I was sixteen and scavenging my best friend Lachlan Lovely’s house for the Kool-Aid packets he and his older brother used to dye hemp necklaces with. Lachlan had told me to look on his desk in the bedroom that the two of them once shared, but I’d found nothing there, so now I was absentmindedly going through the clothes Merle—that was the brother’s name—hadn’t taken out of his dresser when he’d last packed for college. You could tell their mom did all the laundry by the department-store-quality folds of her asshole son’s T-shirts. There were sachets of lavender in every drawer. Eyeleted ribbon kept them cinched closed. Both brothers were spoiled—Lachlan hadn’t felt like helping me look—but I couldn’t say I wasn’t, too, when my own mom had let me paint my bedroom black.
I’d been to their house a billion times before. I thought I already knew for sure what their whole family was like deep down, so examining the logos of dress shirts out of boredom didn’t feel intrusive. Lachlan and I went to the same school, where Merle had graduated from last year. Lachlan was the closest thing I’d ever had to a real boyfriend. He was a boy that happened to be my friend. Merle was the opposite: shy in a cruel and calculating way. He made these weird, pursed-lipped expressions whenever we locked eyes. I still hadn’t forgotten how, last summer, while I was waiting in the self-checkout line at Safeway, I’d witnessed him glaring daggers at the black cashier over the five-cent-per-plastic-bag charge she insisted that he pay.
I thought I was avoiding trouble by skipping over the underwear drawer, but then I came across a weathered copy of The Bell Curve where Merle kept all his ties. One of my sisters was studying sociology at the local university, so I knew that it was a book racists liked. The area we lived in, an overwhelmingly white township in Northern California that had previously been known only for grapes and hippies, was going through a hate crime problem that attracted the ire of all the progressive newspapers. Despite this, I thought of our town as safe, because all my friends at the time were white and had never called me the n-word. I didn’t even really consider Merle all that bad. I’d always tried to convince myself he was just antisocial.
My heart started racing. I remembered the French fairytale “Barbe bleue”: how the titular blue-bearded man forbids his young bride from entering a secret room in his castle. She goes inside anyways and sees the corpses of the wives who’d come before her, all of whom disobeyed him, just as she had. I’d always wondered why he’d killed his first wife. What could’ve been inside that secret place before the corpses?
I flipped to a random page of The Bell Curve, chose a sentence, and read it over and over again until it ceased to make any sense, dissolving into random words, those words a string of letters, shapes. I hadn’t yet pinned clinical terms like “race-based trauma” to my emotions, which swirled together in my mind like unnamed colors.
There is some evidence that blacks and Latinos are experiencing even more severe dysgenic pressures than whites, which could lead to further divergence between whites and other groups in future generations
There was a tangent against affirmative action penciled in the crammed margins. I could tell it was Merle’s handwriting. I’d seen the notes he’d left to his mother on the fridge from when he still lived at home—please get more bread love you I’ll be back at four. I put the book on Lachlan’s bed with the spine splayed out to the page that’d haunted me even before I’d read it. I wanted him to see.
I tried to convince myself that Merle couldn’t be like the real hateful types who’d staged a riot in Sacramento, but I’d always sensed that there was something wrong thickening and spoiling in the air around him. I’d felt this force even in his absence, mostly at school whenever one of the meaner upperclassmen girls bumped into me on the way to Assembly.
When I went out into the hallway, I thought about going back and putting the book in its proper place. I stood there unmoving for what felt like forever.
I heard his mom coughing in the master bedroom. The soft glow of a television lit up the crack underneath her closed door. The local news was on. I heard the anchorwoman’s voice. She was talking about the black boy from the public high school who’d died. Just last week, his purpling, bloated body had been discovered in an irrigation canal near Paradise Shopping Center, a fact that had made my mom tear up when she’d finished reading the Times article about his murder aloud to my dad. There were a lot of cases like that happening, lots of dead little black boys popping up throughout the country, only this time, according to the anchorwoman, he was gay, too. A panel of experts wouldn’t stop mentioning how he’d used Grindr despite being under eighteen. They didn’t mention the murder suspect, a man who’d worn a Celtic Cross necklace to his desk job at a company that sold inground swimming pools.
