed so far away. Stuck to a popcorn ceiling, fan spinning rhythmically overhead. I found my hands reaching out, gliding aimlessly, slowly through the air. In front of me. Ahead.
Reaching for the stars.
Forty-six, forty-seven, forty-eight…
Hands dropped to the shag carpet that nested my body. Fingers combing through long, navy blue poly-blend strands. Breathing in the weight of solitude. Life underwater. Moving at an almost dreamlike state. Floating, drifting within my own aquarium.
In this moment.
Drenched in blue.
I was sixteen.
Portishead played on the stereo in the living room. No other music mattered that night; a soundtrack that will forever bring me back. The lighting, a purple ambient luminance, overtook the house like a plague. Black lights cast a purple glow on endless silhouettes of furniture. Furniture and bodies. Static crept through the night like a dark fog coating us. It was a mood that hung like a blanket of mischief and intoxicating electricity.
Beth Gibbons hissed lyrics to a snake-like track. With each breath, I inhaled an energy that made my body tingle. I felt connected in the detachment. Alive with excitement, void of self. The comfort of home seen through new eyes, from a mind now bent and washed with chemical. Our house, the couch, dining room table, the decorative statue that rested by the television – they suddenly became objects from a distant universe. Forms identical, but their essence had changed. The familiar transitioned to the unfamiliar. My home. Floating in space, in skewed perception. Lost in my own haven.
I glided toward the kitchen, each step following the beat. Slow. Everything was slow. And mischievous. And dark. Taken by the fog.
A body crossed in front of mine. A shadow. Nameless.
I opened the refrigerator. Blinding white light exploded and I squint, shielding my eyes. I grabbed a bottle of water and shut the door.
I was so thirsty.
I felt bodies around me. Joined by an invisible thread that wove us together, we were the ocean. Friends, strangers. Connected at the height of a high that hit hard, lingered and tingled and numbed my lips. Made my skin feel alive. I felt powerful. Bad. Mysterious. Sexy. I felt whole. I could breathe in energy, feel everyone around me. Feel my heart, my blood, the air brush against my body. An ecstasy stained mind, it filled my veins like the mercury in a thermometer. Thick, shiny, poisonous. Tonight’s blend.
A group of friends made out on the sofa bed in our guest room. My mom’s office, the room I wrote stories in as a kid. A mountain of limbs, of shadow and purple light weaving in and out. Eyes black and vacant. I didn’t recognize them. They moved as one, like serpents coiled around prey.
Nobody loves me, it’s true, not like you do. Portishead melts in my consciousness.
The moment is cinematic, surreal.
I felt a tug at my arm. I turned to see Sara wide-eyed like a fawn ready to explore the world. Her long, brown hair loose and lively like she had been rolling around in a vat of electricity. Maybe we all were. Maybe we were all just electricity. Body glitter caught hints of light that made her eyes sparkle. She swallowed, tightened her jaw and smiled. “Come on.”
She grabbed my hand and pulled me through honey until I found myself outside in our driveway. “Here,” Sara held a pen cap to my nose, “It’ll make it better. Some blow.” I had never done coke before.
She pulled out a small bag, dipped the pen cap back in and held it to my other nostril.
I looked at her sparkling, orange-lit face as the street lamps created a new atmosphere. She smiled and took a few bumps of cocaine for herself. Sara was beautiful, care-free, wild. She took a deep breath and exhaled, shaking her body. I watched in slow motion as fragments of glitter jumped from her like molecules, swirling gracefully in the night sky, catching orange light that transformed into embers. She was fire. I was a moth.
“Let’s race.” A devilish grin sliced across her mouth as she took my hand, running to the middle of the street. Sara stripped to her underwear. “Come on,” she pushed my shoulder, “Get in your running gear.”
My shirt and pants appeared on the asphalt as I stood in boxers.
“First one to the stop sign wins. GO!”
Wind engulfed my face, my body, like I was swimming upstream. No longer running, but frozen in one continuous, fluid motion that got me to the stop sign just after Sara. We panted, hunched over trying to catch our breath. I felt like someone had just dumped a bucket of ice water over me.
She started to laugh, “I’m so fucked up.”
