Chapter Ten: The Importance of Being Alex
Sometimes, it takes a long time for you to realize that something’s not right. For instance, when I was six, I fell out of a tree and landed on my head. I climbed to my feet, threw up, stumbled around for a while, then got back to playing. I didn’t give it a second thought until Mom saw that one of my eyes had changed color and took me to the hospital. All that time with a concussion, and no idea that anything was wrong.
Other times, things can be the totally, blatantly, staring-you-in-the-face kind of wrong. Seeing Alex wearing the uniform of the wealthiest, most renowned private school in town was one of those.
Most guys would probably have a hard time thinking of the right thing to say in a situation like this, coming face-to-face with something that directly contradicts their beliefs. Not me. Once again, my instinctive way with words took charge.
“Oh. Uh…hey.” He said. He walked past me, into the restroom. I decided I couldn’t let him just walk by without explaining, so I followed him in. He was standing at one of the urinals.
“So…” I said, and he looked over his shoulder. “I’ve got to ask, you know?”
“Yeah…I guess I kind of go to school here.” He shrugged.
“Okay. Now, this is probably going to sound like a funny question to ask, but…you’re not homeless, are you?”
“I guess that depends.”
“How you define ‘homeless’.”
“I always thought ‘without a home’ was pretty accurate.”
“Well…I mean, what’s a home to you?” He zipped up and went to the sink to wash his hands.
“Do you live in your van or not?” A bit terse, maybe, but he was talking in circles.
“Corey thinks you do.”
“Yeah. He also thinks that it’s a secret.” He had the nerve to look annoyed.
“Why would you tell him that?”
“Well, I had to tell him something.” He spread his arms. “He kept asking.”
“You couldn’t tell him the truth?”
“That my parents are loaded? That my dad’s on city council, and wants to run for mayor?” He snorted. “Right.”
“How am I supposed to be in a punk band, playing songs about working-class pride and fighting against the government when my parents are the government?”
“Why’s it matter what your parents do? You can’t judge somebody on that. The others know that, and they know what you stand for.”
“Yeah, now. You think that on the day of auditions, if I had come in wearing this,” He pulled at his jacket, “That they wouldn’t have laughed me out of the place?”
“Well, that’s the difference between you and me. I know. They would have taken one look at me and kicked me out.”
“You really think so?” I hadn’t picked up that kind of vibe at all.
“You haven’t been around the scene as long as I have. You ever read any of those books that Corey’s always talking about? Or listen to any of the DIY bands? They’re all about making it on your own – giving all your money to charity and living as, basically, a hobo with principles. That’s what they look up to. Not rich kids who go to private school.”
I took a few moments to digest that. I’d heard some of the songs he was talking about, and had heard the others mention things like it, but still couldn’t bring myself to believe that they believed that strongly in that kind of a lifestyle that they would immediately ostracize anyone who fell short of it. While I didn’t know anything about “the scene”, I knew the people, and they weren’t like that.
“Uh…you’re not going to say anything, are you?” He asked.
“What, about how you’ve been lying to everybody?”
“You told us that you don’t go to school.”
“Yeah, okay, there’s that…but that’s nothing big.”
“So, that’s your plan? You’re going to say ‘Hey, I’ve been completely deceiving your friend here, but I haven’t been lying to the rest of you about anything too big.’ Yeah, that’ll go over well.”
“It doesn’t have to go over well,” He said, “Because you aren’t going to tell anyone.”
I sighed. “Look, I don’t care if you want to lie to people. That’s you. Whatever. But not telling Corey about this would be the same as me lying to him, and I’m not going to do that.”
His expression widened into a convincing puppy-dog look. “But…please? Help me out, just this once?” He was trying to play me, but I wasn’t having it. Not after that night in the basement. Not after this.
I shook my head and started to walk away, but he grabbed my shoulder and spun me around, forcefully. Then, before I knew it, his lips were on mine.
Now, I understand that how the body reacts to physical stimuli revolves around chemicals and nerve endings and all kinds of stuff that I was supposed to have learned, had I paid better attention in Biology. I understand that my hormone-riddled self couldn’t be blamed if it started stirring, since chemicals and nerve endings, while being very good at what they do, have little consideration for interpersonal relationship-politics. Had I started to kiss him back, I think I probably could have forgiven myself.
Thankfully, I never had to find out, because instead of kissing him back, I shoved him. I put both hands against his chest and pushed, propelling him back a few feet. Not hard enough to do any damage, but hard enough to send a message.
“What are you doing?” I took a step back.
“I was thinking…” He smiled, stepping forward, “That maybe if you’re willing to forget seeing me here, I might be willing to forget our little talk in the basement last week. Maybe…give you another shot.”
“Give me another shot?” Were it not so firmly attached, I think my jaw might have put a dent in Weldon-Taft’s fancy waxed floors. “Are you serious?”