The channel clicked. The Empire Today jingle piped up and, as if a curse had been lifted from me, I could walk again.
In the kitchen, Lachlan was still playing that anime puzzle game on his phone like when I’d first gone upstairs. I tried cheering him on, giving him unsolicited instructions like I did whenever we played Ocarina of Time on his dad’s vintage Nintendo. It took him ten minutes to complete the level he was on. He let me play. I lost pretty quickly. The big-boobed schoolgirl I was supposed to control tumbled off of a cliff.
“Did you find the stuff?” he asked.
“No. They weren’t where you said, but that’s fine.”
We’d wanted to make Kool-Aid Jell-O shots. We started preparing overflowing mugs of strawberry milk instead when Lachlan came up with the idea of going to a roadhouse for dinner. We made a competition out of seeing whose drink could turn colors the fastest, stirring the Nestle powder into light pink whorls that marbleized the white of the milk.
“Whoever wins has to pay for the food.”
I forgot who said this, me or him. We shared almost everything—same words, same tastes. He flashed a perfect smile. I smiled right back, showing off the glow-in-the-dark bands my orthodontist Dr. Wen had put on my braces. It was impossible to tell who won, so we called it a draw.
The happiness we both felt was so obvious and cliché to me. I’d trained myself to become so aware of these moments of pleasure that I couldn’t fully enjoy them, my gratefulness for their presence morphing into dread of their ephemerality. The memory of Merle’s drawer dangled over me like an anvil, but somehow, I kept smiling.
His mom, a rheumatic homemaker who was always asleep when she wasn’t busying herself with simple household tasks, kept earthenware crockery from Williams-Sonoma in their pantry. The mugs bore a hefty weight that made everything taste luxurious to me, even the overly-sweet milk. Lachlan and I took a few sips and tossed our half-full cups into the sink. Neither of us liked the chalky aftertaste, which Lachlan said reminded him of the bubble-gum flavored amoxicillin that was supposed to cure strep throat.
I went to go put on my sweaters, which I’d left puddled on the living room floor. It was winter break and Lachlan’s dad had just left his family for the third time. A greater absence than usual permeated their split-level. The artificial Christmas tree lay half-finished in the spot where his dad’s stereo system used to be.
The house was so small that you could hear everything. Lachlan jogged upstairs to his bedroom, opened his door, paused, shifted things around, paused again, and came back downstairs. The whole time, guilt washed over me. I tried to think of something to say as we laced up our boots by the door.
“It’s supposed to snow tonight,” I said. “Three feet.”
He cleared his throat but said nothing.
“Is something the matter?”
“What? No. Just trying to undo this knot.”
We talked about school as we walked along Main Street. There was a rumor floating around that the religious girl who’d dropped out of the grade below ours was going to a special school for teen moms because she was pregnant. I felt like I understood her. I told Lachlan that people just liked to talk, especially when they had an excuse to make their nastiness seem pure. Lachlan’s face got all serious. He breathed in and said, “I get what you’re saying.” It was a sudden change from his usual sticks-and-stones philosophy, which had always secretly repelled me the same way Merle’s bitterness had drawn me in.
The roadhouse was crowded. Everyone was talking at once; their conversations morphed into a singular droning noise that was hard to speak over. I could just barely hear “Jingle Bell Rock” playing on the crackly speakers. The floors smelled like Fabuloso. I breathed in the scent, comforted by its sterility and the familiar way the sticky residue clung to the bottoms of our boots like fly-paper.
We were able to get a booth seat. Our waitress was an older woman who said we looked adorable together. I watched Lachlan shift in his seat. He was too polite to reject her compliment.
“We’re just friends, ma’am,” I said.
“Awe. Don’t be like that, sweetie. You might break his heart.”
Lachlan and I ordered burgers. I watched the waitress disappear behind the kitchen door. Her winged hair was teased into a messy ponytail. She reminded me of a mother from a Disney Channel show, one of those perfectly imperfect TV white women whose worst crimes never went beyond burning food in the oven.
