Chapter One

 

 

I KNEW I was gay when I was thirteen years old, playing football at the middle school in our parish. Ma’s Trick, Louisiana, wasn’t exactly a mecca for gay boys realizing their sexuality for the first time, but we’d all heard about what faggots liked: cocks and screwing other guys. Though I couldn’t testify to the latter, the former I had dreamed about touching since Jean, my next-door neighbor, grabbed me in the locker room and I felt his body against the small of my back.

Fags weren’t “real” men. They were to be feared because they coveted straight boys, and nothing was as insulting as calling someone a fag or a cocksucker. I laughed when my teammates catcalled to the skinny boys who weren’t man enough to play for Ma’s Trick’s football team, but secretly, I was afraid they’d look at me with the same disgusted sneers.

For the longest time, I thought I was alone in Ma’s Trick. But that was before football camp the summer before junior year, when the quarterback snuck into my bed after a particularly grueling day on the field. We’d fumbled together in the pitch-black of the bunkhouse, rubbing against one another until we shattered like stars going supernova in the Louisiana night.

We became boyfriends after that.

Jean wasn’t like any other boy alive. He was charisma and depth, laughter and brooding. He was the pinnacle of high school perfection and he was secretly mine. If I was a distant star on the second string, Jean was the sun. And like the sunflowers that grew outside my bedroom window, I followed his light, unable to look away even when it grew so bright I was turned into a husk of dried leaves. The only cure for my sickness was another stolen kiss behind the shed at my parent’s house or our moonlight rendezvous in the field that stretched between our homes like no man’s land in the war between who we were and who we were supposed to be.

He still dated Alison Gardener and I was still on the fringes of his social circle, but it was me he wanted. It may have been necessary to hide our unnatural connection, but Jean was mine whether anyone knew it or not. He told me so over and over as he kissed me, pledging his undying affection with a passion that swamped me. He was my first kiss, my first love, and I prayed every night that God would let me keep him one more day, one more hour, because I dreaded being alone again.

I would ruin our fragile relationship long before God would think to. It was senior year and a month before graduation. I couldn’t stand the silence anymore, especially because Alison turned up pregnant and claimed that Jean was the father.

He denied it, of course.

I shoveled the cream corn into my mouth at the supper table, where my parents and three siblings were doing the same. My dad drove big rigs across country and was rarely at home, so it was a treat to have him opposite me at the table. I was the oldest, his prize. I’d never even seen him shoot me a disapproving look. That was all about to change.

“I’m gay.”

The scrape of silverware fell into a deadly silence as my entire family stared at me.

“What’d you say?” Dad asked. It wasn’t a request for clarification. It was a dare.

I picked up my dinner roll and tore off a piece to pop in my mouth. “I’m gay.”

“Scott Riesen, that is not funny,” my mother admonished, her green eyes, so like mine, wide with fear. She knew the consequences of my admission.

“I’m not joking. I like guys.”

Dad shoved back from the table, the wood of the chair scraping loudly over the linoleum.

“Harold,” Mom said, clenching her napkin in a white-knuckle grip. It was an entreaty not to lose his temper. She’d used that tone more than once when my little sister had snuck out to see her boyfriend and gotten caught.

“No son of mine is gonna be a faggot.” He spat the word, his accent getting even thicker with his temper. His face was purple with rage.

I don’t know what the hell I’d been expecting to happen. Dad had told all us boys the story of when him and his wrestling team buddies had beat a kid half to death back in the day for being a fag. I guess I was just so caught up with the whole “gays are more accepted than ever in America” thing that I thought for one insane moment of time that he would just go “that’s nice, son” and move on. The “It Gets Better” campaign hadn’t prepared me for the immediate aftermath.

“Dad—”

“Don’t you say another word!” His face had turned a sickly shade of purple, and his meaty fists curled into fleshy threats at his sides. “We’re going to talk to the pastor first thing tomorrow.”

“Dad, I have school.”

“I don’t give a damn!” He pointed toward the hallway. “You go to your room.”

“I’m not going to see the pastor,” I said, glaring up at him. I hadn’t gotten pissed yet, but I was getting there quick. We hadn’t even been to church since Christmas. It wasn’t like our family was super religious or something.

“It’s that liberal faggot school’s doing. Is it that English teacher you got?”

“Mr. Mathews isn’t gay!” I wished he was gay, but no dice. Had a girlfriend and everything. He was just a real nice teacher who didn’t like football, a sure sign he was a faggot in my dad’s eyes.

“Well, you ain’t either!” Dad slammed his fist down on the table, making the dishes rattle. My mom hurried the others away from the table, herding them into the living room and away from Dad’s fury.

“Yes. I. Am.” I spat each word out from behind gritted teeth. I loved Jean, and I loved what we did, and everyone in this nowhere town was gonna have to come to terms with that. Maybe if we were out of the closet, Jean could finally stop dating Alison freaking Gardener, and we could be together legitimately.

