The two were sitting on the patio of Oliver’s mother, discussing capital punishment. They sat on a chair swing, Lee with a glass of water, watching the terrier run back and forth. Inside they could hear the chirping of his mother’s two lovebirds, Elizabeth and Darcy, who sat aside the windowsill begging for food. The lawn spread itself like a spell, with more space for the pup after the groundhog finished off the vegetables earlier that springtime.
“What do you think’s the worst way to go out?” Lee asked.
“Oh I don’t know,” Oliver said. “I suppose they’re all bad. They end the same.”
“I couldn’t fathom being hanged. The waiting game.”
Oliver asked for a sip of water. Lee handed the cup and continued, “Reckon they deserve it, though.”
“What?” Oliver asked.
“The criminals. I guess what we find so horrific is what they deserve.”
Oliver looked at him. “Deserve?”
“You know, you reap what you sew. Don’t you agree?”
“No, not at all. I don’t think anyone deserves to die.”
Oliver could recollect perfectly the morning he lost his virginity.
Lee loved to have sex at the crack of dawn. He would roll on his back, hard as a brick, and expect Oliver to climb on top. As time passed, it grew to become work for Oliver; but for the first time, Lee nestled close to Oliver and wrapped his muscles around the boy. He filled Oliver’s lungs with his sweet morning breath, his words cutting like a hot knife through butter. “I want to be with you, Olly.”
Oliver was just stirring awake, noticing the sun trying to peek through the blinds. They were in Oliver’s mother’s home. That’s where Lee lived at the time.
They had been together for months now, and Lee was growing restless. He would repeat that a boy has his needs. But sex is weird, sex is scary, and Oliver was afraid.
Yet Oliver didn’t speak a word this time around. He slipped his fingers underneath the waistline of Lee’s sweats. Everything afterwards happened like clockwork. Lee had on him the necessaries: a condom, lubricant. This made Oliver uncomfortable, like Lee had expected this to happen—it made him feel easy.
Then after they rolled around a bit, Lee was inside Oliver. It was weird for him at first, to have a person inside of him. It felt like being filled up. But Oliver’s inexperience was comical, enough that when he initially tried to be sexy and put the condom on Lee, he realized he didn’t know how to. He couldn’t take his trousers off without an awkward hop around the room. And whenever Oliver tried to pull off something he had seen in porn, Lee would know and giggle and kiss him until he stopped. But now Oliver knew that he and Lee could never be who they were beforehand—the two were committed, emotionally and physically.
When they finished Oliver began to laugh so hard he turned red.
“What’re you laughing at?” Lee asked.
“That’s it? That’s what drives all those Bible-thumping conservatives crazy mad?”
“I suppose you don’t agree with what I did.”
Oliver was sitting in a lawn chair, sipping iced tea alone with Lee’s mother.
He calculated his words back carefully. “Do…you expect me to?”
“No,” she said, “I imagine not. But I have my reasons. Things were so different. I don’t expect for you to understand it.”
“I’m sorry Ms. Flowers, but I don’t think I can understand kicking your child out just because he likes men.”
“I never kicked him out, so don’t antagonize me. I just wanted him out until I could gather what I was supposed to do about it all.”
“You kicked him out.”
“I’m not asking you to get it, just listen. I’m sorry everyday—I really am. I pray for forgiveness.”
“Who are you praying to? The same God that had you kick out your only son?”
She took a moment. “How old are you again?”
She chuckled. “Get back to me in three decades.”
Oliver thought there weren’t many standards to being a human being. His philosophy was to take a person for what makes them smile, then leave them the hell alone. People have awful lives all over, and they still manage to be good to others. He believed all you really should be is kind—that’s it.
There was a construction site in Oliver and Lee’s neighborhood, behind all the houses and up the hill. It was supposed to be a street full of mansions for very wealthy people, but construction had been halted for months, leaving behind empty foundations and storage boxes. Because Lee wasn’t “out” yet—he had a girlfriend at the time—they would have to meet in these boxes late at night. Sneak out of their houses through the back door far after their parents were fast asleep, and meet at the park, under the slide.