“I have something to tell you,” he said.
I froze. My mind became blank save for Merle, the contents of his drawer, and all the childhood nightmares I’d had of Bluebeard’s bludgeoned wives. I’d made myself believe people like Merle hated me for some highly personal reason that involved no one else but myself and my obliviousness. I imagined all my embarrassing thoughts—dreams of starring in movies and finally getting even with my mother—were leaking out of my head and into the air, poisoning everyone’s perception of me. I couldn’t conceive of a better reason for why my math teacher Mr. Andersson pretended not to see me when I raised my hand, or yelled at me if I talked out of turn. The mystery of their contempt–racism–felt as esoteric and immaterial as folkloric theories blaming Bluebeard’s first act of domestic violence on original sin. I believed my life was too complicated to be explained away by critical theory, or simply, racism. In my mind, I was the first person to have ever experienced what I was going through. I was one of three black kids in my grade, one of two black girls. I was the only person I knew who cried in the shower, who had dark skin but also pin-straight hair, who’d cut herself trying to shave with a paring knife, or who rubbed hand sanitizer onto the parts of her body that an older cousin had grabbed onto two, maybe three summers ago.
Lachlan cleared his throat. The sound startled me.
“I have these dreams,” he started. “They’re always with attractive men.”
He never used the word gay. Lesbian, gay, queer, sex, feminism—these words felt off-limits to us at the time, too adult, too intellectual. Still, I understood.
“That’s awesome,” I said. “Please just be safe.”
“How does it make you feel?”
“Happy? I mean, you don’t have to pretend to yourself anymore.”
“Is that a good thing?”
So many people at school were convinced we were a couple because our friendship had become more consistent than most high school romances. Their conviction had only grown stronger after he broke up with his ex, a mousy girl who went by a boy’s name because her real one took too long to say. I suddenly thought of how, on the last day of midterms, a few days before the breakup, she’d widened her eyes like a spooked deer when a senior girl hurled a chunk of ice at my face by the bus stop. My breathing got fast remembering the stinging feel of the cut that’d formed, which hadn’t hurt half as much as Lachlan later telling me it had all been an accident even though he hadn’t even been there to see. I didn’t know what to make of his ex. She was Chicana, light-skinned with an aquiline nose and sin-black hair that ran down the length of her back, but, at the time, I was too polite to associate a person with their ethnic background.
“Is that why you broke up with your ex?” I asked him. “Because of what you realized about yourself?”
“Hmm.” He mimed stroking an invisible beard, which made me laugh. “That was so long ago.”
“It was November, Lachlan. Last month And you still haven’t told me the reason.”
“Okay, okay. Yes and no. Yes, we broke up because I never really felt anything with her. And no, because I would’ve still stayed friends with her if she hadn’t acted all weird the last time Merle was home. She started this political thing that totally set him off.”
“She’s pretty meek. Sometimes I forget she even goes to school with us.” I touched the faint scar on my cheek. It didn’t sting anymore but I flinched anyway expecting to feel something. “Pretty sure most people do.”
“Yeah, I guess. But I have to support Merle. We’ve been through so much together, you know. More than you can imagine.”
My mom had taught me to never get involved with other people’s relationships, which was why I’d always tried my best to avoid looking Lachlan’s parents in the eye.
The waitress came back with our waters. I tried to take a sip. It was a struggle to swallow. The environmentally-friendly paper straw went pulpy in my mouth. I wondered if Lachlan had seen the book at all. I kept searching for the answer in his face until I remembered that Merle was coming home next week. Lachlan had told me, but I’d forgotten up until now. All at once, the smell of cooking burgers, burning flesh, made me ill.
In a way, the kids from school were right; Lachlan and I fit the definition of a couple, but that still didn’t mean we were one. We’d been having secret sleepovers at his house since middle school when we first met, slowly falling asleep in his parents’ spare bedroom as we talked about what the world might be like in a thousand years. He believed there’d be a cure for cancer and teleportation machines, and I believed that World War III would end humanity in fifty years.
