When Snake was nine years old, he was afraid of heights. He stood quivering in front of the Ferris wheel as the line shrunk and grew and replenished itself with younger and younger kids, all enjoying themselves as he watched.
At seventeen, Glen was too old to be afraid of Ferris wheels— or much of anything, really— and with the end of high school looming ever-nearer, his impending departure must have been weighing on him. So he sucked up his pride and agreed to sit two-to-a-bench with his trembling brother in pursuit of some sort of pleasant childhood memory.
Snake grabbed the bar as tightly as he could before his hands started to blanche. If they turned white, Glen and his parents and all of the younger kids at the fair would see how terrified he was, and laugh. Snake, a big kid, in junior high almost, afraid of a little baby ride! He would never have been able to show his face in school again. So he sat statue-still, his hands clamped to the bar. The bench rose higher and higher. The crowd got smaller and smaller.
The Ferris wheel ground to a halt at the highest point above the fair. Snake looked out onto the horizon and tried to find a sense of pride, of achievement. He'd looked a fear straight in the eyes. He should have felt something.
Snake glanced down between his belted-in legs, saw his feet swinging above the earth, and vomited into his lap.
Six years later, Snake stands under a streetlight, bright as an interrogation lamp, and tries to catch his breath. He sprinted a good two or three blocks away from Wheels' place. All he can feel is that same old terror rising like bile, and that same hollowness where his pride should be. He did it. He did it, and what did he get besides a new surge of fear? Why didn't he turn around and head home? Why? He could have left everything where it was— could have gone to sleep tonight knowing tomorrow would be the same. He could have been the same. But he had to know. He's sure of that much, even if he doesn't know anything else, if nothing else makes sense anymore. He couldn't stand another day like this. Another day or week or, hell, semester of wondering what if, of watching Wheels and wondering what any of this meant or what it would feel like.
At least he knows what it feels like now. Even though his head is spinning and his heart won't settle down and he can't quite remember how sentences work anymore, the kiss lingers in his mind. Wheels had a bit of chocolate on his lip. For some reason, out of everything, that's what's sticking with him. The unexpected sweetness.
Shouldn't a kiss have made everything clear? If it had been bad, that would have been one thing. God, he'd wanted it to be bad. He was crossing his fingers that some part of him would recoil from it. Then they could've laughed it off: Ha, that was weird, huh? Must've been the booze. Anyway, see you in French. Snake could bury all the thoughts of the last few weeks. Just like a weird dream— he'd wake up, forget about it, and move on with his life.
But no. It was sweet.
He catches his breath and crosses the intersection. Deliriously, he imagines walking straight ahead, through the night and into the morning, until he was out of town, never to return. What could anyone do? His parents wouldn't find him. Maybe he'd cross the border, take a fake name. Work on a fishing barge for the rest of his life.
Then again, macho guys like that probably wouldn't take kindly to guys like him.
So that's it? You're gay now? That can't be right. Unless it is. Maybe it is. Because how should he know? He's got basically nothing to compare this to besides a handful of summer-camp pecks. Maybe if he had kissed Melanie, he'd know for sure, but then again, if he was straight he would have kissed Melanie in the first place and he wouldn't be worrying about this now. He imagines coming into school tomorrow, heading over to the grade-nine lockers and planting one on Melanie in front of everyone. Just to see. Just as a control group, like for a lab report.
Immediately, he crashes that train of thought. He couldn't do that to her. Or to Wheels.
He's jogging down another block when he spots a payphone, tucked away, hiding behind the icy bricks. He knows he has to. He can't, but he has to.
On the third ring, he worries that maybe they've both gone to bed, that maybe they won't be there when he needs them most, that he'll be stuck drowning in his thoughts forever—
"Glen! Oh, thank God!"
"Archie?" Immediately the sleep evaporates from his voice. "What's wrong? Are you okay?"
The handset is cold and sticky in his hands.
"Archie, are you there?" A sickening wave of panic rises in Glen's voice.
Come on, you can say it. Just say it. You can tell him.
"This isn't funny, you know. It's really late and you've got me worried—"
Snake shuts his eyes. "I kissed Wheels."
The pause presses on Snake's chest. "What?"
