Brad is tall with brown hair and deep dimples and blue eyes that don’t look away when he’s talking to me. When he stretches and yawns, his skinny arms fly over his head and two shallow patches of brown hair poke out from his short sleeves. I want to reach out and run my fingers over the new growth, see what all this fuss of puberty is about. He’s been growing faster than me, faster than anyone I know, his shoe size rocketing every other month. When the growing pains hit him, he falls to the floor and lifts his knees to his chest, shorts wrinkling in tiny ridges. As I stare, the ridges become mountain ranges, impossible to scale. My body is trying to kill me, he says. But the opposite is true. Brad’s body is pure vitality; it grows stronger and more beautiful every day. And the strange new blooming he’s told me about, the one currently packaged in his too-big shorts, sounds like a miracle. It’s already six inches, he’s told me. He’s been threatening to show me for weeks now, and he’s finally made up his mind to do it. I forget to breathe.
“Look but don’t touch,” he says, tugging at the elastic band of his tropical swimming trunks. There’s a flash of pale skin beneath the water, but the sun instantly swallows it up. “Did you see it?”
My feet burn on the hot concrete, the cold water lapping my toes with each of his splashes. My wet T-shirt clings to my stomach, and I tug at it, the hiss and hollow suction loud in the quiet of my pine-studded backyard.
“Get in, fatty,” Brad says, slapping the water. The marbled whiteness of the water’s shadow dances over his tanned skin. My eyes water at the way the laces of his swimming trunks have come undone and now float like twin snakes up to his belly button.
“I didn’t see it,” I say.
Brad kicks his feet up and splashes me, flipping on his back. “That’s all for today,” he says.
My mother has opened the pool early this year. Family friends, most of them local farmers, have predicted a hot summer in a land of perpetually hot summers, but the extreme heat hasn’t arrived yet, and the water is still too cold. I want to get more out of it this year, my mother had said. Even if I’m just sitting there with my feet in the water.
I scan the kitchen window but can’t make out her silhouette. She worries one of us will drown if she looks away for more than a minute. She worries someone will come into the backyard and steal us, though we’re already thirteen, because our house is only half a mile from my family’s cotton gin and so many shady characters work for my father. She worries about how easy it would be for someone to break into our house, perhaps because someone actually did break into our house a few months ago to steal most of her jewelry—an uncle, we think, on my father’s side, the one who drinks and is always high and who, two summers ago, walked out of the house wearing my mother’s ruffled one-piece bathing suit with a beer in one hand and proceeded to cannonball us all. She worries about the bees that cling to the safety rope separating the deep and shallow ends, though she already knows I’m not allergic, has already held me in her lap on a day when I’d cried for half an hour at the bee sting on the palm of my hand, the very spot where I’d trusted the rope to hold me up.
She worries, too, because though she enjoys having Brad around, she knows that he’s a daredevil, and that I’m a pushover, that as an only child and introvert I’ve come to believe that the best strategy for avoiding the judgment of others is to go along with whatever plans they have in mind. A few months earlier, on a trip to my grandfather’s house, I had tossed aside my bike in favor of my friend Corey’s new four-wheeler and ridden out with him to a dilapidated house to raid it in search of forgotten treasures. This had been just before the break-in, before we had all grown more cautious. My mother had found the bike in a ditch and assumed the worst, sped down the gravel road in search of me and, once she found me in the doorway of the dilapidated house with the caution tape curled at my feet, she’d ordered my father to take me inside their master bedroom and whip me with his belt until I understood the consequences of peer pressure. One, my father said, slapping the bed beside me with his belt, the air rushing past, my hands gripping the edge of the mattress. Two. Three. I pretended to be penitent as I left the bedroom and walked past my mother, my eyes half closed and faking an oncoming cry, secretly happy with my father’s and my betrayal, the way he had so tacitly given me permission to act like a regular boy, to “get into a little trouble” as he often put it, though he could have never known that it was truly an act, that I was just tagging along because someone had asked me to and I was too afraid to say no, and that this trait betrayed a weakness he would later associate with homosexuality. He would look back at my mother’s excessive worrying and my excessive timidity and wonder what we all could have done to make me a little tougher, a little straighter, a little more like the boy he’d always dreamt of having.