I smiled and took a deep breath. A surge of electricity raced through my body and into my head. “Me too.”
Sara wrapped her arms around me. “I love you. I’m so happy we’re friends.”
Portishead circles me:
Oh can’t anybody see
We’ve got a war to fight
Never found our way
Regardless of what they say
How can it feel, this wrong?
There was always the feeling that something was going to happen. That I would find the right guy after hours of searching online. That he would crawl through the window of my bedroom and save a sixteen-year-old from monotony. From desperation. Save me from myself. An epic night of drug-induced blur was just one direct message away. The next thing. My something.
Time slipped. Moment lost after minute passed. An hour. Two. Three. The monitor glare coated my skin, penetrating my eyes. Polluting my fading mind.
I wanted to be bad. A badass. The kid you don’t fuck with. Don’t fuck with me. I did drugs. I had sex. Secrets. So many secrets and lies that were all mine. An intoxicating sense of superiority, of feeling that I now strut. That while I walked the halls at school everyone knew who I was. The no fear, wild, liberated and self-assured kid who snorted, swallowed, inhaled whatever you put in front of him.
Don’t fuck with this.
Yeah I’m gay. Fuck you.
But it always came back to that. The thorn. I am gay. I am gay and really scared what you think of me. If you’ll like me. Love me. Need me. Laugh at me. Punch me. Forget me.
Because I forgot myself.
I forget myself as I sit at my desk, staring at a computer screen, past midnight, school the next morning, searching. Needing. Somebody.
Take me away from here.
Take me away.
This box, my computer, was the only outlet I had to understand who I was. Or who I was going to become. I didn’t know another gay person, and I was too ashamed to volunteer an inquiry outside of online chat rooms. I was faceless, nameless, could be anyone. My parents now knew, but I wouldn’t discuss it. This thing that hung over my head, that gripped my neck, was my burden to bear alone. I would never talk about it. Because despite my exposed skeleton, despite privacy turned inside-out, my ability to shut down and protect myself with complete denial was almost as strong as my ability to lie and keep secrets.
And now that the drugs, the sex, my lies and sexuality had surfaced, I felt raw. Like sandpaper had been rubbed over my skin, my armor, and I bled truth.
I had to stop the bleeding.
There was no other option.
Because it hurt too much. It hurt too much to have been violated, my trust broken. To have secrets shown to family when I was not ready. He had opened that door, kicked me through it, and I was unprepared for the aftermath. The image I worked to portray, that of the intelligent, happy, talented son was destroyed. Everything I wrapped myself with, the shell I found safety within, the closet I hid behind, was gone. I was left exposed, wrinkled and ugly. I was now my own truth. And that truth was built from lies.
I grew hair on my face in the eighth grade. Thirteen years old. I was mortified. Embarrassed by my body, that I was transforming into something other than my mother’s baby. The growth of even a soft layer of facial hair was a neon sign that everything was changing. I was losing my identity, my security. The little boy who had his back rubbed, who could fade into the background and disappear, the little boy who was doted on by family, he was mutating. Letting everyone down.
Too embarrassed to ask for help, I stole a razor and shaving cream from my father and taught myself how to shave. I hid the evidence in a hollow space above my bookshelf.
Months later he sat me down, razor and shaving cream in hand. My heart was thudding at rapid pace, ready to explode; cheeks burning. It was like he just discovered I was an alien.
Immediately I lied. The razor was for my toe.
I was not growing up.
I could barely face my parents that day.
This time was no different. I was caught, exposed, everything laid out on the table. After my parents uncovered my layers of deceit, the depths of my bullshit, I was confined home for the remainder of the school year.
They found enough, enough to keep me isolated. Grounded from seeing friends, from talking on the phone or using the computer for anything other than homework. I was allowed to go to school then come home immediately.
It was in this period, the darkest of days, that true transformation began. My bedroom became a cocoon. A chrysalis to dig inward and explore myself. It was within isolation I discovered the first seed to my own forest.
I began to carve a life in secret.
