Sound travels furthest over water, so he kept his hand upon my mouth. His fingers laced tightly across my lips. Hard.
The boat sat still in the middle of the lake, surrounded by glowing houses. Glowing houses filled with normal people going about their business, tucking their children into bed, and sending off that last email of the night. One by one, the lights that dotted the edge of the lake went out as nurses and managers and school teachers all turned in for the night. They would all wake to their alarms first thing in the morning. They’d shower; they’d feed their dog; they’d get in their reasonable sedan and drive off to work. Work all day and return home. And this cycle would repeat on and on, as it always does.
But the two of us on the boat felt as though we were on a different world. Just two boys and the wet and the rocking of the boat. A place with no rules.
This is not a story about rape. This is not about being forced upon, for what is it if you never said no. Never knew you could say no. This is not about gender. This is not about the failings of parents. This is not about young love. This is not about us.
This is about legacy. This is about silence. This is about ignorance. This is about what you are left with when reading between the lines only produces half-answers, half-truths.
This is also the story of rebuilding. Looking into the ruins of nothing and creating a something. This is a story of two boys. This is a story about breathing. How all things flow in and out like the waves, and each time we rebuild, hoping this time our sand could be a dune instead of castle.
The library books stank of smokers’ cough and yellowed pages held lazily to their binding. I held the decrepit covers as though they are precious gems. My mother thought my enthusiasm for books cute and she encouraged me. To a point.
She shared the love of what lay between the pages, but she felt the danger of me looking too deep. I could see worlds unfolding before my eyes, but each book that passed before me must first get through my mother’s discerning eye. As I grew, the eye grew. Some books ripped from my hands for reasons I didn’t get full answers on. Some shit about not being old enough. Smut.
I started to hide my books. Still relegated to the children’s sections, my hidden stashes were slim pickings.
All I could hear was the soft lapping of the waves, the call of the cicadas, and the sound of his ragged breathing on my neck. His skin stuck to mine, sweaty from summer heat.
We had met in sweat, under different circumstances to be certain, but that is high school sometimes. The whispered talks and sidelong glances. They knew what they saw, although words make such talks difficult, the fear of naming the thing, bringing it into reality. We had been exposed for all to see.
But this moment was hidden away, under only the eyes of the stars. The moon glowed down upon us, skin reflecting it back up to him. The luxury of a door is something not commonly afforded to my people. The risk of being found could mean baseball bats to foreheads or suitcases on the front porch. Instead, we have been pushed to the corners, to bathrooms and forests.
And out here in the open water, in the boat we could be alone and our secrets could be our own. This space was undiscovered territory. New lands in the hills and mountains of each other. We had no guides and no maps to reference to save us from pain.
Every teenager thinks that they have discovered something completely new, something no one else has ever tried before. Every adolescent feels as though this is something undiscovered, ignorant to the knowledge that this is a dance that even their own parents performed, not that long ago.
I could feel his teeth on my shoulder and prickling of the pontoon deck floor on my back. I remember his nails. I have always chewed mine away.
My mother had been very clear in her directions about the ways that boys and girls interact.
“Boys never stay with girls who ask them out.”
“Wait until marriage.”
“Boys pursue. Girls say no.”
But what were the rules for when there were no girls involved? For this, Mother offered no advice. No elders for me to model myself after. No idea of what boundaries we might be pushing or falling short of. We found ourselves on an empty map, scrounging to try and discover ourselves.
For my people, it is all about instinct. We are a people defined by sex. By what our bodies are doing to each other, as though there exists nothing else between us.
When he told his mother, all she could see was us. Buggery. Sodomy. The burning hills of Gomorrah. Those who saw us holding hands, holding gazes for too long; they knew what we did. They saw us as bodies. Bodies in flashing lights. Naked bodies. Their gaze jumping moment to moment.
In 1925, we fucked in Berlin. In dens of sin and humanity with jazz music wrapping its way around our ears. In feathers and whiskey kisses. We had parties and cabarets and wrote poetry.
