The Breaths We Take
Huston Piner © 2018
All Rights Reserved
There are certain days when everything just seems to come together. Then there are those days when things all fly apart. Well, there’s also the kind when things begin to change. For me, a sunny day at the start of my junior year of high school was such a day. It began like any other, but before it was over, my life had taken a turn, and soon, everything—from my relationships with friends and family to what I thought I knew about love—would be changed forever.
So there we were, at one of the tables outside the lunchroom, just back from Labor Day weekend. Doris and I were sitting across from Hope and Ted, all of us soaking up the sunshine. The wind was a little gusty, but nobody was complaining. At least it drove the stench off. (Only Chadham High would put the dumpsters right around the corner from the school’s one outdoor eating area.)
“Hey Ben, pass the salt.”
I cut Ted a reproachful glance. The only shaker was two tables away.
“Why am I always the one who has to get the salt?”
“Don’t be such a whiner. It’s like social contract theory. You do little things for us, and we all do little things for you.”
Hope flicked sandy-brown bangs out of her face. “Such as making sure you find the right guy to hook up with.”
“The right guy?” I said, depositing the shaker just out of Ted’s reach. “What do you mean the right guy?”
“Oh come on, Ben. You know when the right guy comes along, we’ll all chip in to help you get him.”
“Yeah, yeah, like that’s ever going to happen. Here. At Chadham High. In this lifetime.”
Doris nudged me in the side. “You’ve just got to be patient.”
“Patient? My high school career’s already halfway over, and I’ve got nothing to show for it. ‘The right guy.’ At this point, I’d be happy to have any guy show even a hint of interest in me.”
I hadn’t even finished speaking when Grant Framingham shuffled past us. Doris raised a sarcastic eyebrow and snickered, watching me grimace at his weasel-like nose and mousy brown hair.
“Really? Any guy?”
“Uh, no. On second thought, I’ll wait for the right guy.”
“You mean Colby Ryder,” Hope said in a playful, mocking tone.
As if on cue, Colby emerged from the lunchroom, that luxurious ebony hair of his floating in the breeze, those dark-chocolate eyes gleaming in the sunlight. My heartbeat quickened, and my skin tingled at the very sight of him. He was so hot you could get burned by just touching him—not that I’d ever had that opportunity.
I watched him pass us, my shoulders slumping, while various fantasy images danced through my head.
“Oh God, what I could do to that boy. Why oh why couldn’t he be gay?”
“Benjie,” Doris chirped in a singsong voice. “Whining.”
“It’s just not fair,” I said peevishly. “And I’m not a whiner.”
They all laughed.
Okay. The truth was, maybe I did whine a bit—every now and then. But whining just came with the territory when you were seventeen years old, gay, and devilishly handsome, and you had about as much chance of finding a boyfriend as winning the lottery.
My problem was a question of demographics. Chadham High was one of those places where everybody fit into neat little boxes. We had the snotty I’m Involved in Everything and All the Teachers Love Me association. Then there was the I’m a Jock and I’ll Punch Your Face if I Want To crew. We had the obligatory I’m Smart and You’re Not guild, the My Religion Says You’re Going to Hell congregation, and any number of the I’m a (fill in the demographic group of your choice) and I’m Better Than You societies. And of course, what self-respecting high school would be complete without the Dude, Pass that Joint tribe? As for the rest, they all fell into the Please God, Just Let Me Live Long Enough to Get Out of Here nation. That’s the box Ted, Doris, Hope, and I were all in.
But what we didn’t seem to have at good old Chadham High, at least as far as I’d been able to tell over the past two years, was more than the one lone gay student—me. Now, they say statistically, at least five percent of any given population will be homosexual. That meant there should have been about a hundred or so young gay people running around, and therefore, at least a few of them should have been healthy gay males. But if there were any other queers at Chadham High besides me, I’d long since come to the conclusion they were masters of disguise. I mean, sheesh. Talk about keeping a low profile.
I plopped my elbow on the table and cupped my chin in my hand. “Why can’t any of the beautiful guys around here be gay?”
“Well,” Ted said, “good looks are God’s compensation for not giving us straight guys a good sense of fashion.”
Doris leaned back in her chair with her mouth hanging open and stared at him.