I wrote poetry, read relentlessly, Fiona Apple played on repeat. Speaking to men till early in the morning. Eyes absorbing the blue screen glare, turning purple from red veins that marked my lack of sleep. Sneaking out to meet screen names in person, in my bedroom. Night after night, writing in journal after journal, one poem led to a drawing led to crawling out my window. Every night a new adventure, another mystery. A new face to discover, lips to kiss, bodies to hold, a story to uncover. Addicted to the secrecy, to the shadows and comfort of darkness, a life separate from daylight.
I felt power.
I felt powerful.
I woke in my parent’s bed. Time was irrelevant. Lights off. It was dark save for a faint purple glow that crept in from the living room. Portishead played in the distance, blanketing the night with a feeling that still resonates wayward melancholy.
Out of my haze, a blackout.
Cool sheets wrap round my body, my mind just as tangled. I remember a horse, somewhere in my ecstasy-laced brain amidst the momentary lack of consciousness, I dreamt of a horse. He spoke kindly, softly, gently. What he said was prophetic, but would forever remain a casualty of war. Buried deep where I will never recall. He was an extension of me, a gallant purebred with a purpose I so desperately wanted to understand. Strong and wise, like a boulder silently claiming the desert, its permanence rooted in the land. The earth.
I was too fucked up.
I opened my eyes and remembered David. He lay next to me wearing only boxer shorts. A shaved head and frail frame were all I could make out in the darkness.
“Where did you go,” he grinned, “Just now?”
I told him about the horse, about its mystical appearance in some alternate plane I slipped into. Or a past life. A higher state.
Before I could finish, David pulled me toward him.
He kissed me.
And in that moment I felt alive. A rush of blood to the head. I could see our future together. We met tonight, but I knew he understood me. I could see the curiosity in his eyes when he looked at me, like I was this great mystery he would never solve. An enigma. And I felt enigmatically seductive.
He dealt drugs. Had tattoos, piercings; no one fucked with him. I would be a badass by association. A mirror I wanted in my life.
My body disintegrated into his body, into the cool air. I heard others in the house, all feeling what I was feeling. Wandering. Exploring. We were one. Entangled and woven in the fabric of each other. I was part of something special.
I pushed David firmly on the chest. “Choke me. Make me pass out.” I whispered.
He pressed his lips on mine, then wrapped his hands around my throat. My head began to throb, face tingling before eventually going numb. I felt blood pulse as the dark went black and the black disappeared.
I passed out.
Vivid images, stories flash and play in those few seconds of unconsciousness as the body reaches for oxygen. I lived another lifetime in those moments until my eyes squint open. Sounds filter in my ears like drawn out, deep vibrations while my brain grasped for sense. Microscopic twinkling lights floated, surrounded me like gnats that slowly swarmed away.
David was kissing me. He watched as my eyes opened, remembering again where I was. Who I was.
I wanted that again. More ecstasy. More pills. I didn’t want the high to fade.
He wrapped around me, our lips pressed. His body rubbed against mine, up and down, until I could barely catch my breath. We were completely in sync. Lips, limbs, heat, all entwined.
The bedroom door swung open.
We pulled apart to see my cousin Adam standing at the door. The instant chill of sobering reality caused words to stumble from my mouth.
“Adam…I…what’s going on…Hey, you having fun?”
He stood at the doorway, darkness unable to mask the surprise on his face. I lay there nearly naked with another guy in my parents bed, friends doing whatever throughout the house, drugs scattered like Halloween candy.
He remained still.
No one in my family knew I was gay. It was something I had yet to tell myself.
Adam was a few years older. We were as close as my secrets and insecurities allowed. My parents ordained him as guardian while they were out of town for the weekend. To make sure nothing got out of hand. I had cleared the party with Adam, a few choice details left out.
David kissed my neck. I pulled away.
It was as if someone hit pause and everything froze except for me and Adam.
Maybe he didn’t see anything.
Portishead wove through the air, cutting the silence like an ominous hymn. Slow, trippy beats that conjured static in my chest.
Fully fed yet I still hunger
Haunted I tell myself yet I still wander
It’s tearing me apart
“Yeah. It’s cool.” He trails off. “I’m gonna go see what they’re up to.” I could feel his discomfort. His surprise. Adam walked out, closing the door behind him.