In 1945, we could not fuck under the constant watch of the Nazis. To be released into jail cells. We were still criminals after all; our treatment seemed justified. Chemically castrated by our governments. Separated from our connections to each other.
In 1965, we fucked quietly, in backrooms of bars owned by mobsters. We avoided eye contact, avoiding jail time and our names published in the weekly paper. We snuck home to wives and children, all quietly ignoring the truth of our actions.
In 1975, we fucked loudly, in orgies at our friends’ apartments. We blew each other in doorways during our lunch breaks. We knew joy. We knew change. We knew optimism.
In 1985, we knew we were dying. We fucked to a funeral dirge, a constant soundtrack. We had done this to ourselves. But we were already dying, so why stop? Why lose the thing we had been fighting for?
In 1995, we were unsure. We had lost so many who would have been there as teachers, as mentors, as role models. We had to start again; lost and cut off from the voices before. But we do have some memories. We could rebuild again.
In 2010, we were two boys on a boat.
I am uncomfortable as I write this. It is as though I am saying there are not always people in sadness or joy or pain or glee or suffering. As though, throughout history, there haven’t always been people fighting and loving and being damningly complex. But lives are lives. And stories exist on their own terms. Stories frame. They crop and edit and show the image they intend to show. Something is always lost.
These stories do not include that of the two who built themselves a little farm in Ohio. Or the man was long seen as the bachelor, making his way each day on his bicycle to teach in the one room classroom. Or the artists living in the communal house near the center of town.
We tell the stories to fit the narrative we need. But within each story we must maintain the grain of truth that will provide the urgency. There is a need for the story. There is someone who will see the world differently; realize that they aren’t the only one who has viewed the world in such a way.
A Passing Thought
Of course, I tell you all of this as though it would have made a difference. As though the words of my people in San Francisco or New York would have made it to the ears of the two boys on that boat in Georgia. Our parents protected us from such deviance. Our neighbors kept their silence. Our churches avoided such unseemly talk. They hoped we would never learn.
But it doesn’t take an education to know that you exist.
His hair was long, brushing against my cheek. His fingers trailed, yanking my nipple. My back arched.
Queer as Folk was a TV show that premiered in 2000. This was the first time mainstream America saw two men have sex. This is the first time many Americans saw that two men could have sex while facing each other, could look each other in the eye. When they think of how we have sex, it is all strangers in dark alleys, doggy style. They don’t think about how we make love. The gazing into another’s eyes, watching their face twist and contort. To see a person that way is to make them human. But humans are messy and sex is never just one thing.
I had told him I didn’t want to do any of this. Not tonight. I didn’t want his sweat, his spit. I didn’t want for us to end up here, in this place, again.
But the way he smiled, the way he loved me, I didn’t stop his hands when they descended. He knew me and he wanted this. I mean, we wanted this.
Because men want sex, don’t we? Why would we have any reason to say no? We aren’t supposed to say no, to want to say no to this.
When we were done, I wanted nothing more than to go to sleep, to disappear for a few hours. Perhaps to sink below still water. But I had to get home before curfew. So we took the boat to shore. And I made my way to my car. Radio played some Top 40 shit and the lights sped past as my clunker made its way down the highway. Cars passed, filled with strangers consumed with their own worlds so distant from mine as they tried to make it home to kiss their children goodnight or avoid detection as they snuck into their spouse’s bed.
Most of the cuts and bruises would heal by morning. The scratches along my back and the mouth shaped marks along my collarbones would fade soon after. Some days I wonder about the scar tissue left behind, unseen, unnoticed. Scar tissue reshapes the skin around it, building it anew.
We were conquerors, shaping the landscape to our will. We blazed trails and carved pathways. Before long, the shape of things before would long be forgotten. A distant memory; the potential of naive reconstruction.
We cannot remember how our bodies moved before. What did we know about them before we understood their power? With actions, we solidified what we already knew to be true. Action only behaving as confirmation.
Once Eve tasted the fruit, could she have held herself back from a second bite?
Rumpus original art by Cody Bubenik.