Dad looked bewildered by my statement, like he couldn’t wrap his mind around the fact that I wouldn’t deny it anymore. “We’re going to see the pastor in the morning.”

“No. I’m not.” Maybe if we had the circular conversation one more time, he would get it.

“Then pack a bag. Ain’t no faggot gonna live in the same house as my sons. I won’t have you corrupting them.”

My eyes widened. I couldn’t help it. He looked so… disgusted. “I wouldn’t—”

“No tellin’ what your kind will do,” he interrupted, crossing his arms around his wide chest. “You have five minutes.”

Five.

Minutes.

It didn’t sink in for the first thirty seconds that he was serious. People like him didn’t exist anymore. Sure, my being gay could disappoint people like him, but they would eventually come around and realize that I was still the same guy who’d sat across from them a minute ago.

“Four minutes now,” Dad spat, glaring.

I did the only thing I could do. I ran toward my room, grabbing my backpack as I went. As quickly as I could, I stuffed all my clean clothes into my bag, along with my iPod and running shoes. I couldn’t think of anything else I might need, so I straightened with a minute and a half to spare.

I wasn’t upset. Not really. I was just kind of numb to the whole thing.

I walked the carpeted hallway into the living room, where my mother had turned on the TV. She stared blankly at the screen like a patient on a morphine drip stares into the light above their bed, unseeing, unfeeling. My siblings stared at me, wide-eyed. My next younger brother looked a little sick. My sister had pity in her eyes. The youngest, Ryan, he just stared at me, afraid.

My dad was still in the kitchen, the scrape of the fork against his plate letting me know that everything was right in his world again.

“You change your mind about going to the pastor, give me a call,” he called as I opened the front door.

It was an out, a way to take it all back.

I slammed the door behind me hard enough that I heard something fall off the wall on the other side. I wasn’t taking it back. I couldn’t take it back. As terrified and sick as I felt, I was free for the first time in my life.

I descended the steps and hit the gravel driveway, my sneakers crunching on the rocks as I headed onto the dirt road that lead to the main highway. I had no idea where I was going or what I would do when I got there. I’d forgotten my cell phone.

“Hey, Scotty!” a familiar voice called from behind me. I half turned, my heart skipping a beat as Jean jogged across the field that separated our houses to catch up to me. I waited for him because I always waited for him. After prom I’d waited behind my parents’ shed all night for him to meet me. I’d woken up the next morning with dew drenching my rented tux. Jean had apologized for ditching me. He was really good at saying sorry.

“Hey,” I said. My voice was surprisingly steady despite my nerves.

“Were we supposed to be meeting today?” Jean asked, confusion marring his perfect face.

Jean Lafitte was one of those people destined to be loved by everyone who knew him, and I was no exception. Already six foot four at eighteen, he had broad shoulders and lean hips, with a natural talent for football that got him a ticket out of Ma’s Trick on a scholarship. Add that to his all-American good ole boy personality, blond hair, and baby-blue eyes, he was like Tim Tebow to an infinite power.

“Nah.” I shifted my bag on my back. “You got your truck today?” He had to share with one of his older brothers, Chris, who went to Trick Community College, and was often without.

He nodded. “Sure. Need a ride?” He got that look in his eyes that said he thought I was asking for more than just a vehicle from point A to point B. He probably thought I wanted to fool around.

“To my nana’s.” I swallowed, suddenly needing to do something life affirming. “We can stop out by the creek near her place.” Speaking in code always worked for us. Outsiders never knew that we were planning intimate relations. Plus, I liked being subtle. It made our tussles seem more romantic or something.

“You got a condom?” At least until Jean opened his dumb mouth, we were subtle.

I shook my head. “What happened to the ones you had last time?”

He hesitated, his cheeks turning scarlet. “I used them.”

My stomach twisted and my heart followed suit. “Oh.”

Jean shrugged like he hadn’t just ripped my heart out of my chest. “Sorry. You know we can’t be… you know, together.”

I nodded, swallowing convulsively. “Yeah. I know. Who?”

“Alison.”

Man, I hated that bitch.

“She kept screaming at me that I was a fag because I wouldn’t fuck her.” His eyes begged me to understand. “She knows it isn’t my kid in her belly, but it’s a girl thing. You know?”

I didn’t.

“You are a fag,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest. It hurt to see Jean right this second.

“I ain’t a fag!” he snapped, his jaw ticking. “You’re just—” He shifted, unsure again. “You’re special.”

“Uh-huh. And what about Devin Myers? I know he ain’t as cute as me. I sure as hell know he ain’t ‘special.’” I used air quotes around the word.

When had this descended into a fight? And why? Jean had let Devin suck his dick after a game last year, but I had let it go. We were young and had both made mistakes. Like the time I’d gotten drunk at Needleman’s party and dry-humped with Andrew Beaudin. So why was I so pissed about it now?

“I said I was sorry about Devin!”

I pushed roughly past him, clipping his shoulder as I went. “I don’t wanna hear it!”