I could breathe again. Could feel David next to me. A rush of ecstasy clawed its way back through my veins. Into my head. Heart thumps. Thump.
“Shit,” I whispered, “That was my cousin.” I bit my lip, feeling my eyes widen. My pupils must have been black holes. “He doesn’t know. That I’m…I think he saw us.”
“So what? Just chill. He seems cool.”
Adam had become like a brother. I wanted him to be the twin I always knew I had, my second self. I wanted that relationship where we understood one another, shared the same blood, the same past. Knew where we came from and had each other’s back. We were destined for an unbreakable bond. Now that he knows I’m gay, we can be open with each other. I can talk to him about what I’ve gone through; share the fear, the struggle. My journey. Share the load. My cousin would be my savior. I had been looking for a boyfriend where really I needed a brother, my twin.
And then I would be whole.
A finger in my mouth pulled me out the rabbit hole.
David placed another pill between my lips.
The party commenced.
It was the night everything changed.
It was late, something around one in the morning.
I could still hear the television reciting basketball scores from the other room. I listened for any sign my father would be going to bed. Either a faint snore would overpower the TV or he would shut it off and go to his room. This waiting game became ritual. Confined to my bedroom, isolated and withdrawn, until silence overtook the house. Then I could quietly crawl from my shell.
My tent nearly reached the ceiling fan, expanding just far enough to allow space for a fake plant. My bedroom became a campground; a single-person fort piled with books, snacks, and portable CD player. I lay over pillows, journal in hand, scribbling a poem.
I set up our old camping tent in my bedroom. I had to feel away. The walls were closing in. My head caving in. At least I could imagine I was somewhere out in the wilderness, lost deep within a forest up in the mountains. The crisp outside air, a fire burning its last ember. The faint chirping of crickets that serenaded the night sky was offset by an occasional howl far in the distance. There was peace in solitude. Comfort in the embrace of nature.
It was month three of solitary confinement. Three months since my parents grounded me with no connection to the outside world. But the desire to explore, to scratch the surface, only grew stronger with limitations.
I craved adventure. A feeling that something sinister lay just around the corner. In a dark alley. Round the bend. Crack my bedroom window open just enough to let the outside in, for the invasion of night to bleed upon those four walls that held me safely from myself. My ideas. Thoughts that brewed long enough during my incubation to root and sprout even in shadow. Almost always in shadow.
It was at this time, during these months of confinement, that I developed a way of thinking, of expressing, that was all my own. In isolation came experimentation, an unquenchable curiosity for personal expansion that only led me further outside the safety net my parents intended to secure around me. Once I heard that bedroom door shut, once I knew my father had checked out, I seized the moon for a journey into night. It was the insatiable desire to prove my worth, that I was unstoppable, smarter, more adventurous and wild than anyone else.
He crawled through my window a little after 2am. I didn’t catch his face, hidden by shadow and my own nerves. Shoes hit the desk as he hoisted his body up and over, onto blue shag. I would have to clean off my desk before mom came into my room in the morning. No track marks. Footprints. She could spot a picture frame out of place from a mile away.
I don’t know how old he was, just older than me. He had to be older to take care of me, to take me away. To give me life.
His eyes were dark, illuminated only by candles and blacklight.
He was one who represented many. Nameless. Faceless. A savior. An answer.
I wanted to talk. For him to ask about my life. About life.
We sat on my twin bed, side by side.
I do what I’ve seen in movies, look down shyly then back into his eyes followed by a half smile. It was a perfect, cinematic moment captured by invisible cameras that followed my every move. I could visualize the close ups, his eyes locking intensely on me. Mine lighting up with hope and promise, an eagerness I did my best to contain.
We talked for minutes, my heart fluttering, the washing machine in my stomach on high. My body began to shake almost uncontrollably from nerves.
Can I see a future with him?
Will he love me?
Does he feel something already?
Is this the beginning of my story?
He reaches over and places his hand on my thigh.
He likes me.
I am frozen.
His hand slowly makes its way to my crotch. He squeezes and begins to rub my dick. I am immediately hard.
He likes me.
I relinquish. His cologne is overpowering, generic and sexy. He kisses my neck, running his fingers through my hair. I spent so much time getting my hair to look just so for his arrival, but I didn’t care anymore. I just wanted love. I want his acceptance.