The neighborhood lacked any lighting, so they could slip past notice, past all the lawns with the same layout, the same maple tree behind red mailboxes, and the concrete porches where, during this time of the year, they were decorated with hay bales or jack-o-lanterns. Oliver did all this just to see Lee. He wouldn’t have been caught dead slinking around in the dust and dirt of unfinished construction if it wasn’t for Lee. He discovered quickly all the inane things one does for the person they love.
They lived two streets away, but they had never realized until long after they had begun seeing one another. Oliver lived with his mother; Lee lived with his mom and grandmother. At first, in the boxes, they used to talk. Lee showed Oliver the “Pray the Gay Away” pamphlet his grandma had handed him, and Oliver told him how he had no idea where his dad went. Sometimes Lee brought his projector and they played movies onto the wall. Then they started to kiss. And then they started to have sex, and a whole lot of it.
“We will now discuss in a little more detail the Struggle for Existence.” On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin (1859)
It was raining when Lee showed up at Oliver’s doorstep, a duffel bag of clothes hanging off his back and his short brown hair soaked down. He wore a black Metallica tee with holes at the neck and rolled up jeans. He looked so sorry, standing there. That it left Oliver wordless in the moment.
When Lee said, “She kicked me out. Can I stay with you, please?”
And of course Oliver led him inside, wrapped a towel around him on the couch while Lee sobbed.
“She told me she wasn’t going to raise some fairy,” Lee told him.
“She realized what she had just said and apologized. Then she told me to get out. I told her, ‘Ma, it’s three a.m., I have nowhere to go,’ and she hid her face from me and cried and said she didn’t care where I ended up as long as it wasn’t there.”
That night Oliver made sure to tuck himself tightly pressed against Lee. He contemplated how he would explain this to his mother tomorrow.
Lee couldn’t look at Oliver without tearing up. He averted his eyes as if the man beside him were the sun at its peak. “I don’t get,” he choked out, “How I can be made to feel so bad for loving you…I love you, Olly.” That was the first time Lee had said those three words, and Oliver became so overwhelmed he wrapped Lee into his chest and kissed his hair.
They were at a bus station. Lee stood trying to get tickets into the city. Oliver stood aside him, and when the ticket boy asked how many, Lee said two, and Oliver tangled his arm into Lee’s. Why he did so he didn’t know. Something overtook him, like the employee was questioning their relationship. They could be friends, they could be brothers. Oliver wanted him to know they were together; he was exhausted with hiding things.
Instantly Lee shook him off. “Not here,” he said. The ticket boy didn’t notice all of this.
Oliver detached himself, but not without defeat. The way he looked at Lee. And Lee—he was so unapologetic, so stoic. That all Oliver could do was breathe.
So when the two walked away and to the terminal, Oliver tried again. This time, he tried interlacing his fingers with Lee’s.
Lee did the same as before. “Oliver.”
“Why won’t you hold my hand?”
“Look around Oliver,” he said. “We’re in public.”
“Okay…what does that mean?”
“It’s just…not appropriate.”
“Because we’re gay?”
“Can’t you respect what I want?”
Lee explained it to him: “To me sexuality is fluid, like most things. Some days I wake up and I like girls, then the next day boys, then both of them the next, then nothing at all. I don’t like limiting myself to anything. That’s very confining. There’s so many experiences out there, why not try to have them all? I get the people who stick to one thing, I do. You know you get pleasure from one thing, so why bother dipping yourself somewhere else? That’s very fine, but it’s not the lifestyle for me. What I don’t get is those who have a problem if I want to try everything out. You know how sad a life that must be? To be so selfish and dissatisfied with your own life that you don’t want other people to live and be happy. I think they think God is much more strict than He really is. Why put these experiences out there that make people happy, then call it a sin? Wouldn’t He want His own creation to be happy? But that’s a whole different area. The point is, if you look at sexuality like water…”
Oliver sat at the kitchen table. His mother was cooking stovetop and he was sipping green tea.
“I just think,” his mother said, “That if two people are in love, what kind of person has the right to berate that?”
“Remember when I came out to you?”
“You told me, ‘Hell if I care who you sleep with.’”
“The first time I saw two men kiss, we were at an amusement park.”
“Is that so?”