“Oh Ted, I’m so sorry, and you lost out on both.”
She burst into a fit of laughter, and Hope and I snickered.
Ted ignored her, stretched for the shaker, and sighed when he had to half stand to reach it. Then he unceremoniously dumped an ungodly large mountain of salt on his food.
“Ted, I swear you’re going to give yourself a coronary.”
He raised a sodium-laden fork to his mouth. “It’s the only way I can stand to eat this crap.”
She shook her head as Hope picked up the shaker and poured a liberal mound of salt onto her own plate.
“You know, you could just get an apple or an orange.”
“Even the fruit here stinks,” he said through a mouthful of whatever it was he was eating.
He was right. I glanced at the orange peel lying in my tray. There’s sour, and then there’s sour, but the sour in that orange had just been plain off.
Doris twiddled a strand of wavy black hair. “Has anybody had any luck finding something for their community service project?”
“I was hoping to do the Y,” Hope said, “but they told me all their volunteer openings were already filled weeks ago, and they’ve got a waiting list a mile long.”
“Yeah,” Ted said. “I got the same answer when I called the city park service Friday afternoon. Apparently, the school board didn’t take into consideration there are only so many volunteer positions available in Chadham County. Adding juniors and seniors to the number of underclassmen already required to do CS was an idea bound to fail.”
“Well,” Doris said with a grin, “I’ve got mine all set and ready. I talked with my priest, and she said I could help out preparing the Saturday meals-on-wheels plates.”
“Hey,” Hope said, “do you think I could help out there too?”
“I can ask. I don’t know how much help they need though. She told me they’ve got a pretty large group of people working it. But yeah, I’m sure they’ll let you. And even if they don’t, if I drive you there Saturday, they’ve at least got to give you credit for the time you’re there with me.”
Hope smiled. “Cool. What about you, Ben? Are you having any luck?”
I folded my arms and sighed. “Oh yeah, I’m having great luck—all of it bad. Last week, I went to city hall, and they said no to everything, even the neighborhood beautification program. Apparently, you’ve got to have some kind of advanced degree in agriculture just to pull up weeds around here. And Saturday, I even checked out the library. Nothing.”
“Well,” Doris said, “you’d better come up with something. Two hundred hours is a lot of time to fill, especially if you’ve got to limit it to weekends and after school.”
“Don’t rub it in,” Ted said.
Hope patted him on the wrist. “Aw, I’m sure you’ll both find something.”
I scoffed. “Tell me something, Hope. Your middle name wouldn’t happen to be ‘Springs Eternal’ by any chance, would it?”
The bell rang. We went inside, dumped our leftover food in the trash, and tossed our trays on the pile in the pickup window. While Ted and Doris disappeared among the people swarming down the front hall, Hope and I crossed the lobby to the back hall intersection. The clatter of locker doors being slammed, shoes scuffling, and the chaos of chattering voices buzzed all around us.
While Hope stopped off at the restroom for her traditional after-lunch visit, I leaned back against the wall for an after-lunch tradition of my own—surveying the guys passing by. I already knew most of the sophomores, juniors, and seniors, and I was always on the lookout for any of my favorites. But my main amusement that early in the semester was scoping out any good-looking freshmen.
So far, it looked like the majority of the ninth graders had second lunch, making my investigation much more haphazard. But the small herd of freshmen boys shuffling along on their way to PE that day seemed to represent a good cross-section. Most of them hadn’t got the memo about skincare, and by the look of them, none believed in dressing to impress. But from what I was seeing, we definitely had a few really cute new guys that year. First, I noticed a solid-bodied little redhead who was absolutely drool-worthy. Next, a dark chocolate hottie passed by who could melt in my mouth any time. Then a tall kid with curly blond hair and rosy cheeks caught my attention. I watched them all disappear around the corner and wondered what they’d look like in decent clothes—or out of them.
“Oh to be young again,” I said, remembering how innocent I was back when I was fourteen.
Hope emerged from the restroom, popped her traditional post-lunch breath mint, and checked the strap on her bag. She toddled over, shoulder bumped me in the direction of our creative writing class, and we began threading our way through the sea of zombies lumbering along to fifth period. It was like being part of a slow-motion stampede as people bumped, shoved, and tried to squeeze their way around us.