As he continued to rub me, to take my body, I felt myself slip away. My mind shutting down on autopilot. I was mechanical, empty. With each stroke, each kiss, every inhalation of him, I lost control.
It was midway through, as we made out ferociously, that I realized I did not want this anymore. That he wasn’t my savior. My love. That he wanted to fuck. And it was late. I felt dirty. Uncomfortable. But there was still something that made it ok, that felt good. Somewhere buried beneath the hurt and disappointment, somewhere just beyond self loathing lie a beast that surged through my skin. As he shoved my head between his legs I felt hot, both powerless and powerful.
And that made everything more intriguing. It was the pain of heat. Or the heat of pain. It was another secret, another notch, another barricade.
As he fucked me, as my head lay back on my childhood pillow, as my mind and spirit drifted somewhere beyond the ceiling, I realized just how alone I really felt.
It is a drum beat, a pace, an onward journey with ongoing momentum. A wind turbine rotating, cycling, round in circles like white ballerinas in mid-air. Graceful, purposeful, continuous. It is within the music I find, within the music I lose myself to find myself to lose the things I hold so dear.
With fist clenched.
In my core.
Fingers tight, knuckles white.
Breathe from my diaphragm, where anxious lungs keep stale air. A chipmunk preparing for winter.
Like the trickle of raindrops pattering on my window pane, the High High’s play rhythmically, soothing, as I lay in orange-purple hue. Deep corals, umber, sliced by backlit tangerine. Gradate. Stretch tired arms in shadow, a blend of light to dark to the whisper of purple night that bleeds across the ceiling. Blood tinted blackness wash far corners, reflecting true mergence of the independent. A hybrid. A synergy. Our evolutionary mutation.
They are the things I hold in fear. What remains buried within claws reach. Out of sight, under microscopic examination. My ailments, kinks, skeletons.
The spinning, spinning, twirling of a turbine. Amidst storm, downpour, torrential wind and wrath. She remains in motion. Graceful, fluid. Pure in white, surrounded by the uncontrollable.
A head emerges from turbulent waters. Hair matted, drenched, he is raised above sea and gasps for breath. Somewhere off the coast of somewhere he fills his lungs with new life, with possibility.
I lay deep within quicksand. Limbs heavy somewhere below. Head filled with fluid. Washing. Like washing soaked clothes that spun on low.
Awareness floated just overhead and crashed unwillingly into my lifeless body, one finger at a time.
“Get up now!”
It echoed, but could be a dream.
The puppeteer pulled one string, an eyelid flickered open then shut. Light pierced a vacant iris. My mind drifted through a sea of pictures: blood stains, coiled appendages, sheets, glitter, neon ooze. Memories that scattered like 52 Pick Up.
“Ryan get up right now!”
Awareness sat between my forehead.
One eye opens.
A piercing thread is sewn through my brain, from one temple to the other. Stitching my hemispheres together, then pulling tight.
Second eye opens.
Bright lights fill the space. My bedroom. I think it’s my bedroom. I believe I am laying down.
“What the fuck have you done? What did you do?”
It was my mother. Home. They were home.
I woke up.
I squinted and placed an arm over my face. Words fumbled out in the form of, “What happened?” I didn’t understand what was going on.
Everything was a brightly lit blur. My mom stood in the doorway, her arms crossed over her chest.
“Adam told us everything.” Her tone was unrecognizable. Not yelling, not even anger. It was something else, something that hit deeper. Something that I knew meant I was in deep shit. That I had really fucked up.
“I don’t know,” I stammered, trying to gather my head and remember. “Nothing happened.”
“You are a liar. You’re done.” She was harsh and each word sobered my mind. “Adam told us everything. You lied. You had strangers in our home. You were doing drugs!”
Now she was yelling.
And suddenly it all came back. Last night flooded; the ecstasy, the mess. Adam had seen me with another guy.
We cleaned everything hours after the high came down. I thought we cleaned. I remember smoking cigarettes on the patio by the pool with everyone as the sun rose.
I hated when the high faded. When reality crept back without warrant.