“I told dad and he said he didn’t mind gay people as long as they didn’t shove it in your face. That stuck with me.”
“If I’m telling you the truth, he wasn’t a good man.”
“Were you in love with him?”
“That’s implying anyone really knows what love is.”
“What do you think it is?”
“I think love is commitment, more than anything.”
“I think it’s joy.”
“And it’s sex.”
“Oh we’re both adults. You know your grandmother would say something like, ‘God is love.’ At least I’m honest.”
“Do you remember when you first saw me?”
They were sitting out on the lawn smoking a joint.
Oliver didn’t have to think for an answer. “I do. You sat in front of me in chemistry. All I did was stare at the back of your head. I thought you were the most beautiful boy I had ever seen.”
Lee chuckled. “I was trying my best to forget that Mr. Hollinger existed.”
“You were dating Lisa at the time.”
“So I forced myself to swallow my infatuation. Plus I didn’t know you liked men.”
“I didn’t then either.”
“Did you ever notice me?”
“Honestly? No. Not until the party.”
“We were both so drunk.”
“But you were the first boy I ever kissed like that.”
“You were still with Lisa though. What was I supposed to do?”
“Well we ended up here, didn’t we?”
“I felt so bad afterwards. The last thing I wanted to be was some home-wrecker.”
“Lisa was a bitch. You know what she said when I told her about you?”
“She said, ‘See you in a month when that phase ends.’”
They were walking down the street. It was late Friday night. They were at a club in the city, and Oliver was a little tipsy and clinging onto Lee’s arm. Lee didn’t mind—he thought Oliver was cute when he was buzzed. He was at his happiest when he drank, and never stopped laughing. Lee loved hearing Oliver laugh.
There were clear skies, but because of all the lights one couldn’t spot any stars. Though the air was comfortable. A man passed by the couple, and he spit on the cement in front of them. Lee glared at him as he walked by.
“What a jerk,” Oliver remarked. “He must have seen us here.”
“He did see us.”
“He didn’t spit just to spit, Olly. He spit because he saw us together.”
They were waiting for a bus when Oliver said to Lee, “Being gay is like being invisible. No one ever tells you about the loneliness, the isolation of it. Your whole life is on the outside looking in. Everyone is straight and happy—and then there you are. We don’t have any spaces. They think just because we can marry, just because we can wear rainbow pins on our shirts that we’re equal. And it’s not even the straights—it’s the queer community too. We’re horrible to each other. There’s no kinship, no matter how much we say there is. I had one tell me that two men loving one another is uncomplicated nowadays. I wanted to shake her and shout, ‘What? Uncomplicated? Are you that egotistical? Can you not see?’ Personally, I think one of the biggest lies we tell gay youth is that it gets better. That narrative needs to cease. It doesn’t get better. You only learn to deal with things better…”
“Suddenly question number four popped into my mind. Have you thought about how this relationship will end?” Forever…, Judy Blume (1975)
Oliver had to practically drag Lee to the pride parade. He couldn’t grasp why Oliver was forcing him to such a thing.
“Don’t you think it gives us a bad rep?” Lee said.
“You know, flaunting around rainbow flags and camp. Everything so over-the-top. I don’t get how being outrageous and risqué will get us any further, when all we’re doing is replicating why people hate us in the first place.”
“You sound like my dad.”
“No, listen. What I’m saying is that all these gays dancing around in their tights and wigs and drag, they’re just fitting the stereotype.”
“People have died Lee, just so we can have this parade.”
“But not all of us are like them.”
“And who is them?”
“Come on, Olly. I’m just saying that I’m not that type of gay.”
“Do you hear yourself?” Oliver said. “Going out in tights and wigs and drag, it takes a whole damn lot of courage.”
“You’re not understanding what I’m saying—”
“And those gays, they’re just being themselves. And I think we owe a whole lot to them, because they’re going out risking their lives just to be who they are, just so we can exist.”
“Do you think I have it?”
Oliver was driving Lee home from a coffee date.
“Have what?” Oliver asked him.
“That high-pitched voice, like our barista had.”
“No, I don’t think you do. Why, do you think you do?”
