Here was a church I had gone to in this town so small, there another, and there one again. Pointing them out to Marc was an easy way to fill the awkward silence between us. Each time we passed one that I knew, I kept one hand on the steering wheel, excitedly pointing my index finger through glass. I had struggled to find enough interesting things to do to fill an afternoon in my hometown: Scrabble, Starbucks, a tour of the mall, the little art museum, the churches. That seemed to cover everything the town had to offer. I had planned the park as our last destination.
In this town so small, the two of us followed the sidewalk that weaved around a play structure, like the one I bloodied in the fourth grade. Young and clumsy, I had tripped and slammed my face into a plastic hexagonal roost. I bit deep into my lip, teeth breaking and busting out. I was silent at first, then felt a stinging, saw the blood, and began to wail. Is he gonna die from this? a classmate asked my teacher. I told Marc this story as we walked, praying he wouldn’t find me boring. I told him stories of all the times I’d been to this park before: how my grandmother used to babysit and take me and my cousins here—the white ones—how friends and I still came here at night during the summer, swinging back and forth until we needed to make curfew, and about the time a nearby resident called the cops on me, suspicious of the young man in the car.
An invisible rope pulled my stomach towards Marc, though I made sure not to stand too close in this town so small. I was seventeen and I remember thinking this is what a real crush feels like. I kept my hands in my black zip-up. In the nighttime the light from the street lamps didn’t reach this far. We followed the path to one of the only areas that was lit: the little bridge near the gazebo. He stopped in the middle of it, leaning against one side of the bridge. I mirrored his actions, leaning on the side opposite from him. I stood there, unsure of what to do next.
In this town so small, the grass was still alive and green in December. Marc stood up from the wooden rail. He was directly across from me, beginning to close the gap between us. Someone from the neighboring houses across the street could see us if they looked hard enough. God could see us. Two hours earlier, Marc told me he couldn’t live in a town so small, so conservative. You have to come to Kansas City, he said. His hair was black and swirly, and hung out from under his beanie. The dark waves rolled around his forehead as he moved. This is where his heritage showed the most—the hair of his Mexican father. His skin was pale this time of year, lighter than mine, which had faded as well in these months without much sun. The trickle of the small, man-made stream looped in the background as the beginning-of-Winter chill surrounded us. He inched closer. His eyes were looking right at me. I held his glance, then looked away, not knowing what to say. I kept my hands in the pockets of my hoodie and shifted against the rail. He kept smiling and I tried to see anything but lips. His jeans were dark and skinny, the same pair he wore when we met at that college visit a few months back. His figure was petite and I saw its edges defined in the layers that hung on his torso.
“I want to kiss you,” he said.
In this town so small, my stomach squeezed into itself. I stood up straight and inched off of the rail. I thought about what to say, but no words came out. It wasn’t a question. It required no answer. The space between us tightened as he moved closer. All feeling went to my temples and I watched the place where his words left pulling in like a magnet towards me. His smell surrounded me and I felt breath and body heat.
Then I felt a boy’s lips on mine for the first time.
For a moment, I didn’t move. I took in the shock and the feeling of this pink warmth. I tried to match the movements of his mouth. My teeth knocked his. I laughed for a moment then pulled away. He laughed too, then saw I was no longer smiling. “What’s wrong?” Looking down, I shoved my hands in my pocket, and headed back to my car in silence. He followed. I fumbled the keys and got in the driver's side. Marc got into the car and shut the door. He probed, asking what was the matter.
“I don’t want to be doing anything that’s wrong.”
In this town so small, his mind worked for a response. Despite my hesitations, his presence made my heart flitter. “This isn’t a sin,” he pleaded, breath floating between us. Wanting to believe him, I asked again about his youth minister, the one he said knew Marc was attracted to men, and said that God wouldn’t care. He assured me that she did exist, that she indeed had said those things. He started kissing me again. Enclosed in the car I could smell his cologne. A little like vanilla, and a lot like the woods. He smelled like comfort and warmth. Smiling, his eyes were closed. I closed my eyes hoping to feel the same. None of this felt real. I tried to let my thoughts drain as I focused on the feeling. But I was worried about the police and the park’s curfew. I told him about the time the cops came, again. Urged him to come back to my house. “It’s your car,” he said playfully, gently.