“Nothing happened,” I lied. Words still barely coherent from my mouth.
I felt sick.
Like an elephant just climbed onto my chest. I knew it was not leaving any time soon. Everything began to spin. My stomach, my head, the room, my world.
I watched the fan circle overhead.
The little metal chain dancing with each rotation.
I wanted to disappear.
“I don’t feel good.”
“That’s because you’re fucking high. We know everything.” She hit the lights off. “You’re in deep shit. You are in so much trouble! It’s fucking over, Ryan!”
The door slammed shut.
I was left glued to my bed.
Barely able to breathe.
Daylight peeked through the blinds. Everything seemed worse in the light. Exposed, uncovered. I turned over and buried my face in the pillow. Maybe it would go away. Maybe it wasn’t real. This wasn’t really happening.
It was over.
I sat facing the steeple. Amber and Lex were opposite me, side by side. Lex held the video camera.
We climbed atop the Nativity Church roof, our place to escape. You could see the entire city, especially at night. A sea of dotted lights that span to the next city then dissolves into midnight horizon. Patterns of yellow and orange broken by night shadow, homes and trees. An endless stretch unfurled below us.
It was cold tonight, a rare Floridian chill in the air. I wore a maroon running jacket I bought from the thrift store. My hair was bleached bronze at the tips. Another stellar home dye job. I buried cold hands in my front jacket pockets.
Amber and Lex leaned on each other for warmth, both bundled up in hoodies and scarves. Amber’s fiery, curly orange hair twirled in the breeze, dancing around her head like ribbon.
Lex smiled, raising an eyebrow inquisitively. “Are you ready?”
I was nervous.
“OK, I’ll tell you when it’s recording.” She fumbled around with the back of the camera. “I can’t see shit. Hold on.”
“This is like our own Real World confessional,” Amber laughed, “Only real.”
“I got it, I got it. Ready? OK it’s recording.” Lex held the camera to her right eye, pointing the lens directly at me.
Here we go.
I shifted my gaze to Amber, my best friend, my interviewer.
“Welcome to Rooftop Confessionals. My name is Amber Cohen. Please say your name and introduce yourself.”
I shot an awkward smile and took a deep breath. I love the stage, the spotlight, but this wasn’t a character.
Or maybe I was the character.
“I’m Ryan Heller. I am sixteen years old from Pembroke Pines, Florida. I go to St. Johns High School.” I stopped. “That’s it. I don’t know what else.”
“Hi Ryan. So tell me what it’s like to be a Sophomore, sixteen years old in 1999.”
My face felt flushed, but my mouth opened.
“It’s OK, I guess. It’s hard. I mean, you know there’s stuff that is hard to deal with. My parents are crazy. And the whole guy thing, I guess. Or whatever.”
“Can you talk about that?”
“Amber you suck.” I laughed uncomfortably, looking down at the church roof below my feet. Row after row of asphalt shingles. “Well, I’m…” I had a hard time saying the word. “I’m gay. I dunno. I want to meet a guy but it’s hard to find someone. And my parents don’t know about me.”
“What would you do if they found out?”
“I don’t know. I guess I would be relieved. My mom would probably be OK with it. She’s cool.”
I hated talking about this.
“What about your dad?”
I trailed off and stared at the lights just over a row of homes. I felt at peace here, above life. Like I could fade away into the clouds, into the night sky and live with the stars.
“I don’t think he would accept it. I mean he’s a sports guy and plays basketball. He didn’t want a son like me.”
“What’s your relationship with your dad like?”
“He’s an asshole. Seriously I hate him. I hate him. I wish him and my mom would get divorced. He’s always wanted me to be something I’m not. Like making me play sports and shit, or keeping me out of theatre. I’m a disappointment.”
Lex poked her head out from behind the camera. “Aw I love you, Ry.”
“Thanks.” I shot her a smile back.
“Are you seeing anyone?” Amber asked.
I rolled my eyes. “No, Amber. You would know if I was.”
“Oh yeah, really?”
I could feel my cheeks blush. “I don’t know. Maybe. A few guys.”
She kept prying until a fraction of the truth spilled out. I opened up about guys online and sneaking them in my room. I watered down the turnover rate by about three-quarters, but still felt ashamed. By then the floodgates had opened and our session gained momentum.