Jean grabbed my shoulder and whipped me around. Having six inches on me let him do it easily. “What is this about, really?” His gaze searched my face for a clue. “Is it about Alison? ’Cause I told you, I didn’t knock her up. The first time was a few weeks ago, and she’s three months along.” The sad part was I knew he’d only done it to save face. People started talking when the star quarterback didn’t get around, especially with a fox like Alison Gardener.

“I hope that bitch gets fat.” A girl’s worst fear. The only insult I knew would land and twist them up. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t here to hear me say it. It made me feel better and maybe if I put the thought out into the universe, it would come to pass. I wasn’t a word guy. I was an action guy. Girls required words, and they failed me constantly but that insult I knew held weight.

He nodded like it was a sure thing. “She will.” He let his hand fall away from my shoulder as if he was afraid he would somehow advertise what we were if he lingered. He swallowed. “So you want a ride or what?”

I sighed. “Yeah. I do.” I didn’t want to walk the fifteen-minute drive to Nana’s. She managed a trailer park on the other side of town. It was a bitch of a walk.

He smiled at me, and the world righted itself. “You get into a fight with your old man or something? You’re strung tighter than a cat with a firecracker on his tail.”

“Something like that.” He would know soon enough. The whole world would know soon enough. Word in Ma’s Trick traveled fast, especially if Dad contacted our preacher. Pastor Skip was the worst gossip in town but the best gator hunter. I wasn’t sure what the latter had to do with the former, but it was what everyone said.

“Can’t wait to touch you,” he murmured as we took the dirt road down the street to his house where his truck was parked. “I’ve been wanting you all week.”

Could have fooled me. You haven’t even looked at me in class or in the weight room after school. “Want you all the time, Jean.” It was the truth. I ached for him like people in hell ache for ice water.

We reached his shiny black pickup, and he unlocked the door with a press of a button. It wasn’t a full cab or anything, but it had enough room where Jean didn’t feel cramped. He was banking on getting a new one for graduation so he’d have a ride to go off to LSU. I wasn’t signed up for school in the fall. I didn’t know what I was doing. Like my entire life in Ma’s Trick, I was floating along without direction. Maybe I’d drive a rig like Dad, see the world.

“Hey, Scotty?” he asked as he cranked the engine.

“Yeah?”

He reached over and turned on the air-conditioning. It was sticky hot outside in May. “You’re being really quiet. It’s not like you.”

“I’m fine, baby. I promise.” I think I’m fine. Is this what shock feels like?

“Why you going to your nana’s midweek? I thought you only mowed her grass on Saturdays.”

Sundays, actually, but I was impressed he remembered that much. It wasn’t like we were friends or anything. I was second string, so I wasn’t even a blip on the social radar. “Dad kicked me out.”

“Oh shit.”

“Yeah.”

“Why?” His grip tightened on the steering wheel as he backed onto the street.

“’Cause I’m a faggot.”

The car jerked as he slammed on the brakes and whipped his head around to look at me. “You told him? How could you tell him! Did you say anything about me?”

I shook my head, unprepared for his reaction. “No. I didn’t, Jean. You know I wouldn’t.” His family was even worse than mine when it came to gays. Jean had another older brother they’d sent to a “pray the gay away” camp our freshmen year. It had been a hell of a scandal.

He remembered to breathe finally, sucking in a good lungful of air. “Oh, thank God. Don’t do that to me, man.” He eased off the brakes and sped toward the end of the street. “If anyone else finds out, we won’t be able to hang out anymore.”

We didn’t really hang out all that much now, but we were amicable in public. My heart sank. “Yeah. I figured.” I swallowed. “I love you, Jean.” I’d never said the words, never had the balls to, really.

He pulled down an unfamiliar side road that was probably used by the state to check the power lines. He tucked his truck between two trees and cut the engine. I stared at him, my heart in my throat as he calmly turned toward me. I don’t know what I was expecting—laughter, reciprocation, anger, perhaps?

“Aw, hell, Riesen. I love you too.” He opened his arms and I melted, crossing the space between us in a blink. Our mouths fused as we fumbled, desperate for more touches, more skin, just more. I didn’t care about condoms or teen pregnancy or the fact that my father had just kicked my ass out of the only home I’d ever known. All that mattered was that Jean Lafitte loved me.

He pulled a bottle of slick out of his glove compartment and fumbled with the cap, his entire body shaking as he squirted the liquid onto his fingers. He was still half-dressed despite the fact that I was naked.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, putting a restraining hand on his wrists. “Is this not okay?”

He shook his head. “It’s not that.” I loved when his voice got all gruff like that. “It’s just the first time.”

I couldn’t help but smile at that and tease him a bit. “You sure aren’t a virgin, Jean.”

“That’s not what I mean. It’s just… it’s the first time it’s meant something.”

I might not have been a word guy, but Jean sure as hell was. I pulled him down so I could kiss him, showing him what it meant to me to hear him say something like that.

We came together hard and fast, desperate, and it was good. So very good. He kissed me as our sweat mingled with our combined release, and I had never been so damn happy.