The air in the basement stank of sweat. The bodies were pressed against each other in a circle, their clothes in a pile by the door. The skin against skin caused a static electricity to charge the room. In the center of the circle two boys fought. The one light bulb illuminated the shining curves of their backs as they grappled with each other, punched, bit, grabbed. The small wiry kid who had taken off his glasses for the fight was swinging, dodging, winning. He reminded you of those scrawny kids at dodge ball, but he was fighting back. The grunts filled the room, clogging the silence up like debris in a sink. The big kid was down, he was lying on the basement floor, pounding his fist into the concrete.
The fight was over.
It was his first time in The Security. There was a bare mattress on a concrete floor, a bare bulb making everything look sterile even though it probably wasn’t. My clothes were in the other room, and so were his. He stared at me, a little tick pressing his eyebrows together in a rhythmic motion, a current carrying his thoughts. His eyes graced my dick, taking in the circumcision; he licked his lips. The sternness of his bare body impressed me, the harsh lines of his hands, the straightness of his hips. So unlike a girl. There was no softness to his stomach, just pure flesh and muscle. I drew toward him, taking my hand and running it along his stomach, softly, letting my fingertips paint his skin. He looked startled, his eyes were almost black. “Come on,” I said, “I beat you, don’t you want payback?”
He grabbed my shoulders roughly, taking me as if I were a criminal. He didn’t kiss me on the mouth, but his lips wandered to my neck, biting hard. I wanted to cry out, but I gritted my teeth and bore it. His hands toyed with my dick, rubbing it, softly, all the while sinking his teeth into my throat. I wanted to moan, to let out a groan, but I remained silent, submitting. He pushed me hard onto the bare bed, standing over me in the sterile light. He looked like he wanted to eat me whole, but was settling for fucking me instead. I turned over onto my stomach, feeling the springs of the mattress eat into my skin. I turned my head, gazing at the wall, black with mildew. He mounted me, running his fingers along my spine, as if he were conducting a symphony. I could feel his hard dick inching into me, no lube, just spit. As he bore into me, digging into me like I was a patch of fertile earth, I felt my insides go white, felt the room go white. I was blinded by his thrusts, by his breathing, by his sweat trickling down onto my skin. It hurt, and the pain dazzled me.
But underneath it all, a flower trembled inside me—soft, yielding, warm. I kept it close, kept his thrusts from crushing it, his grunts of pleasure, my gasps of pain. The flower breathed in the silence of the room, closed round itself into a bud. His thrusts were like the waves of the ocean crashing onto the shore. The rhythm governed me, held me close, kept the flower held tight. With a cry that ripped through the room, he collapsed on top of me, rolled onto the mattress, gave a heaving sigh. The rhythm receded, but some of it still lingered, whispering up my insides, making me hold the flower close to keep him from seeing it.
“That was amazing,” he said. “Alex—oh sorry, no names—I’ve never felt like that before…”
“You dominated me,” I said, “of course it felt like that.”
The bruises, flowers blooming across my skin, changing color with the seasons of my flesh, had to be kept secret. I’d come home, walk through the house, lock my bedroom door, strip off my clothes, and examine each trembling blue bud. The scrape marks on my knees, those swirls of red poppies pricking my skin. They were all a field of wild flowers, swaying as I moved, bending in the wind. My scrawny body was decorated with each fight, but only my brothers could see it.
I moved my black ring to the right finger, and smiled.
As school went on for the day, my ring would grow warm. Warmed by my blood, warmed by my skin. I sat at my desk, listening to the teacher talk about Nathaniel Hawthorne, watch his mustache twitch and bend with his lips like a gymnast on a balance beam. The windows let in the light, burning my back in its black t-shirt. All the kids around me were encased in bubbles that filtered everything coming in, some incandescent, some opaque. I wanted to flick paper pellets at them, knock them out of their bubbles, but I kept quiet, taking notes in my notebook. They had no idea what my black ring meant, and yet I was among them, blending into the crowd as seamlessly as a thread in a coat.
It felt hallucinatory, as if I’d forgotten all my clothes—and nobody cared.