“Are you going to watch that Peter Sellers movie on TV tonight?”
She cast me a sidelong glance. “Pff, I wish. No, we’re going to church—again. It’s our parish feast day. We’ve got rosary, followed by mass, followed by a stupid reception.”
“Your folks really are into church, aren’t they?”
“You have no idea. They’re driving me crazy. I wouldn’t mind, if they didn’t insist on dragging me along every single time they go. I mean, Sunday mass is okay, and things like Christmas and Easter are nice. But they’re fanatics over the Virgin Mary, and it’s like we’ve got to go to every freaking service for her on the calendar.”
“I guess you haven’t told them how much you like The Jesus and Mary Chain, huh?”
She laughed. “Are you kidding? They’d break my CD player and send for the exorcist.”
Turning the corner to the English and Language Arts Department, we were just in time to see Patrick Frost leaving one of the classrooms. He was a long-legged basketball player I’d had a terrible crush on back when I was a freshman. As usual, he ignored the less-than-discreet once-over I always gave him.
Hope sniggered and elbowed me in the ribs. “I thought Colby Ryder was the only one you wanted to plug your socket.”
“He is, but as a connoisseur, I can appreciate a thing of beauty when I see it, now can’t I?”
“We’ve really got to find you a boyfriend before you start sucking the lug nuts off fire hydrants.”
“Ha! Good luck. If there are any other homos in this school, they’re so far in the closet they’re behind Aunt Ginny’s corsets.”
After casting one last look at Patrick, I followed Hope inside Ms. Kiri’s room and took my seat. Creative Writing was my favorite class. If you were like me, and you wanted to be a writer one day, what could be more fun than a class where you got to let your imagination run wild, write it all down, and then get graded for it?
It also didn’t hurt that Colby Ryder was in the class too. Unfortunately, he sat on the opposite side of the room from Hope and me. But at least his seat was positioned so I had a perfect view of him the whole time.
I kept hoping that one day Ms. Kiri would team us up in pairs, and I’d get to work with Colby, although my idea of being creative with him had nothing to do with pencils and paper.
The assignment of the day was to write a short story based on any one of a series of headlines she’d brought in and projected on the board. The only stipulation was that we couldn’t pick one we knew anything about. We had to use our imagination.
That was easy enough for me because A—I had an excellent imagination, and B—the only news I followed was about my favorite TV shows, a couple of movie stars, and that hot boy band that was all over MTV.
I chose a headline about two teenagers who had disappeared, and imagined a scenario. The headline hinted they might have been kidnapped, but I suspected it was more likely they’d eventually just turn out to be runaways. Anyway, it would do.
As news of the Missing Person Alert made its way throughout Backwater County, local police spread out, searching for the two Podunk Town teenagers. The pair had been reported missing after Friday night’s Redneck Celebration Square Dance, held at the Benevolent Order of the Possum social hall. The two youths, identified as Chuck “Hotbody” Heartthrob and Wally “Puppylove” Wantaman were last seen leaving the hall at about ten o’clock. Witnesses reported seeing the teenagers walking side by side on This Way Out Street, with Wantaman drooling over Heartthrob, the star high school quarterback. Police believed the two were likely picked up by person or persons unknown, and the boys’ parents feared for the worst, believing them to have been kidnapped.
But what no one knew, and what their families would forever refuse to acknowledge, was that the two boys had in fact run away together.
Puppylove first fell for the raven-haired Hotbody back when they were both freshmen. For three years, he had grown ever more heartbroken and lovesick for the beautiful athlete. Desperate to confess his love before senior graduation and Hotbody’s departure for Jocksaplenty University, Puppylove finally enacted his plan and asked the teenage super-stud to meet him at the Possum Hall event. To his delight, Hotbody agreed.
On the night of their disappearance, standing together in a quiet corner of the hall, Puppylove came close and hesitantly revealed his total devotion and deep passion for the handsome football hero. Then, while everyone else was distracted watching the square dance competition finalists, Hotbody surprised Puppylove with a quick kiss and his own declaration of love.
Being all too familiar with the abject ignorance and prejudice of their families, and the people of Podunk Town in general, both boys knew they had to be careful. So they snuck to the exit in search of a location where they could be alone and suck Slurpees in private.