“Sure. I’ll forget if you will.”
“I…don’t think you understand what I was asking. You seriously think that I’d want another shot with you? That I’d give you one?”
“Don’t talk down to me.” He said.
“You’re making it really hard not to!” I remembered our surroundings and lowered my voice. “You lie to everybody, you take advantage of Corey, you pull this half-assed seduction thing on me – twice, now – and you still think that getting the chance to be with you could be used as some kind of bribe? Who the fuck do you think-”
“Shut up.” He hissed. “You don’t know anything. Just shut up.”
But I couldn’t stop, I was on a roll. Everything – all the doubt and insecurity and fear that I had felt, whether he had anything to do with it or not, was pouring back out in the form of pure rage. I wanted to hurt him.
“Who do you think you are, huh? You told me you can’t respect someone who isn’t true to themselves, so what’s that make you? You’re pretending to be homeless – why, because it’s more fashionable? Because it’s more ‘punk’? This whole time, I thought I was the poseur. I thought I was the one who didn’t belong. But look at you! You’re nothing but image.”
“Fuck you!” He stepped closer, threw his weight behind his fist, and took a swing at me. His fist sank into my stomach, knocking the wind out of me. I fell to one knee and grabbed my stomach. “You think I like it? You think I fucking like it?”
I got back enough breath to swing back at him. When I missed, he grabbed my by the collar and tried to pin me against the wall, but I kicked him hard in the shin. A cheap shot, probably, but small guys like me have to take what we can get. I shoved him, harder this time, and then landed a punch of my own. I ended up hitting him in his collarbone, hurting myself at least as much as I hurt him.
He fired off a few jabs at my midsection. They weren’t too hard, but they were fast enough to keep me from getting in any shots of my own. In desperation, I threw myself against him, knocking us both to the floor.
I don’t think anyone would have mistaken either of us for experienced fighters. The closest I’d come to a fistfight was reading about one. The way Alex was holding up, it looked like the closest he’d come was in a mosh pit. The fight disintegrated into the two of us rolling around on the floor, swinging our fists whenever we could, but rarely connecting with anything worthwhile. Normally, I’d advise against rolling around on the floor in a school’s restroom, but this was Weldon-Taft, so the floors were spotless.
I’m not sure how long it lasted. Everyone else was out in the lobby, hob-knobbing or schmoozing or whatever it is that people do at events like this, so no one came in to break it up. Eventually, we both got tired and ended up leaning against opposite walls, sucking in air and rubbing the sting out of our bruises.
“You…okay?” Maybe that’s a strange thing to ask somebody you were just trying to beat up, but it just slipped out of my mouth between breaths.
He nodded, air hissing out from between his teeth. “Yeah…I’m all right. You?”
“Fine. Sorry. Went too far.”
“Yeah. Me, too.” He paused. “So…is it Corey? Do you like him or something?”
“Not like that. Just seemed…unfair. Remember when he cornered me to make sure I didn’t have any problem with you being gay?”
“And the other day, he cornered me again. He thought we were still dating…and that I was going to break up with you, because of you being homeless.”
I laughed between breaths. “He was…about ready to throw me out of the car.”
Alex was silent.
“He just…looks out for you, you know? Like…”
I was about to say “like a brother”. More specifically, like my brother. Now that I thought about it, Corey reminded me of Mark in a lot of ways. He was a little more political in his rebellions, sure, but there was no question about it – he was an unmatched-socks kind of guy. Maybe that’s why I seemed to fit in with him so easily, despite being cut from a completely different cloth. Maybe that’s why he approached me after hearing me deliver one of my brother’s rants at the Cursives meeting. Maybe that’s why I started hanging around with him right after Mark left. And maybe…maybe that’s why the idea of anyone lying to him seemed so unthinkable.
“I know. And I appreciate it, really, but I keep telling him not to worry about me. I can take care of myself, you know?”
“Take care of yourself? You could barely handle me.”
He grinned. “I was holding back. Didn’t want to mess up that pretty face of yours.”
“Oh, right.” I smiled back. “Well, thanks for that.”
“Any time.” He laughed, and I couldn’t help joining him. “I…I really don’t take advantage of him, you know?” He said, looking serious again. “I don’t let him give me money or anything.”
“I didn’t mean for it to happen like this.” He said. “I just wanted to play in a band. That’s it. There’s no way my parents would have let me. They don’t even want me going to concerts. Never get elected if their family isn’t perfect, and the kind of people who go to those shows don’t fit their idea of perfection. So…if I wanted to do anything that was important to me, to be myself, I had to be…somebody else. Alex. That’s my middle name, by the way.”
“Harrison Alexander Wright.” He nodded. “Good to meet ya.”