“Why are you so moody these days?” my friend Izzy said, taking a bite of her apple. We sat against the trunk of a tree on the lawn outside school, taking in the sun. She had her back against the tree, sitting like a yogi would in her stripped stockings and skirt. I shrugged, taking a sip of my tea in its thermos.
“What kind of answer is that?” she said, ruffling my hair. “You’ve been looking so innocent, coming from you that’s weird. Is it a boy?”
“Is it a girl?”
“Then what is it?”
“I don’t know,” I said, toying with my thermos. “Have you ever felt like the devil on your shoulder has stabbed the angel with its pitchfork?”
“Sometimes,” Izzy said, “but they’re immortal, so they always bounce back.”
“What if your angel became another demon?” I said.
“So that’s what happened to you, you’re evil now?” Izzy said, rolling her eyes at me as she took a bite of her sandwich. “You know, you don’t look evil. You look like the same boy to me.”
“I hide it because I’m embarrassed, I don’t want people to see,” I said.
Izzy leaned her head back against the tree, staring up into the leaves as they bent and ruffled in the wind. “If you’re evil,” she said, “why did you open the door for that kid with crutches as we came out here?”
“What do you mean?” I said. “He couldn’t open it, why wouldn’t I?”
“It was the nice thing to do,” Izzy said, smiling at me.
“I’m evil in a more abstract sense…”
“Then we’re all evil!” Izzy said. “Christ, Alex, you really like to obsess about yourself. It’s not sexy, stop it.”
“I don’t want to be sexy,” I said, “I just want people to not notice me.”
“Relax then, you’re very good at it,” she said. “You look like a boy scout. It’s creepy, considering I know you.”
“Well, I trust you,” I said. “It’s different.”
The morning light fell across the room, spilling across our faces, making me squint. My French teacher stood at the front of the class, writing verbs on the whiteboard, enunciating each word as if it were a candy in her mouth. I had my notebook open, drawing boxes in a scratchy hand. The clock hands inched their way across its face, innocent of what they symbolized. Time moved as if through molasses, except that nothing stuck together.
The door of the classroom opened. A boy walked in. Tall, lithe, a flash of brilliance against the light. His hair was a striking electric blue, making him look like a flame. I noticed how small his hands were. He wore a purple t-shirt, tight, showing off his body. My eyes traveled down his face, so delicate I thought it might break if I stared at it too long, taking in his green eyes. It was then I noticed the black ring on his left ring finger, glaring at me. It was as if he’d slapped me across the face.
“Hey, I’m new,” he said. The teacher took him in, raising her eyebrows a bit. His voice was light, bending with each intonation like a reed in the wind.
“Why don’t you introduce yourself and take a seat,” she said. The boy shrugged, turning to face the class.
“I’m Simon,” he said. “I come from a land far far away.” A giggle rippled through the class as Simon walked into the sea of desks, taking a seat in the last row. I would have to turn my head to see him, so I furiously drew a box, letting the lines dig deep into the paper. Simon Simon Simon…what was he doing with a black ring? It graced his left ring finger, signaling he was a dom. But he looked so fragile, like he’d blow away if the wind were too strong.
The bell rang, a piercing note shattering my thoughts. Everyone rose to their seats in one motion, flowing toward the door to break. I shoved my notebook into my backpack, zipping up the sides roughly. Simon was making his way to the door, hands in his pockets—he should be whistling, I thought. I slung my backpack over my shoulder and walked toward him through the sea of students. He was like a lighthouse on the shore, drawing me in during a storm.
“Hey, I like your hair,” I said. Simon gazed at me, his green eyes drinking me in, the black hair, the pale skin, the plaid shirt, all in one gulp.
“Thanks,” he said. We walked out into the locker-lined hallway, moving through the students toward the cafeteria.
“So where is far far away?” I asked.
“England,” he said. “I’m not from there, though.”
“That’s cool,” I said. “I’m Alex, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you,” he said, a grin gracing his mouth.
“Listen,” I said, placing the code word on my tongue, about to let it drop casually, “do you know anything about zeppelins?”
“Zeppelins?” Simon said, wrinkling his brow. “Um…I think I learned about the Hindenburg. It sucks they don’t make them anymore, I’d ride one.”