It was when they nearly got caught playing tonsil hockey by sophomore student Alan Alwaysgossiping that they made their fateful decision. They would choose the path of love and make the commitment to spend the rest of their lives together.
Hotbody suggested they steal away to his mansion on the coast where they could live off the vast wealth he had recently inherited from his uncle, Mike “Moneybags” McCallum. And with that, the couple departed, never to be seen in Podunk Town again.
And so, while the missing teenagers mystery was never solved by the local officials, Puppylove and Hotbody lived happily ever after in the exclusive Better World Villas resort.
Okay, so the quarterback in my story just might have borne a striking resemblance to Colby. And the lanky Puppylove just might have shared some features with me. So what? It was just a coincidence. Could I help it if Puppylove dreamed of Hotbody for years and burned for the chance to lock lips with him? And so what if they fell in love? I mean, that kind of thing happens all the time in real life. Just not to me.
When the bell rang, I took my time packing my things so I could watch Colby lay his half-page effort on Ms. Kiri’s desk. I even delayed turning in my own effort for a second or two longer so I could enjoy the full view as he walked out of the room.
Once he’d gone, I laid my story on the desk. Ms. Kiri immediately picked it up, gave it a glance, smiled, and shook her head. She’d always been a fan of my writing.
Hope was waiting for me as I rounded the corner.
“Let me guess. You wrote about the two missing teenagers.”
She grinned. “I knew it. You’ve got to get over this Colby Ryder fixation. What was he this time? No, don’t tell me. Let me guess. He was the policeman who saved the hapless missing homo and fell in love with him.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I retorted. “He was the star high school quarterback who fell in love with the hapless homo and ran away with him.”
“Of course I’m hopeless. It’s not like I can spend my time dreaming about my real life boyfriend. In case you haven’t noticed, I don’t have one.”
“You’ve just got to be patient. You can’t be the only gay boy here. Sooner or later, one of them is bound to stumble out of the closet.”
“Right, and in the meantime, I’m the starving orphan outside the donut shop. The least you could do is let me dream about the one I want the most, even if I can’t have it.”
We stopped outside the Spanish classroom, and I turned to her with a melodramatic whimper. “I’m so alone, and nobody loves me.”
Smiling, she tilted her head and gave me a quick hug and peck on the cheek.
“Aw. I love you.”
I sighed and laid a hand on her shoulder. “I’d be the luckiest boy in Chadham High if that did it for me.”
She smiled and slapped my side, spun around, bumped into an underclassman, and ricocheted into Mrs. Burnett’s room for Spanish. Then I took a deep breath and continued on for my physics class with Mr. Ferguson.
The last bell of the day rang. I rummaged through my locker, grabbed yet another book, and sighed. I hated having so much homework to take home, but it was my own fault. I could have gotten some of it done in study hall, but I’d spent most of the period gossiping with Ted about one of the cheerleaders instead.
I slammed the locker door closed, gave the lock a quick spin, and plunged into the stream of teenage traffic surging shoulder-to-shoulder towards the parking lot. Emerging from the building into hot afternoon sunshine, I stepped out of everyone’s way, dropped my bag, and stretched. People scurried past me, frantic to get away from Chadham High as fast as they could.
I cooled my heels near the building, waiting for Ted. He tended to be one of the last people out, and I always waited to walk with him to his car, a dilapidated old Honda he affectionately called “Baby.” He needed me to. I was kind of like his bodyguard, and the body I was guarding him from was Vickie Parker. Just a glimpse of her with her boyfriend Barry Evers was enough to guarantee Ted would sulk the whole drive home. He’d been crushing on her, like, forever. It was really pathetic, especially since as far as she was concerned, he might as well have not existed.
Ted’s brother Adrian and his friend Tyler Haynes were passing by me.
“Hey, Squirt. Hey, Tyler.”
Tyler nodded, and Adrian said, “See you back at the ranch.”
“Try to stay out of trouble between now and then,” I said.
He looked over his shoulder, stuck out his tongue, and smiled.