A few weeks before I’d made the mistake of opening Merle’s secret drawer, Lachlan and I made out at Winter Formal. We’d just come from pregaming with all his teammates from the swim team in the captain’s backyard. Top 40 music blared in the gymnasium. Lachlan’s lips tasted like orange peels, probably the orange-flavored Chapstick I’d given him. I felt the same awkward, mushy feeling I’d had with my first kiss, which was with a dreadlocked boy from the Novato Horeb Haitian Company whose grandparents were being deported. He told me that he’d always been curious about how I looked without any clothes on.
In that moment, I only noticed Lachlan’s ex sitting alone on the bleachers with her cocktail dress hiked up awkwardly around her knees. But on the taxi ride to his parents’ place, as the tipsy haze of cheap beer lifted from my eyes like a veil, I remembered all the other faces that had stared blankly from the semi-darkness. Some of them had been older: blandly dressed chaperones. I tried to pick out their faces individually, but they were all just a whir that swam beneath Lachlan’s ex.
The intimacy I shared with Lachlan was a one-time thing, an experiment. As a test, we tried having sex in his bedroom that night. His mother was too deep in an Ambien-induced slumber to care. He tasted like citrus all over, like a clean floor. He seemed like two separate entities. Staring into his eyes, all I could see was the sexless image of Lachlan, a boy from school who eagerly dedicated all of his free-time to the Seventh-day Adventist Church and Pokémon. And hidden in the darkness of his grandmother’s handmade quilt was the rest of his body, an incubus that made me come so violently that I lost myself, forgetting that Lachlan was even in the room at all. The incubus jabbed his fingers inside of me and I realized that I could alchemize the pain of their presence into pleasure simply by letting go. He kept going soft in my hands and mouth, and after a while I gave up and let him touch me without reciprocating. I was new to sex, greedy to be felt as much as possible.
“How did it go for you?” he said when he stopped.
“To be honest, more sensuous than sensual.”
“There’s a difference?”
“Yeah. Sensual is more romantic. Sensuous just means you felt something good, but not romantic-good.”
“Weren’t you in Ms. Nowak’s class last year? That was all she talked about in my section when we were going over Bovary.”
“That class was the bane of my existence. She only gave As to people she agreed with.”
“How was it, by the way? Just now, I mean. Not school.”
He made a vague motion with his hands.
I spent the night at his place without thinking anything of what we’d done. We slept until noon and made blueberry pancakes for brunch. Merle was home for the weekend to see off their dad before he moved out. Cardboard boxes waited idly in seemingly every room of the house. Merle walked into the kitchen and started talking to Lachlan about video games as if I wasn’t even there. Lachlan didn’t seem to notice. I stared at the floor and listened to them laugh at an inside joke Merle told about a comic book I’d never heard of.
After an hour or so, I went home without a good enough lie to explain away my absence. My parents smelled all of my sins on my breath, discerning not just the alcohol but also Lachlan, a boy of whom they’d always been suspicious. For the umpteenth time, Dad told me the cautionary tale of his aunt who’d thrown her life away, children and all, for a man who’d only wanted to use her body for sex. Mom made me clean our already spotless kitchen as a character-building exercise, too progressive to outright admit to punishing me. I still associate the eggplant color of the Fabuloso bottle with a longing type of sadness unique to my childhood. Its nostalgia feels as bittersweet as the fairytales, TV shows, and toy commercials from my youth, all of which provided fantasies so realistic that some part of me eventually became convinced I’d experienced them firsthand.
I came to believe the things people thought about me and Lachlan. In my mind, being punished for a deed made that deed automatically true. He was a white boy going out of his way to choose me, a fact he often complained his friends from the swim team wouldn’t let him forget, especially whenever he was about to eat something that was around the same color as my skin but usually much darker—chocolate, coffee. All consumable things that never lasted long.
“Should I tell my parents?” he said. “Merle thinks I should. Parents first and then everyone else.”
We’d left the restaurant after splitting the bill. We walked aimlessly through the township with no destination in mind, too reluctant to part just yet. We chose where to go based upon which intersections gave us a walking signal first. It was starting to get dark. The sun lowered itself over the horizon, turning the whole sky pink. We passed by Paradise Shopping Center. Of all the stores, the 24/7 laundromat was the only one still open.