I made my face go blank, keeping my disappointment from breaking the surface. It washed over my insides, making everything slow down, grow dim. How could he have a black ring and not know the code? I smiled, swallowing the bitter taste in my mouth. “Yeah, I’d ride one too,” I said. “Listen, if you want any advice on this place, just ask.”
“Thanks,” Simon said, grinning. He grinned with his whole body, as if he were trying to communicate his joy with every part of himself.
My heart ached.
“What would you say if I had someone new to join?” I said, shrugging on my jacket. Sid zipped up his coat, giving me a wrinkled look. He always put his shoes on before his shirt, and this was one of the many things that bothered me about him.
“There’s too many guys as it is,” he said, “why would we need another one? Does he got a nicer basement?”
“I don’t know,” I said, shoving on my backpack as I climbed the basement stairs. “But I’d like to beat him.”
“Not another one,” Sid mumbled, lumbering after me up the stairs. “You tried this already, it didn’t work. You can’t make a vanilla bent.”
“Who says he’s vanilla?” I said, opening the door into the backyard. The trees, like two giants penned up in a cage, littered the lawn with pine needles. Sid shut the door behind him, rolling his eyes at me.
“Most people are,” he said, “and you said I could run this club, so no.”
“But you haven’t seen him,” I said, “he’s—”
“I don’t care!” Sid opened the back gate. The fading light of the afternoon was getting swept under the carpet of the sky, the light bleeding on the edges into black. Sid sighed, taking a pack of cigarettes out of his coat pocket. “Christ, Alex, it’s full. If anybody could join this club, it wouldn’t be secret, now would it?”
“Maybe it shouldn’t be secret,” I said, digging my hands in my jean pockets. “If anyone could join, maybe I wouldn’t feel so weird about being in it.”
“That’s your problem,” Sid said, puffing on his cigarette, letting the smoke mingle in the cobwebs of the night. “It’s a good thing I’m running it, anyway, and that’s all I have to say about that.”
We walked along the street in silence. Lights winked on in the windows, Christmas lights twinkling against the shrubbery. Innocence. I walked on the cracks in the sidewalk, thinking about the bruises on my body, the marks that marked me for what I was. You couldn’t see them in the dark. You couldn’t see them under my shirt. But they were there, shifting as I moved, growing darker, fading, blooming. They were yellow, and blue, and purple, and black. My skin was a painting, and it told my story. These Christmas lights.
“He’s got blue hair,” I said, “have you seen him?”
“Him?” Sid laughed, a low snigger that caused him to spew smoke from his mouth. “He’s very…girly.”
“I want him to dominate me,” I said, softly.
“I never did understand your tastes,” Sid said. “He looks like a girl.”
“Shut up,” I said, rounding the turn in the road. “What’s so bad about girls anyway?”
“I keep forgetting you’re bi,” Sid said, laughing as he crushed his cigarette into the concrete with his boot.
“I don’t forget,” I said. “I don’t know why everybody else does.”
When I got home, my sister was planted in the mud outside our front door. She was wearing her favorite pink tutu smeared with spaghetti sauce. I walked up the front drive, watching her as she built a mud castle with two dirty hands. The light was edging off into the distance, and it was almost dark. Mom’s car was in the driveway, blocking it up like the boulder before Jesus’ tomb. “Hey, Angie,” I said, kneeling down beside my sister, “where’s Mom?”
“Asleep,” Angela said, smearing the mud across her lap. “I’m making a mud angel, want to see?”
I glanced at the nondescript pile Angela was calling an angel. “Very nice,” I said, “does he have a name?”
“She is called Angela,” Angela said.
“That’s your name.”
“You better come in, it’s getting dark,” I said, grabbing Angela’s hand. She followed me into the house, almost stepping on our German shepherd blocking the doorway. I had named him Napoleon in a bad mood, and Angela had liked the name. “I’ll check on Mom.”
Angela flitted off into the dark cavern of the house, trailing mud prints. Her shoes were in a heap by the door, which Napoleon guarded sleepily. I flung my backpack beside him and tramped down the hall toward my mother’s bedroom. A faint light crept into the hallway on silent feet, highlighting the half-open door. Taking a deep breath, I rapped my knuckles against the wood, mumbling, “Hey, Mom, it’s Alex. Are you awake?”