My half-truths gave enough material for the masks to start forming. A character developed just as naturally as the sentences escaped my mouth. With each word, another wall constructed around me.
What sounded raw? What made me real?
Amber was my first girlfriend during freshman year. I just started St. John’s and was auditioning for the school play. She immediately walked over and introduced herself to my mom and me. Amber was a junior and had a car, so my mother leapt at the opportunity for her drive me home from school.
We eventually started riding together every day, spending hours exploring the city, rehearsing our lines for the play, dreaming of life after graduation. Her green eyes always fixed intensely on mine, freckles lined her cheeks and nose. It was so easy to collapse next to Amber and get lost in conversation.
We kissed for the first time on the floor in my bedroom. Her lips were soft, our mouths in sync. I knew I was supposed to do this. To have a girlfriend. And I cared about Amber.
Until she found that I was sleeping with guys at night.
And even then she understood. Or tried to. Because I explained that I was bisexual and had to be with men sometimes. But no matter what attempts were made to be faithful, I was unable to commit.
She became a puppet that I could use then discard as needed. For companionship when I was lonely, for rides, for a badge of honor. I had a girlfriend.
I remember her tears. The days when she would finally break down and cry. Mascara running across her face, down cheeks that were normally plump from smiling. Through sobs she pleaded, “Please stop doing this. I love you. I can’t take it anymore, Ryan.”
I watched her like a science experiment. Each tear gave me the satisfaction that I had control over someone else. That I was the one inflicting pain. After years of being hurt, feeling beaten, I was now the bully. We were sitting in my mother’s car; she had already gone in the house. Amber was dry heaving, snot running from her nose. I felt nothing. No compassion, no concern whatsoever. I watched as mascara pooled around her eye and trailed down. My chest felt heavy, impenetrable. Like an iron plate was cast over my ribcage, blocking any feeling from admittance.
“Amber you’re getting makeup on the seat. You’ve got snot dripping down your face. Clean yourself up. It’s disgusting.” In these moments I felt an intoxicating rush that made me infinitely superior. A king hovering high above his servants, casting shadow on all beneath him. She was my best friend; she saved me from high school rejection and brought me into her circle. But all I wanted to do was crush her. Because I hurt so much inside.
Her sense of humanity lost, just a blubbering, heaving mess of tears and black trailing makeup. One of the toys I discarded as a child, a useless inconvenience that took up time. I didn’t need her.
I didn’t need her when I had more friends. When I had a nighttime agenda. When I had secrets. She was a reminder of the lies, of feelings that I did not want to feel.
Leave me the fuck alone.
Another arm held between me and authentic human connection. Between me and myself.
Until I needed a ride to school the next morning.
It was days later we liad on the blue shag of my bedroom floor, together holding hands while looking at the ceiling. The stars. It was after school, she was still wearing her uniform plaid skirt and button down white shirt. Her eyes, fixed straight ahead but with no particular focus, had eclipsed. The usual life, their green and blue light, were overcast by an inner shadow. Amber’s auburn hair spread through the depths of royal blue shag.
I could feel her pulling away. An attempt to shield herself from my tornado. But it takes only the thought of loss to strike fear in my gut. The idea of truly losing my someone or something, whatever it was that kept me alive in this world. The real world. My life preserver. A totem.
“I think I need to not be your girlfriend.” Her words came out slow, like she thought of each syllable as they unfolded. She still stared straight up at the ceiling.
I couldn’t lose Amber. And I felt unbelievably fucked up. Useless and desperate. Like a person about to die, my life flashed before me. The mess I was making, the parents I thought I was disappointing, the two-year-old me who I let down. Amber was normalcy. So innately I slipped on the mask of ‘Loving Boyfriend Who Does Anything To Keep The Girl”. There was no conscious thought, no decision to cue the camera and reel her back. There was just instinct. And habit. The habit of a chameleon to evolve in the moment. Transform skin.
I turned my head toward Amber, studied her face; the light that traced her freckled cheeks. Her powder skin and intense eyes framed by dark eyeliner and mascara. She was beautiful.