“Fatty, get in,” Brad says.
I skirt the blue slide at the edge of the pool and grab a gurgling water hose, carrying it with me up the ladder, the cool water gliding down my leg and spitting on the concrete below. At the top rung, I can see over the fence and the pines to all the cotton fields and dirt paths and blue-gray silos I know by heart, to my family’s cotton gin in the distance, and something in my chest tips over at the sight of how small everything looks, how endless these flatlands seem to be. You could easily get lost out there and never find your way back. You could die in that desert, in what would soon be extreme heat, if you didn’t have a family to protect you.
“So now you have to go down backwards and do a flip at the bottom,” Brad says.
I wrap the hose around the metal railing and angle it so the water falls across the length of the slide and trickles to the spot where Brad is floating. The day before, Brad and I had made the mistake of trying to go down the slide without water, and my arm is still red from where I’d been scalded by the fiberglass. I flip over on my stomach, my wet T-shirt squeaking against the slide, and hold on to the railings with both hands, the water cold as it rushes down my sides. Heights make me dizzy, and the blue lid of the sky pins me to the fiberglass. I look through the railing to see if my mother is watching, but she is nowhere.
“I’ll catch you,” Brad says.
“Will that work?” I’m worried I’ll be too heavy for him, that with nothing to anchor his feet in the deep end we both might sink to the bottom. Every day I sneak into the master bathroom to stand on my mother’s glass scale and check my weight, and every day I am still twenty pounds overweight.
“Piece of cake.”
I let go of the railing and slide down, slower than expected, and when I reach the edge I have to hurl my body sideways and flip. I land hard against Brad’s chest. Underwater, we struggle for a moment, and Brad’s hand holds me under while his other hand tugs my shirt loose and tries to bring it over my head. We rise to the surface, gasping for air. I tug the ballooning shirt back down even as I struggle to make my way to the shallow end, covering the pale fat rolls I’m terrified he’ll see. An air bubble erupts on the surface, an empty gurgle. It’s already too late: he’s touched my skin.
“Take it off,” Brad says. “It slows you down, and you’ll get a farmer’s tan.”
He grabs the front of my swimming trunks, the cloth netting digging into my skin, and I dive away from him, under the safety rope. When I surface again, the bees are scattering overhead. We both make it back to the shallow end, and I grab the front of his trunks, feeling through the double layers to the hardness that has been waiting, all this time, for me to claim it.
No touching unless he touches you. No touching where people can see. No touching unless dared to touch. Brad makes the rules, but never says them aloud.
One, two, three. Brad and I don’t leave our hands down there for more than a few seconds. When I say my prayers at night, I pretend to be penitent, but I’m secretly happy for the betrayal.
The year I learned this system of touches, the news was still running wild with the Matthew Shepard story, digging into all the gory details, listing his injuries blow-by-blow and stringing the boy up like a martyred Christ. The details were almost always morbid. Had he made a pass at his two murderers, and how long did it take the murderers to respond? Had they led him on? Had they smiled at him? Had he smiled back?
“I’m not saying I support what they did to that boy,” a church deacon said during the height of the Shepard story coverage, “but if any man tried to make a pass at me, I’d bash his brains in.”
I watched how our townspeople reacted to that story, and calibrated my own reaction to suit theirs. If someone expressed sympathy, I would relax my posture, breathe easier. If someone expressed disgust, I would nod and try to look seriously disgusted. The rest of the time I tried to make my face look as neutral as possible, terrified someone would find me out and bash my brains in.