A groan ripped through the hall. “Don’t knock so loud,” my mother said, a raspy bite to it.
“Can I come in?”
“Hold on a second.” There was a rustling of bedclothes, as if of wings, and my mother’s feet pattering across the bare floor.
“Okay, come in,” she said.
I pushed in the door to see my mother wearing a sequined evening gown, her hair a mess atop her head. “Where were you?” I said. She sniggered, lighting a cigarette and inhaling.
“Frank took me out on the town,” she said, grinning, letting the smoke curl out her mouth and waft out the open window.
“It’s six o’clock in the evening,” I said, “where’d you go?”
“Around,” she said, setting herself down before her vanity. “He’s quite the gentleman.”
“Yeah? When do I get to meet him?” I said. Mother bunched her brows together in irritation, a small line forming like a fault line in the middle of her forehead.
“He doesn’t like kids,” she said, a trifle testily. “Anyway, he’s just for fun, why would you want to meet him?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “I was just asking.”
“How was school?” she said, taking a cotton ball and dousing it in make-up remover. She began massaging the cream into her face, peeling off the gilt like wallpaper from a decaying antique house.
“Fine,” I said, setting down on the bed. “I found Angie in the mud outside. Did you leave her out there?”
“Is it really that late?” Mother said, throwing her cotton ball in the trash, taking a breath of her cigarette. “I told her to go play outside, she spends too much time on that damn computer.”
“No she doesn’t,” I said, “she reads picture books. I have to hide them or else she doesn’t go to sleep.”
“I thought I saw her on the computer too,” Mother muttered, giving me a sidelong look. Her lashes were still caked with mascara, making her look a bit like a panda with her white skin. “You look a bit high strung tonight, Alexei,” she said, “what have you been up to?”
“Nothing,” I said, “I was just with Sid.”
“Is that the boy you’re seeing?”
“I’m not seeing any boy.”
“Oh,” Mother said, trailing smoke from her nostrils. “You know, every man I’ve known who said he was bisexual came out as gay. Are you sure this isn’t just you trying to shock people?”
“Mom,” I said, getting to my feet. “I’m not going to talk to you about my sex life, okay?”
“I’m not saying you’re doing it consciously,” she said, “just…you’ve always liked to remove yourself from people, been different.”
“No I haven’t, that’s you who do that,” I said, shoving my hands into my pockets. “I hate it when people notice me, I try to be neutral.”
“Neutral?” she said, dipping her cigarette into the ash tray on her vanity.
“Yeah,” I said, turning my head to face the open window. A scent of jasmine coiled round the air, sending my nostrils flaring. “People project whatever they want onto what they can’t pin down. It’s camouflage.”
“But you’re my son, I don’t think you could ever truly manage that,” she said, a smile lingering across her lips.
“I try,” I muttered, “anyway, it’s better than being an attention seeker.”
“If you can get it, why not?” she said. “If people are willing to give it, then you deserve it.”
“I’m not going to discuss this with you,” I said. “Did you have dinner?”
“I’ll make dinner.”
“Is there anything to make it with?”
“I’ll look.” I stomped out of the room, feeling like a tiger was stalking me as I went. Angela was in the living room, blasting some cartoon on the TV. “Are you hungry?” I said. She nodded, burrowing deep in the sofa cushions.
I walked into the kitchen, opened the fridge. Whoever lived her never ate here, I concluded, looking at the barren wastes of the refrigerator. An empty carton of milk. A used up jar of mayonnaise. I closed the fridge, took out my cell phone from its pocket. A text message alert flickered on the screen, an unknown number: Is this Alex? I opened up my phone, typed in a reply: Yes, who is this? A few seconds, waiting, my heart beating, a blunt instrument inside my chest. The light was creeping farther away with each second. Darkness.
I turned on the kitchen light, got a new text; It’s Simon. I wanted to ask you something.
My heart stopped, became as still as a lake on a windless day. My fingers danced across the keys on my screen, entering the words: Sure, what is it? as if that was all I wanted to ask him.
My phone vibrated: You wanted to ask me out today, didn’t you?