"I kissed Wheels," he repeats, willing his voice not to crack. "I kissed him... and I figured I should ask you... does that make me gay? I'm just— I'm really mixed up right now, and I—"
"Archie, can you..." Glen sighs. He sounds like Dad when he's tired. His voice gets all scratchy. "Can you back up a little bit?"
He tries to keep it short and clinical, like a police report, but he stumbles around the point and gets caught on such stupid things. And he talks too much, because once he starts, he can't stop. And Glen listens. Thank God Glen listens.
When he's done, Glen waits with him in the silence. There's no ticking timer in the background tonight.
They wait together until Snake realizes the silence could stretch out forever. "Do you think I'm gay?"
"I don't know."
Snake wants to throw the handset against the sidewalk, to shatter it into tiny plastic shards. "What do you mean you don't know?"
"I don't know! It doesn't work that way. I'm sorry, I wish it did."
"But you're my brother."
Glen laughs warmly. It's a sound that hurts over the phone. "You could be gay," he says, slowly, patiently. "Or this could be a phase. A lot of guys have a phase around your age."
Great. That's helpful.
"Trust me, I wish I could tell you for sure— I've been there." Glen continues, "And it's not necessarily an either-or question. You could be bisexual."
The term is vaguely familiar. Maybe he heard it on the news once, or in passing in health class. "What's that mean?"
"Oh, uh, interested in men and women." As an afterthought, Glen adds, "David Bowie's bisexual. Fun fact." He could be smiling right now.
The word chafes against Snake like an itchy sweater. He doesn't even like David Bowie. "I think it's just this one guy."
"Mm," Glen replies. It's an indeterminate sort of sound. "But that's what I'm saying— it's complicated. So I think the bigger question is, what do you want to do now?"
If he could, he'd clear his mind and really think his way out of this, but he can't. "I don't want to be gay." He burns, knowing how that must sound to Glen of all people.
"I didn't ask what you wanted to be. I asked what you want to do."
As he shivers against the night air, he thinks involuntarily of how warm he'd be with Wheels in his arms. Not kissing, or even talking, but just feeling Wheels' head against his chest, like slow-dancing.
But he just says, "I liked kissing him." Even that is almost too much to say. The words feel physically heavy, pressing on his shoulders, making him slouch.
"Did anybody see you?"
"I don't think so." It was dark enough that he could barely see Wheels' face. He couldn't judge the distance between them at all. They bumped teeth— he can feel the memory of it against his top lip, now that he's thinking about it.
"Good." Glen sighs. "If Mom and Dad find out—"
Even the suggestion of that makes his blood run cold. "Do you think they'll know?"
Glen pauses for one terrifying moment. "I know you. I know you're smart. But… If they do. You can always come to me. You understand?"
His pulse rushes back into his ears as he imagines shoving everything he owns into a duffel bag or lying huddled up in a thin sleeping bag on the floor of Glen's living room. He nods, then says, "Yeah." Right, the phone.
"They won't know about tonight, if that's what you're wondering. Trust me."
Snake feels hollow as he clutches the handset closer to his ear. With his other hand, he holds the top of the pay phone, just to grab something. Idiotically, he wishes Wheels were here with him. Not to touch, really. Just because he might know what to say to smooth things over. Or if he didn't, they'd be speechless together.
"So," Glen says, "you don't have to know what you want right now, or who you are. Just… be open to things. Talk to him. And be careful."
"Okay." In the back of his mind, he remembers being very small, looking up at Glen in wonder that his brother could be so tall. "Did, uh… Did Mom call you?"
"No." Glen coughs. "Why, is she okay?"
"Yeah! Yeah, everything's fine at home. Just… just wondering."
The breeze whistles.
"Let me know how everything goes," Glen says. "I love you."
It's startling, but he instinctively replies, "I love you, too."
Then, a dial tone.
Snake does not get caught. For now, at least, he is safe.