I have to wait another week before I can touch Brad again. He’s off to some basketball camp while I stay at home. I don’t touch myself down there if I can help it, and when I do, a jolt goes through my whole body and I feel as if I’ve ruined myself for him. At church on Wednesday night, the pastor asks the congregation to stand and greet one another, and my muscles grow stiff and I keep my arms weighted at my sides while I allow people to hug me, careful to angle my lower body away from them. The pastor walks over to give me a hug, and someone mentions the bees he keeps in his backyard, all that honey he gives away to his congregants in order to keep them healthy, and for a confused second I worry that the pastor’s bees know something about Brad and me, that they act as sentries on our pool’s safety rope. The metal pen in the pastor’s shirt pocket digs into my neck, and I push away from him and head back to the wooden pew.
After the service, I walk outside and circle the blue-and-white beehive stacks behind the pastor’s house. The bees make a low growling sound somewhere beneath the wood panels, and I think about how easy it must be for them to fly to my house and back, the flatlands zipping by, the dry cotton stalks whooshing in even rows below. How far can they go? I wonder. To other towns, other states? How do they find their way back home?
In the distance, our family’s miniaturized house flares with the orange sunset, the highway growing dark and disappearing. The intruder had left only my room untouched. He must have thought you didn’t have anything valuable, my father had said. And before we figured out that the only person who knew about my mother’s most expensive diamond ring was my uncle, I’d imagined the thief sifting through our belongings with curiosity, running his thick, calloused fingers over the household objects that had become so oppressive to me over the years. My father had been wrong. My untouched room was a sign. The thief hadn’t been allowed to touch my things because no one was allowed to touch me.
During the days, I work for my father at the cotton gin, mowing the dry grass with the riding mower, gliding over the many acres that make up our land, careful not to get rocks stuck in the blade. I stop the mower at the back of the gin and head into a nearby shed where we keep burlap-wrapped cotton bales in the busy fall season. The floor is coated in old, musty cotton that the years have blackened with dust and rain and mud, and I fall to my knees on the cool concrete and think of touching myself. Dear God, I pray, please give me the strength to resist. I wait for the voice of God to enter that dark shed, but no sound comes. I wipe my hand on the dirty cotton.
One day when I’m out on the mower, a girl, one of the workers’ daughters, follows me in a golf cart. She has long brown hair and pale legs half-covered by a pair of white shorts. She trails me through the line of blue-gray sheds at the back of the gin. I speed up the mower and head into the soybean elevator with its smell of decaying rats and its heavy iron bars that barely cover the pit below, and the mower bounces over each iron bar, and at the last second I lift up the blade so it doesn’t catch. The girl is right behind me, close enough to hit me. I speed up. When I look back, one of the golf cart’s wheels is stuck in a hollow, and I put the lawn mower in idle and run over to help lift the wheel. The girl jumps down from her seat, and I can smell her freshly washed hair mixing with the smell of dead animals wafting up from below. For a brief moment our fingers linger on the hot wheel. I jerk my hand away.
“Hey,” she says. “I’m still stuck.”
“I didn’t ask you to follow me,” I say.
“We were playing a game.”
When I get back to the lawnmower, I can hear something clanging under the blade cover. It’s the mower belt again. Every time the mower belt comes loose, I have to head over to my father’s shop and ask someone to fix it. My father once told me about a man who accidentally chopped off his pinky with a lawnmower blade, and ever since I’ve been careful not to touch anything below the blade cover.
“Don’t be a jerk,” the girl says. “I’m still stuck.”
“I have to go,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
When I get to the shop, the only person there is my father. I’m ashamed to ask him for help again, but he just smiles and walks over with his tool belt. He opens up the cover and does something with the belt to make it right again. He makes it look so easy.
I pretend I have to pee. Inside the bathroom, I stare at the dirty blackened mirror and rub the orange-scented soap on my hands, the kind with the sand in it that scrubs you so clean it hurts, the kind that makes you want to get you hands dirty just so you can use it, and my eyes water because I don’t want to be nice to that girl. I only want to be nice to Brad. I want to be so nice to Brad that I can’t breathe.