Sweat. My heart thudding inside my chest, beating like a fist pounding into a rock. My hand hovered over the keys, my mind furiously thinking of what to say, spinning words like thread around a spindle, hoping to make something beautiful. But then my mind stopped, and I typed one word: Yes.
The world stopped spinning. The light hummed as the text sent from my phone to his, taking up the silence like an actor moving center stage. As the light hummed I felt my head beat against the wall in time to the hum. The silence swelled, threatening to break the humming of the light. My phone vibrated, lit up like a Christmas tree at night:
Why don’t you ask, then?
I tapped the keys on the screen with my fingertips, my tongue inching between my teeth, as if I were running a marathon instead of typing a text.
Okay. Would you go out with me?
The sound of a car backfiring.
Yes. Meet me outside the Barnes and Noble at the mall at 7:00 PM tomorrow.
I look forward to it.
I turned off my phone, and the anxiety hit me before I even had a chance to breathe.
We were sitting against a bookcase in a corner of the Barnes and Noble. I noticed the way he talked, the slight bends to his vowels, as if his tongue were performing a tightrope walk. His hands moved as he spoke, tracing the air with his fingertips, and the butterflies in my stomach were predicting a hurricane. He had spiked up his blue hair, making him look like a sprite, and we were so close I could smell the gel in his hair. It made my skin tremble.
“Anyway, I’m talking too much,” he said, grinning sheepishly.
“No, it’s okay, I mean, I don’t mind,” I said, too fast, too fast.
We were walking through the mall parking lot to the bus stop, the wind shrieking overhead. A glow had descended upon me, golden, warm. It was as if I’d been injected with helium, and was floating toward the sky. Simon had taken my hand in his, and I could feel the callouses on his fingertips against my skin. His hand fit snugly into mine, a key fitting into a lock, and I could feel him unlocking me as we walked through the night.
“Can I ask you something?” he said as we reached the bus stop, a lonely pole gleaming in the moonlight.
“Yeah, sure,” I said.
“What’s with the black ring?” he said. “I’ve been seeing them on a few people around school. I’d never seen anyone else but me wearing them till I moved here.”
“Um…” my stomach fell thirty stories. The hairs on the back of my neck rose. I searched for the words, could feel Simon’s eyes on me, could feel the cold of the night freezing my face into a mask. “It’s a club,” I said.
“Really? What kind of club?”
“Um…a wrestling club.”
“I thought our school had a wrestling team?”
“It’s…a special kind of wrestling.”
“You’re just making me more curious,” Simon said, laughing. “What, is it a secret club?”
“Well…yeah,” I said, biting my cheek. Simon squeezed my hand, giving me a thoughtful look.
“Don’t be embarrassed,” he said. “I don’t judge people.”
His words fell into my ears with the resounding echo of a mallet against a gong. They reverberated through my body, sending ripples that unfroze the shame that constantly held me. It was as if I were a locked box, and he had said the magic words to open me. I gazed into his face, that mixture of sincerity and amusement, and saw no guile, no artifice. He gazed at me with a hunger to know, his eyes calm, his mouth in a faint smile. I took a deep breath, and willed the words to come out of the shadows inside me.
“It’s…well, a BDSM club,” I said, feeling the blush bloom on my face in the dark for only me to know about. “It was my idea, but I don’t run it.”
The silence yawned wide like a chasm between us. Simon turned his eyes toward the mall entrance where the bus would be coming, his face perfectly smooth, almost like a pebble that’d been beaten clean by the sea. “I can’t say I understand the appeal,” he said, “but hey, if that’s what turns you on…” He smiled, giving a vague shrug. “I wouldn’t have figured you for the type, though.”
“I try,” I said, feeling deflated, like all the air’d been sucked out of me.
“So…at these club meetings,” Simon said slowly, taking his hand from mine and shoving his hair out of his eyes, “you have sex with people?”
“Well…yeah,” I said. Simon’s expression fluttered, as if he were trying to keep his face in check.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t know if I can handle that,” he said.
“Um…” His words slammed into me like the wind was slamming into me now, all brute force and destruction, tearing me to pieces.
“Can I change your mind?”
“You’re really cute,” he said, “but I’m too inexperienced, okay?”
