By Jose Useche
He had permanently red cheeks—rosacea. It seemed, as a baby, someone had crushed rose petals in a mortar and pestle and rubbed the dust across his face, permanently branding him as a warning. When he danced, he glowed even redder, and I wanted to be him. Every day, after 3rd period, we’d run down the halls to greet each other and lock in a tight embrace, the juvenile school of fish diverting around us in a diamond as we hugged. My root-like fingers dug into his fertile back as I inhaled pollen, propagating the otherwise barren plot that was my spine. It had hardly been 24 hours, but the interim was enough to justify such closeness. I truly missed him. And from the looks of it, he missed me.
I wanted his jeans, “cuffed”—a word and style I learned from him. The belt loop on his Levi’s was completed by a carabiner that held the keys to his apartment on the Upper West Side, and unlocked his single-speed yellow bicycle. I wanted the bike too. I wanted his elf-like features. I wanted his hair that bounced boyishly on his head as he ambled through the school building. I wanted his voice— trained, pitch-perfect, handsome, rich. I wanted to be him, and I wanted him, and I wanted him to want me, and I wanted it so bad, that it bulged out of me and somehow became reality.
I stood naked in my bathroom, texting him, avoiding the monotony of a shower and relishing in the freedom of a closed door and running water.
“I want us to get lunch tomorrow.”
“We always get lunch together, but sure.” I smiled, my eyelashes blossoming.
“I want us to get lunch tomorrow just the two of us. Like a date.”
“I can’t.” My fingers typed frenetically. Fuck T9. “I’m not gay. Everybody thinks I am, but I’m not. Sorry.”
Suddenly, the garden we had been tending turned maniacal. Flowers sprouted thorns, and grew wicked venus-flytrap-like smiles. They hissed obscenities, delighted that it was time for harvest. I sat on the toilet, indignant. Hurt. Betrayed. He wanted to whore out the cornucopia we had been nurturing—I had ignorantly imagined it was just for us. I wasn’t ready, and suddenly the cornet was anything but bountiful. It was filthy, stained with mold, and the fruit had rotted with immorality. A thick shield of vines grew over my heart, and I knew I had to pull away. No more hugs after 3rd period. No more lunch together. No more texting.
I inhaled dirt through my nose as I reclined on the toilet, fertilizing my new wall of ivy. The tank was cold against my spine, but it felt good. I was sick of hot, and needed a frost for extermination anyway. I jumped up to look in the mirror, defeated. I looked so old, and so tired. Dark circles multiplied underneath my eyes with every second, stretching down my brown cheeks, and into the sink. Despite the garishness of his assumption, I knew it was my fault. I was too tender, too invested, too obvious. Too fertile. My phone dinged.
“Are you sure?”
I read the pixelated letters over and over, imagining his voice in my ear. I thought about how he smelled like mint and baby powder, of the yellow flannel that matched his bike, and of the beauty mark on the left side of his chin. As quickly as the vines grew, a dandelion emerged. Undeterred by its feeble and delicate presence—almost pathetic against the dense, angry foliage—it spoke loudest, its voice booming against the walls of my thoracic garden. I turned away from the mirror and grinned, possessed by a plant. I grabbed my phone.
“No…I lied. Yes to a date tomorrow. But it has to be a secret.”
“Where are you guys headed?” K’s blonde hair was as straight as she was. I was bisexual now, so I could say these things. At least behind closed doors.
Much like before, I was relieved at the notion of an interruptor. I exhaled loose, fuzzy, white petals, my softness escaping, and sure enough within minutes K was crashing our first date. In World Wide Plaza, unofficially “Circle Park” to the student body, I lay my head on his lap, while K rambled on, ignorant to the bed of roses I imagined on his thighs. After school, he would walk me to Port Authority, and I would hurriedly shoo him away, anxious my mother would be making her way home at the same time I was. Once, with enough resistance, I let him walk me to my gate, but only after we kissed in a supply closet. Sap dripped out of me, staining and stickying the floors. While it felt safe to hide him, and us, Something Devious in me began to craft an even more dangerous narrative: he wanted to hide me too. Poor, ignorant, fumbling me. Boys like you deserve to be kissed in supply closets, Something Devious said. He can only help you bloom for so long.
He taught me how riding the South Side of the 2/3 train could get you out on 94th street, which made it easier to get to his place on 88th, while still being off an express line—“the 1 train is so slow.” He taught me who Regina Spektor was, and we listened to her while making out in his mom’s bed because she was “always somewhere.” I thought about how it must be nice to have a mom who was always anything. He taught me that all teachers are quacks, and that we could hold hands in the hallways, and even kiss at the bus station. He taught me that I was bad at singing, and what a spliff was. He taught me about shame, when during my first blow job—“I can’t believe you’ve never had one before”—all I could think about was my great grandmother, and how I was grateful that she would pass soon and wouldn’t have to know about things like this. I went to the bathroom and cried, and my eyes matched the exposed brick, and I decided I hated Regina Spektor and the Upper West Side.
Finally, he taught me about heartbreak, twice over. First when my mother kicked me out when I told her I was in love with a boy, and again when he told me that walking me through this chapter was “too much,” and he needed to be with someone who understood what it meant to be gay. I remember thinking “but I’m not gay, I’m bi.” I didn’t correct him because I knew that would only prove his point more, and if it sounded this stupid in my head it would sound like babble to him. Something Devious had won, and all I could do was cry in the shower, my tears blending with warm tap water. Salt, scripture, and shame making its way down my neck. Despite the moisture, it was too late—everything had already wilted. My sisters, feet away, argued with my mother moments after she stated, as factually as subway directions: “Si te sientes así, sal de mi casa.” If you feel that way, get out of my house.
Jose Useche is an actor and writer from Queens, NY. As a writer, his web series pilot SLUT has received laurels from the Official Latino Film Festival, the Baltimore Next Media Web Fest (where it won best LGBTQ Web-Series), the Chicago Pride Film Festival, and Web Series Festival Global. Jose has written jokes and questions for SCRUFF’s in-app game show HOSTING, and does communications for several LGBTQ nonprofits including the Arcus Foundation, the Transgender Law Center, and PFLAG NYC. His personal blog, Manic Hispanic, has garnered over 10,000 hits in its lifetime.