Adrian always caught a ride home with Tyler—or more precisely, Tyler’s brother Toby—instead of with Ted and me. After Toby got his license, he volunteered to pick Tyler up from middle school, which would save Mrs. Haynes the trouble, and just happened to guarantee Mr. Haynes would buy him that old clunker he wanted. It also meant Adrian got a ride home in the process. Nowadays, because he and Tyler were on the soccer team and often had practice after school, he still rode with them, which was fine with Ted. As far as he was concerned, Adrian was insufferable. But that was more out of jealousy than anything Adrian actually did. Good grades didn’t come as easy for Ted as it did for Adrian.
I, on the other hand, thought Adrian was nice. He could be stubborn if he really wanted his way about something, but that didn’t happen too often. And he made up for it by being as smart as a whip and having a great sense of humor. He was one of those kids who seemed to be able to do it all. He’d placed out of two freshman classes and was taking biology instead of earth science, and psychology on top of that. Smart kid.
As he and Tyler melded in with the crowd of departing students, I gave them the obligatory once-over and sighed. No doubt about it, we’ve definitely got some cute guys in the freshman crop this year.
Adrian had the same sandy-brown hair as Ted, but he wore it longer and shaggier, like a skater. I’d always thought he was cute, and that was before he’d hit that growth spurt over the past summer. Now, he was almost as tall as Ted, and thanks to soccer, he was really filling out quite nicely.
Tyler was barely taller than Adrian and gangling, with close-cropped wiry black hair. He was kind of cute in a kiddie sort of way. But while Tyler looked cute, Adrian was just plain hot. With that solid build, that beautiful face, and those rich brown eyes with the distinctive green ring in the irises, he could have hypnotized the dead.
“One of these days, that boy’s going to make some lucky girl very happy.”
As I lost sight of Adrian and Tyler, Ted came marching towards me, stuffing a history book in his bag. He flung the bag over his shoulder, barely missing some poor sophomore, and stormed off to his car. I gave the kid an apologetic smile before running off after him.
“I can’t believe old Boone’s given us another paper to write.”
“Well, I did warn you,” I said, falling in next to him. “You should have taken something else. Like you could have signed up for Humanities. You’d have as many papers, but at least they’d be about interesting things.”
“Yeah, interesting to someone like you maybe.”
We were passing the last bus waiting to pull out onto the access road when I spied her.
Uh-oh. Better think quick. But it was already too late. At that same moment, Ted looked up to see Vickie Parker standing next to Barry Evers in front of his car—a flashy import. They were having a very serious conversation, and Ted looked up just in time to see them hug each other…and to see Vickie give Barry a kiss.
Ted jerked his head away, glued his eyes on the pavement in front of him, and quickened his pace.
I rolled my eyes and shook my head. So much for a pleasant ride home.
If not for the grunge song that came over the radio halfway to Ted’s house, the trip would have been even more miserable than it was. But you could always count on Nirvana to distract Ted. On the other hand, it came at a price—Ted trying to mimic Kurt Cobain’s raspy voice on songs he didn’t know the words to.
The Honda came to a stop in front of the Douglas house. Ted waited for two cars to pass, and turned into the driveway. I followed him inside, and we wandered through the living room to the kitchen.
“Hi, Mrs. Douglas.”
“Hello, boys; there are muffins on the counter.”
Ted grabbed one.
“Thank you, Mrs. Douglas,” I said, “but I’m going to have to pass. I’m trying to watch my weight.”
I had always liked Ted’s mom, partly because she’d always been nice to me. From the beginning, she kind of figured out I was, shall we say, “different” from Ted’s other friends, but she was supportive of our friendship anyway. She also had the same brown eyes with green rings that Adrian alone had been lucky enough to inherit. Ted and his older brother Eric had the plain old garden-variety brown ones like their father. Now, he—Mr. Douglas, that is—didn’t share his wife’s generous view of me at all. He had picked up on the fact that I was different too, and he clearly didn’t approve. But other than a few random homophobic comments, he liked to pretend I didn’t exist. I guess he thought if he ignored me long enough, I’d go away.
I followed Ted upstairs to his room. It still felt strange not going further down the hall to the room he used to share with Adrian. But when Eric left for college, it was agreed Ted would take his old room, and Eric would double up with Adrian on the rare occasions when he came home.
Ted dropped his book bag on the bed and put on a Pixies CD. We pulled out our copies of Huckleberry Finn, which we were reading for Literature, the one class we shared with Hope and Doris.
We hadn’t been at it long when the phone