“I love you, Amber,” My voice was smooth, intent. “I’m so sorry for this. For everything. You’re everything to me. I can’t justify what I’ve done, and I won’t do that to you. If you need time, I understand. Because I’ll be here for you.”
I could feel the energy shift. Something I said thickened the air and seeped into her.
The eclipse began to clear.
My heart rushed. The moment was intoxicatingly cinematic. And I believed in its truth.
Believed my own script.
“I’m not ready,” she said. “I need time.”
And there it was. My cue.
“I’ll wait for you.” The lines rolled fluidly as an ocean wave. “However long it takes. I’ll wait for you forever.”
It was perfect. Perfectly timed. Perfectly executed.
Amber’s chest inhaled for what seemed like the first time.
I hoped she never saw Legends of the Fall, where Julia Ormond said the same line to Brad Pitt.
I knew it was manufactured. I was the one manufacturing. I wanted that fantasy. The manicured memory.
But I still believed it all.
And so our relationship went. Beautiful, theatrical moments that led to inevitable, equally tragic lows. A constant up and down pendulum that followed my back and forth struggle with balancing two worlds.
The balance of me.
“So what do you want to do after you graduate?” Amber continued her interview. Lex kept the camera focused on me.
The wind picked up. I felt my hair blowing and tossing.
I took a second. Stared through the lens for an answer like a crystal ball.
“I’m gonna be an actor. I’m gonna move away and be a famous actor. We’re gonna get an apartment together somewhere and become famous.”
I took a cigarette from my pack of Red’s. The quick spark of fire lit my face, a heat that warmed my skin. I took a drag and let it rest in my lungs before exhaling into the night. The smoke spiraled and drifted above the church roof before disappearing over the city.
I had no idea what I wanted.
Amber and Lex were graduating that year, along with most of the friends I made. Amber was going to Boston, Lex off to Tampa. Everyone was scattering across the country while I remain planted in South Florida. The remaining group of us were in the same space, all blossoming drug addicts running from something.
But no matter how fast I ran, how far I’d go, somehow I ended up back in the same spot. Feeling the same feelings. Questioning myself constantly while trusting everyone else around me. Because they knew something I didn’t. Had something I needed. Anyone, anything. It was like clawing, arms outstretched, fingers writhing around for a hold, a grip on whatever was just out of reach.
And now I seemed to fit. A group of us who came together with an inflated sense of entitlement, a fuck you attitude that craved approval. Hope, Josh, Lily, Sara, Michelle, Kate, Jenna. And me. The eight of us gravitated toward each other throughout freshman year. By sophomore year we were inseparable. I found false confidence surrounded by peers who seemed not to care about opinions other than their own; who smoked cigarettes, dropped acid, who came alive at night.
The scared little boy who ceased to exist.
Fearless by association.
Fearless no matter who it hurt.
But living in fear.
Trees collapse. Split down center of a darkened forest. The parting of hair, black, wet; combed to reveal a pale scalp beneath. White. Pure.
One tree down.
The cracking and splitting of wood, splintering into a million tiny fragments that disappear into the night. Into nonexistence.
Clear the wreckage.
The weight of a chest compressed by venom. With each breath, a growing moral strain.
Max and Emma are passed out on the grey shag rug while Krishna chants through Sonos. It is a Saturday afternoon. I am tired. Struggling.
Years have been lost. Days tucked away. Memories like crumbled paper balls, discarded. Hidden in closets, under carpet, in the trenches of more than a decade of avoidance.
Little paper balls.
One harder to unroll than the next. A moment, a fear, deep shame buried beneath masks.
Forward further still.
The sea stretches on, infinite and dark. Moonlight catches drifting waves that roll endlessly into night. That disappear beyond the horizon line. Where I fall off to outer space. A tiny wooden boat with paper sails, paddle along. Rock from left to right. Under moonlight. Into nothingness. A ship with purpose, with promise, a crew of thirty-six lost at sea. Aimlessly floating with the current toward oblivion, off the page. Black ink on pressed cotton, bleeding through to the other side.
Sail from questions to opportunity. To possibility where possibility is just ahead, out of reach.
It’s almost Wednesday. Two minutes.