Heat filtered through the air vents as I started the car. We left the cold at the park, toasting up. While we drove back to my house, he reached for my hand across the center console. I turned up the CD I burned the night before, trying to impress him.
“I want to know your plans
and how involved in them I am.
When I go to sleep for good,
will I be forgiven?”
* * *
Back home my parents were already asleep in this town so small. Marc was spending the night and driving back home early the next morning. We decided that we would watch a movie downstairs in the living room. He wanted me to choose. I fingered through my dad’s collection in the laundry room cabinets. I chose I, Robot. Feeling a need to explain my choice, I told Marc how my dad and I were really into Sci-fi.
“I’m really into Will Smith,” he responded. We laughed.
Where would I sit on the couch? He was sitting on one end while I put in the DVD. I thought about what I watched friends do with their significant others over the years. I sat down in the middle. I wrung my hands in my lap and he, sensing my inhibition, immediately put his legs across mine. I put my hands on his shins. We sat like that for nearly an hour. “Are we actually going to watch it all?” Marc asked. He took my shrug as an invitation and moved his head towards mine. I looked away from the translucent robot on the screen and leaned in to kiss him back. I felt a little better now. I ran my hands through his hair. It felt like cold silk. Almost like mine did when I was just out of the shower, but a little smoother. “Your Chapstick tastes good,” he said. I figured he was trying to help me relax.
“I’m afraid my parents will hear,” I told him.
He kept kissing me, and I tried to ignore thoughts of what my parents would think. He lifted his shirt over his head and put my hands on his chest. I let myself touch the hairs that sprinkled. He assured me that it would be fine, we’d hear them if they were coming down. This would stay my secret. The credits started to roll.
“Are you ready to go to bed?” I asked.
The TV silenced the room when I clicked it off, and we quietly walked upstairs. We brushed our teeth and I liked the image of the two of us together in the mirror. I peeked through the crack in the door to make sure my parents were still asleep.
In my room, I made a pallet on the floor and gave Marc the bed. I moved the Scrabble box left out from before dinner and pinned the score sheet to my bulletin board. As he watched he said he had a good time, that he was glad he came.
“Me too,” I said. It finally felt true. I was really gay now. It wasn’t like before. I wondered when we would be boyfriends. Maybe we’d pick the same school. Our parents could get along—we both had white moms. We both went to church. We could come out together. We wouldn’t have to travel far for holidays. It made sense. I was seventeen. We talked about the stars on the ceiling that still glowed dimly. My room was small, something he noticed when he arrived. I thought about the sailboat comforter on my bed, a captain’s bed, to save room. The shelves were lined with books from my childhood, board games and animals stuffed underneath.
“Are you really gonna go to sleep?” he asked.
The emotions of the day had exhausted me. I couldn’t muster a response.
“Well I’ll just come down there,” he said, laughing.
Used to his pace now, this time there was no rattle of teeth. I felt his weight on top of me. I reached up and turned the lock, just in case. Between breaths I took in his smell of chlorine, still there from his weeks of swim practice. I held the back of his head, gripping his hair and skull. He moved his hands lower and I moved them back up. He asked if I was nervous to “do stuff” with a guy for the first time. I had prepared my response to this question in advance. “I just don’t want to do any of that tonight,” I told him.
“Well, it doesn’t feel that way,” he sang.
For years I had been ashamed of my body’s response. I thought about Sunday school. A teacher telling us about his cousin who was diagnosed with AIDS. How God gave it to him, how he deserved it. About the signs those men held that said God hated men like me.
Am I gonna die from this?
Marc kissed me again before he moved back up to the bed. I stayed on the floor, then reached back up and unlocked the door.
Steffan Triplett is an MFA candidate and instructor at the University of Pittsburgh. Some of his work appears or is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, The Offing, BOAAT, and Wildness, where it was nominated for Best of the Net. Steffan is a 2017 fellow for Callaloo and Lambda Literary and a VONA alum. Follow him on Twitter @SteffanTriplett.