When I leave the bathroom, my father’s gone and the mower is parked on the gravel lot outside, waiting for me to finish the job. I can see the golf cart speeding off in the distance, dust kicking up behind it. A purple thunderhead is heaping on the horizon, the first of many summer storms. I only get halfway through mowing the next acre before the cold rain sends me back inside, the drops like pinpricks on my skin.
Brad wants to watch a horror movie called House. The house in the movie looks just like the ones we’ve both grown up in. Empty fields all around. No one for miles. If I’m squinting, which is how I watch most of the movie, it looks a little like the dilapidated house down the road. I think about the tragedy that must have struck the family that moved out of that house. What force had descended so swiftly that they left so many of their belongings behind for someone like me to take?
We sit on Brad’s living room sofa with a bowl of popcorn between us. Brad’s mom has put some kind of cheese powder on the popcorn, and it coats the roof of my mouth. I run my tongue across the coated ridges but the powder stays there. Brad’s family never leaves anything plain. If you ask for bread, Brad’s mom takes some kind of honey oat and slathers it with herbal butter. Brad’s family is the kind of family that goes to town and rents movies; they drink alcohol at night and laugh when I tell them God doesn’t like drunks.
“Your folks can be fanatics sometimes,” Brad’s dad says. “Too afraid to live a little.”
“Don’t say that,” Brad’s mom says.
“The kid knows. He’s not stupid.”
Brad’s parents are Methodists, which is very different from our family’s Missionary Baptist denomination. Methodists don’t always preach fire and brimstone, don’t always tell people that they’ll be tortured for eternity if they don’t get saved. In our church, asking people to be born-again is a weekly ritual. We can’t go to lunch without it, would never consider leaving the pews until somebody called on folks to accept Jesus into their hearts. Though most of us have already been saved and baptized, the call for salvation is still our congregation’s bread and butter, and it seems half the reason people have children in our town is just to give them a chance to be born all over again. On the rare occasion when someone actually does walk down the aisle and accept Jesus, we spend the rest of our Sunday enraptured, eating heartily, holding our hands up to the Lord in praise. We feel as though we have all just miraculously avoided a terrible tragedy. My father says, What a glorious day the Lord hath made. My mother says, Can you believe God’s forgiveness? And for the rest of the week there’s a buzzing in the air, as if God has lifted an anvil that once hovered above our town and allowed a small piece of heaven to shine down on our treacherous lives, His smile warming us all, His Breath passing through the pines along the highway.
Brad’s parents have gone to bed. Brad’s older brother hasn’t come home yet and probably won’t. The few times I’ve seen him, he’s been completely drunk, stumbling around the kitchen looking for something to eat, slamming cabinets shut. Don’t look so shocked, Brad had said. Have you never been drunk? Of course I have, I lied. I jumped off my roof one night when I was totally drunk and landed in the pool.
“You’ve got some on your mouth,” Brad says. He reaches over with his thumb and wipes the corner of my mouth free of cheese powder.
“Someone will see,” I say.
“No they won’t,” Brad says, licking his thumb. “Don’t be a pussy.”
On screen, a bloodied zombie hand turns a doorknob. A man’s boot steps carefully into a dark hallway and is jerked up by a hidden string one of the zombies placed in his path. The man suffers from PTSD and is trying to write a book about all the horrible things that happened to him decades ago. He can’t seem to get anything done in that house, and that’s when the zombies come out of the woodwork and mingle with his memories to cure his writer’s block.
“It’s not really scary,” Brad says. “None of this is scary.”
He places his hand on my chin. I don’t move away. It’s like we’re underwater again, this struggle for air, but this time it’s excitement rather than fear that I feel.
His eyes soften in close up. “It’s just a bunch of special effects.”
In this moment, I believe him. I close my eyes and lean forward. The rope is behind us now; the bees have scattered.
Rumpus original art by Cody Bubenik.