“You already told Merle?” I asked.
“Of course. I told him after Formal.”
Last year, Merle had graduated from school a year early because he was a genius of sorts. A parenting magazine had profiled him when he first got accepted into that selective engineering college in SoCal. The school had only nine black students in its freshman class. According to a different magazine, the security guards there kept pictures of them so as to better know who among the campus’s predominantly black neighborhood actually belonged. I’d convinced myself that Merle wasn’t that bad based on the things Lachlan told me about him. He was a meteorology major who believed in global warming. He had a half-Japanese, half-Jewish girlfriend named Earth and a “Hate has no home here” poster that he kept in his dorm room. He had Lachlan.
“I think you should tell them,” I said. “Your parents, I mean. But only if you want to. I want to say I know them well enough to say they’d be fine with it, but I’m just not sure anymore.”
“It’s not that I think they’ll kick me out, though.”
“Then what is it?”
“I just don’t want their perception of me to change. I don’t want to be ‘the gay son.’”
Lachlan grabbed my hand and for a moment, I forgot myself.
He led us to a small park he told me he used to go to back when his parents’ marriage had first started to crack. It was almost empty; all of the children had gone home. We stood beneath a poplar tree. We had a habit of doing this: standing around waiting for the other to leave first, extending our time together for as long as possible.
A girl around our age and an older man with flowy Jesus hair sat on one of the benches nearby. She wore hoop earrings and a Victoria’s Secret hoodie that swallowed her short-shorts. She kept pumping her legs as if she expected the bench to take flight like one of the swings. Both of them were laughing. I wondered if the girl was secretly thinking the same thing as I was: that her mom was going to give her hell when she inevitably came home late. They were white, but so were most of the people I’d grown up around.
When the girl saw me, she stopped to wipe her nose. She pointed at us. A Doberman was lounging at her feet. Its eyes lit up when it saw us, its slobbery mouth wide and welcoming.
“Aw, look at the dog,” Lachlan said. “He’s smiling.”
I didn’t trust the way the man kept smirking at us. I felt something in the air choking me. I had to let go of Lachlan. I took off one of my sweaters so I could breathe right. The couple with the dog started whispering to each other as I tied my favorite chenille sweater to my waist. I felt a sudden guilt assuming that they were a couple. Still, the fear bubbling up inside me refused to go away.
“What’s on your mind?” Lachlan asked.
I was thinking about Merle and the drawer but also Formal, Lachlan’s ex’s stares, the strawberry milk. The couple wouldn’t stop looking at us; even when I turned away, I could feel their eyes trained on me. I tried to open my mouth to talk but started crying instead.
Lachlan hugged me. I tried to pull away, but then he buried my face into his chest.
“Why’re you upset?” he asked. “Come on, you’re scaring me.”
“I can’t be friends with you anymore,” I said. My voice was all muffled.
He stopped breathing for a second. I could hear his heart beating through the layers of his ski coat. He pulled away.
“Merle,” I said. “Merle’s a racist. I saw. In his room. He had this racist book and I put it on your bed because I wanted you to see.”
“Is that why you’re upset?”
I nodded my head.
“Merle reads everything. It doesn’t mean he believes what it says.” He laughed. “Everything’s going to be fine.”
He stepped back to put his hands on my face. They felt like ice. I was barely listening to him. “Everything’s going to be fine,” he kept saying. “Listen. Look at me. Everything’s…”
From above Lachlan’s shoulders, I could see the man walking over to us. He was still smiling. My whole body focused on his. Time slowed. I tried to pull away from them both, but then Lachlan reeled me into another stubborn bear-hug.
The man held an Evian bottle of something yellowish in his hands. He’d probably found it in the trash. I saw him pull back his hand and for a second, I thought that maybe he was only going to pretend-throw it at us. The bottle gleamed underneath the tepid glow of the streetlights. Its cap was gone.
A sticky liquid splashed us, releasing the scent of wet pennies and human must. When Lachlan finally let go of me, the man was already halfway down the street. I turned towards the bench, but the girl and her dog were already gone.