In fact, he doesn't get busted for drinking either. Only after the immediate crisis has passed and he greets his mother on time (well, at ten-thirty-two, but the kitchen clock is slow) does it even occur to him that she could find out about that. He'd pleaded with Mrs. Jeremiah when he brought Joey home— ma'am I swear it was his idea, and it was just beer, we barely had any, he just got a little carried away but I swear everything's okay, please, please, don't call my mom I'll do anything, I promise we'll never ever ever drink again. He'd been a step away from getting on his knees in front of her and begging. But now, barely an hour after that, the idea of getting in trouble for drinking seems quaint. Boys will be boys, after all, and what teenager doesn't sneak a beer or two?
But she didn't call his mom— if she had, he knows he'd be getting read the riot act right now. She didn't call his mom. He's not going to get caught. Tonight, he burrows under his quilt and hopes the trembling in his stomach won't keep him awake. He wonders if he'll dream.
To skip school or not skip school: that is the question. He wakes up sluggish and immediately thinks of Wheels. It was a dreamless night after all, one of those where he hardly remembers falling asleep, where last night seems to have continued unabated in his mind.
If he goes, he'll have more choices in front of him. Should he talk to Wheels or wait for Wheels to bring it up? Should he pretend it never happened? Should he tell Joey— God, no. That question answers itself. He can't tell Joey. Joey wouldn't understand, first of all, and he'd tell everyone in a three-mile radius, and the rest of Snake's natural life would become, at best, a living hell.
So no. He can't tell anyone. This has to stay between him and Wheels.
Can he go to school, slap on a normal face and pretend this never happened? Should he?
Snake rolls over and decides not to decide. He falls back into that empty sleep.
Mom bursts into his room— it seems instant but it must be a good half-hour after his hazy decision-making. "What are you doing? Don't you know you have school today? Up, up!" Her voice is rising to a fever pitch.
Snake rolls over. "Mom, I feel terrible," he croaks. Semi-honestly.
She glares. "I told you the party could wait until the weekend! You stayed up all night, and now look." When Mom presses her hand to his forehead, he knows he's sunk. He prays for a quick case of the plague. "Hmm… you're not too warm, but you're clammy. Any chills?"
"I don't know." He shoves his face into his pillow.
Mom huffs. "I'll be right back— if i can find where your father left the thermometer…"
Holding the thermometer up to the bulb of his bedside lamp works so well that he's still half-convinced Mom is letting him fake it, but he tries not to look a gift horse in the mouth. He buries himself in his blankets and hides from everything.
The rest of the day is a half-asleep blur, partly dream and partly waking. The downside of being "sick" is that there's not much to do. All his magazines are old and well-read; the only book in easy reach is The Catcher in the Rye, for English class, and the last thing he needs right now is somebody else's teenage problems. So he drifts, technically awake but mainly daydreaming.
He curls up with his pillow in his arms, comfortably empty, until he's greeted with the memory of a hug. It's not even a recent one, if it's a real memory at all. There's nothing romantic or sexual or whatever about it, really, just him and Wheels sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on the couch, pleasantly close. But he can feel it lurking, that pull, that wanting. It's worse now, knowing what it's like. His mind can fill in the blanks so easily: he knows how Wheels kisses, how Wheels' hair feels in his hand, how it feels to bump teeth with him, even. He can't un-know.
He tries to brute-force it, to rewind the thoughts and paste Melanie into them, like gluing her face onto someone else's body. And he knows enough about her to conjure up some wisps. She uses green-apple shampoo— he couldn't stop noticing it mingling with the smell of movie theater popcorn on their ill-fated date. She has small, cool hands. But the wisps aren't enough next to what he can't un-know. He drifts back into a blank semi-sleep.
He's jolted awake by a police-raid type of knock, a single quick bang on the door that threatens to jostle the thing off its hinges.
Snake makes some kind of sound approximating, "Come in," blurred by his drowsy state. He sits up, pulling the blankets over himself like an old lady.
The door slams open and a folder Frisbees toward his face, hitting his headboard so fast that the whiz past his ear is faintly audible. Snake squints at the folder: FRIDAY 11/24/89 A. SIMPSON.
"I brought your make-up work."
Wheels' voice is thick with anger.
"Oh." He looks up at the doorway for the first time, and yep, Wheels is actually here. "Thanks."
"Yep." With a stomp, he turns to leave.
"Hey, hang on!"
Wheels doesn't turn around. "What."