“A lot of gay men have it. I always think it’s so obnoxious.”
“They just sound like such faggots, you know?”
At that, Oliver almost slammed his foot on the break.
The first time Oliver was called a faggot, he was walking to class in the ninth grade. The offender was no one he knew, just some kid with an awful haircut in his gym class. But with that slur, Oliver froze. You either enter fight or flight, or you freeze. Oliver froze. Everything in him shut down. He wanted to react in various ways: he wanted to sob, right there, right then; he wanted to scream; he wanted to collapse and fall apart, and never be spoken to again; he wanted to attack the kid. Most of all he felt like nothing. It was worse than any objectification—he felt like sheer nothingness, as if he didn’t fill the slightest space in the world.
The first time Lee was called a faggot, he was at a party necking on the sofa with Oliver. The offender was a close friend, said it playfully as a joke, as they had done many other times prior. “So Lee? You’re a real faggot now, huh?” Lee pushed Oliver off him and rose. He felt like the color red. No one could stop him when he slugged the boy and pummeled him to the ground, senselessly pounding at his face. Oliver lifted Lee off, but the damage had been done. He and the boy never spoke again. After the party Lee fell to his knees and sobbed into Oliver’s lap.
Oliver was alone—he was separated. The music was thumping that it shook his whole being. Every turn was a straight person pressing their body heat against another straight person. The whole situation made Oliver feel very small.
Until he entered a random room and found Lee. They had lost one another. Lee had taken shot after shot after shot and ditched him. Oliver had had an anxiety attack and was forced to gather himself in the bathroom. A bunch of girls had rapped on the door; he ignored them, and one vomited.
But now here was Lee. He could tell from the back of his head. This was a different Lee, though. This time, a girl perched herself on his lap, and with both her hands on his cheeks kissed him hard and long. Lee didn’t flinch, he didn’t push her away, he didn’t stop it. People surrounded them, dancing to the beat, not even taking notice to Lee and the girl. Then Oliver remembered what a spectacle it had been when he and Lee had made out at a party. Everyone watched and pretended they weren’t, kind of like a zoo exhibit. Now Lee fit in. He fit in silently.
Oliver dissociated completely. He wasn’t there anymore. His entire body felt as if it were collapsing in on itself, and his lungs were brimming with ice water. His flesh trembled. All he could do was rock back and forth, back and forth in the closet away from everyone else, all the stimulation. His mind and his body had separated a while ago. If someone asked his name, he wouldn’t have recalled. He remained there until he had to vomit, and the music had stopped, and everyone had left.
When Oliver’s mother entered his room and handed him the telephone, she said it was Lee and darted out. Oliver put the receiver to his ear and felt as if he could crumble apart.
“Olly, it’s so nice to hear your voice again.”
Oliver didn’t reply. He didn’t want to be called Olly, either.
So Lee continued, “It’s been months since we last talked.”
“I’m sorry for it all.”
“How have you been?”
“Why’d you call me?” Oliver asked.
“I wanted to hear your voice, like I said…” He paused. “I miss you.”
“Damn it, Lee. Why’d you have to say that?”
“Remember when you told me you loved me? We were having a picnic, and you just up and said it. I had told you it before, when my mom kicked me out.”
“But this time you didn’t—all you did was smile. You looked like you pitied me.”
“Well I did love you.”
“We’re not getting back together,” Oliver finally said.
“No, I know that. I just wanted you to know that I did love you.”
Oliver attends the School of Visual Arts in New York City for photography. There, he falls in love with his professor. The two marry and move out to Los Angeles. Oliver opens a gallery to critical acclaim, featuring various black-and-white photos of his partner sleeping. They divorce after a decade. Oliver then meets and falls in love with a geneticist, and they remain together but never marry. They spend their summers in Key West.
Lee attends the University of Pennsylvania for philosophy. He drops out after his second year to elope with a local musician. They struggle with money; Lee has to balance three jobs because his partner believes his musical career will kick off. His partner battles substance abuse, and eventually passes away of AIDS due to an infected needle. Lee chooses to remain alone and returns to school studying psychology. He becomes a moderately successful therapist in his later years.
Oliver and Lee never cross paths again, because that’s life.