The lights of the oncoming bus illuminated his face. It looked cracked, a million pieces jumbled together. My heart thudded in my chest, unable to contain the sorrow I felt. The shame I lived with roared in my ears, blocking out any other sound, and in this imposed silence within I searched for his eyes. They were almond shaped, green like a meadow is green, and they looked so torn it was as if they were being ripped apart.
“Please,” I said, “I’ll…I’ll quit the club—”
The bus came to a stop and opened its doors, spilling its electric light onto us. We were being washed clean in the antiseptic glare, and as I scrounged in my pockets for my bus fare I wished that what I had said was true.
When I got home, the lights were off. Switching on the living room light, I saw Angela asleep on the couch, her mouth half-open, wistful. I picked her up, her head collapsing onto my shoulder like it had done many times before, so many times my shoulder had worn to the shape of her skull. Walking down the hall, I nudged open her bedroom door with my foot. I moved slowly through the dark, my feet coming up against invisible icebergs in the gloomy waste of the room. Unfurling the blankets, I lay Angela on the bed, tucking her in up to her chin.
My mother’s room was the only room lit up. I watched her door from the hall, making sure she was asleep. The faint sound of her snores came through the door, spiraling through the blackness like so much confetti. It covered the hallway, each snore taking up room until it was all I heard. Gritting my teeth, I walked into my bedroom, shut the door, sealed out her snores. I turned on the light, my room awash in a fake sun-glow, looking faintly aquamarine against the blue of the walls. It was like I lived in a fish tank.
I waded through the sea of dirty clothes to my bed. The numbness I felt on the bus ride home was making my insides leaden, weighing me down onto the bed. I lay there, the weights of my limbs in rigor, fossilized. The ceiling drenched in memories, in longings, in dreams. The overhead light slightly scratched. The ceiling slightly cracked. The crack in the ceiling mirrored the crack in my face, the rage breaking through, the shame peeking through. My fists clenched. I would not cry.
My face grew hot, it burned, as if there were a coal in my mouth instead of a tongue. I unzipped my jeans, tore them from my pale legs. I threw them on the floor with the other fallen petals of my innocence, my mask. Plunging my hand into my boxers, I grasped my dick, felt its skin quivering with the cold of the room.
My mind began to unwind as I gazed at the crack in the ceiling, the fantasy spiraling round my dick, making it harden, become stiff. I was standing in the club basement. I was standing naked against the light. On the bare bed lay Simon. On his bare body were black restraints pinning him to the bed. On his bare mouth was a gag, keeping his teeth wide open. His meadow green eyes stared at me, widened with fear, an intoxicating scream in the roundness of his eyes. I was standing over him, taking in the scene, my dick hard, a stone club in my hand.
I had him.
He was mine.
He was mine, and in the ecstasy of possession I grasped the whip that appeared, as if made for my hand, as if my hand were a glove for the whip to be held and I struck him across his bare stomach and I struck him again and the red marks glowed like embers in the dawn of his skin and the sweat glistened and the mouth was wide but he couldn’t scream but he couldn’t scream and the whip was in my hand and the red marks were bright they were supernovas they were making my dick ache they were making the blood rush to my dick and making it throb—
—but he was looking at me he was looking at my throbbing dick with scared eyes with guilty eyes eyes that were so green and so sad eyes that looked at my dick and closed closed in shame closed in disgust his eyes were closed because my pleasure made him sick the red marks made him sick the whip that was in my hand made him squirm inside like a torture victim I was torturing him I was making him sick I wanted him to be sick I hated him I wanted him to suffer I wanted him to feel pain I wanted the red marks to shine like rubies in his skin I wanted—
My orgasm shook me like an earthquake, making me spasm, wretch. I curled onto my side, felt the cum spit out of my dick, as if my body were rejecting the sickness I felt, the sickness that made my insides burn, made me wish I could rip off my skin and put the fire out, put my desire out, extinguish this fetish that bound me to pain, to shame, to this. This misery of wanting the boy I desired to be scared of me, to be in pain, to be humiliated—because of me. I wanted him to be my victim just as much as I wanted to hold his hand.
I wanted to burn myself.
I wanted to be clean.
My mouth twisted. I began to cry.