"How was, uh…" His voice falters as he grabs for a topic. "…how was class?"
"Wheels, come on." God, he sounds so whiny, but he can't help himself.
"Can we just, like… talk?"
"I don't know," he says flatly. "I don't want your germs."
"Wheels." He stares into the back of Wheels' head, willing him to turn around.
Wheels nudges the door, leaving it open just a crack— he must know fully closed would look suspicious—and sits on the foot of the bed, back to Snake, staring at the door. Snake is suddenly, acutely aware that he never got dressed this morning. Would it be worse to have an excruciating conversation in his boxers, or to get up and try to have said conversation while stumbling into pants? He pulls the blanket up further and tries to ignore the problem, as per usual.
"Why are you doing all this?" Wheels is barely audible.
"Wait, hang on." He leans over and turns his clock-radio on to whatever station it was left to. "The walls are kinda thin, so… now you can say whatever."
Wheels scoffs. "You're a sick son-of-a-bitch."
"What? I can turn it off—"
"Not the radio." Wheels covers his voice crack with a vicious cough. "You… you… you didn't have to do any of that shit, just to… I don't know. I don't know what your fucking problem is."
"Look, I just skipped because—"
"—you tricked me, you fucking asshole, I was doing just fine and you made me think you really liked me, you knew I had a crush on you and you just wanted to rub it in and, I don't know, talk shit to Joey or whatever the fuck—"
"…You had a crush on me?"
"Wheels, I didn't…" His mind reels. "I kissed you because I wanted to, okay? I didn't know any of that. I didn't tell anybody anything. I just… wanted to."
Wheels is silent.
"I wanted to," he repeats. "I wouldn't… I wouldn't do something like that if I didn't mean it."
Wheels looks at him, finally, and swipes at his own eye with the back of his hand. "I meant it."
"So did I."
Wheels glances from the door (closed just enough) to the radio (playing some Janet Jackson song he can't quite name) to Snake (holding his breath), and gives him a quick, forceful kiss. It feels like a punch and knocks the wind out of him just as efficiently.
Wheels breaks it almost as quickly as it happened.
"I meant it," Snake repeats. He says it like a prayer; it becomes truer and truer the more he says it.
Wheels sniffles a little, but hides it decently well. Snake does the gentlemanly thing and pretends not to notice. "I don't need you to… to jerk me around, okay? You'd better be serious about it."
"Serious about what?"
He lays his hand over Snake's. "About this, Einstein."
Snake realizes that in all his what-ifs, he never really considered the possibility of more than one kiss, of more than a trial run. But of course, he realizes now, this isn't exactly the kind of thing he can fully undo. "What if it doesn't last?"
"Why wouldn't it?"
Of course. It must be so simple for him. "I mean, you know… I don't feel gay, really. You're the only guy I ever—" Wanted? Liked? Loved? "—thought about kissing. I've only ever liked girls before. I think."
"I think I like girls, I don't— it feels right with girls. You know?" Of course he doesn't. "But this feels right too. It's just different."
"Snake." Wheels stares at him so intensely that Snake has to look. "I don't care."
"You don't care?" For God's sake, he's sitting here in his underwear, exposed in so many ways, and Wheels doesn't care?
"Do you like me?" Wheels asks.
Snake could almost laugh. He imagines an origami-folded note stuck in the grate of his locker: Do you like me? Check yes or no. But Wheels asks it like it's the most important question in the world, like answering will slot a piece of the universe into place. He's watching him, analyzing his face as he waits for the reply.
"Of course I like you." Wheels' hand is so heavy on his, warm and weighty like an old quilt. "But I don't know what we're gonna do," he says, very quietly.
"We don't have to do anything."
"I mean, don't you want to go on, like… a date?"
Wheels' grin is so honest and uninhibited that it catches Snake off guard. "You want to go on a date?"
"Sure, I mean, not like a five-star restaurant or anything, but, you know, we should hang out this weekend, just us two. If you want," he says. "Although I think Joey would get suspicious."
"He probably won't even notice," Wheels replies. "But we could tell him we have a partner-project or something."
"Yeah. I'll think about it."
"We've got a date," Wheels repeats, softly, to himself. He squeezes Snake's hand. The radio sings on.