“Oh…like, Niles Wright?” I recognized the name immediately. His dad got on the local news an awful lot.
“Yeah. See why I couldn’t go by that?”
“So…yeah. I’ve even been lying about who I am, even down to my name. Some individualist I am, huh?” He snorted.
“Well…” I said, thinking back to something he had told me before. “Names don’t matter. Isn’t that what…uh, Erik Eriksson said?”
“Erik Petersen.” He grinned. “But he probably wouldn’t mind if you mixed up his name, since it doesn’t matter.”
I was glad to see him smile, even though a few minutes ago I had wanted to knock his teeth out. I don’t even make sense to myself, sometimes.
I pulled myself up and looked in the mirror. I was a mess. “Aw, man.” I brushed some of the dust from my shirt. “Well, at least you didn’t give me another black eye. I don’t know if I could have explained two in the same week.”
“Hang on.” He climbed up and walked over, straightening out and brushing off the back of my shirt. When he finished, I did the same for him. “So…are you going to be there with me? When I tell them?”
“Everything. If I don’t tell them, you will, right?” He took off his jacket and shook the wrinkles out of it.
I sighed. “I don’t want to do it to get to you or anything. I just…I don’t want to get caught up in having to lie to everybody. I mean, if they ask me…”
“I know.” He said. “See, I’ve been into punk since I was a kid. Not just the music, but the whole culture. The whole ideal of being yourself, no matter what anybody else says. All these people that I look up to…that’s what they stand for. That’s what I should be doing.”
“Well…you don’t have to tell them everything. You can leave out the part about me kicking your ass, if you want.” I smirked at him.
“You mean the part about me kicking your ass? Yeah, I’ll leave that out, if you don’t want everybody to know. There’s no shame in getting beaten by the best, but still…”
“Hey, don’t push it.” I raised my fists and glared. “You don’t want a bowl of this. I got twice your daily recommended allowance of Bran, right here.”
He laughed. “Oh, wow. That’s the least intimidating thing I’ve ever heard.”
I dropped my pose. “Yeah, well…we should probably get back.”
“Yeah. Um…see you later.”
We headed back for the lobby separately, and I didn’t know about him, but my brain was running circles around itself. I had just gotten into a fight with Alex, and for the first time since I had met him, I knew exactly where my feelings for him stood. I knew, just as I had known that night in the basement, that he wasn’t what I wanted in a boyfriend, and that I probably wasn’t what he was looking for, either. But, unlike that night, I didn’t hate him. Maybe I should have. Maybe it would have even been reasonable for me to hold everything against him, but I couldn’t. That fight had drained every pent-up ounce of anger that I’d held on to, along with every remaining drop of romantic feelings for him, and left behind only the truth of how I felt. A clear picture of what he meant to me, without any of that emotional baggage cluttering the view.
He was my friend. That’s it. That’s all I wanted from him, and that’s all I wanted to be to him. It was obvious that things weren’t easy for him – people don’t usually try to create separate identities if everything is going well – and I wanted to help as best I could, but I knew that when it came down to it, there wasn’t a lot that I could do. I didn’t know anything about his home life, and even if I did, I’m not a therapist or anything. The best I could do was stand by him, stick up for him when he needed it, and maybe knock some sense into him when he started acting like a jerk.
The third and final round had ended by the time I had made my way back to the lobby.
“Where’ve you been?” Dixie’s mom asked.
“Well, you look like you fell down a flight of stairs.” She said, straightening out my collar.
I shrugged. “Hanging around with high society can do that, I guess.”
A bell went off.
“Hey, that means judging’s done.” Dixie said.
We followed the rest of the crowd into the auditorium. Like the rest of the school, the auditorium was fancy and modern looking, with comfortable movie theater seats and a huge stage with an orchestra pit. The judges, three well-dressed people who you could easily picture wearing monocles, were seated at a table on the right of the stage. One stood up, snapped a microphone to her collar, and walked to center stage.
She announced the categories – things like “best use of vocabulary,” “most descriptive,” and “best structure.” She then launched into a speech about how truly excellent all of the entries were, and how the judges had a difficult time picking winners from such an outstanding group of young writers. I don’t think anyone in the room doubted that this was what she said at every one of these competitions, but we all applauded, just the same.
I wasn’t paying close enough attention to hear which schools won which awards, just that Dixie didn’t win any. She didn’t look disappointed, though, and she said she was happy just to get this far. After the awards ceremony, we were dismissed. The private school kids and their parents hung around to schmooze a bit more, but we made for the door almost immediately.
“So, did you have fun?” Dixie’s mom asked her, once we were in the car.
“Not really. I probably won’t do it again. Not one of these single-representative things, anyway. Only if the rest of the team goes, like we usually do.”
“That’s too bad.” Her mom said. “Well, at least now you know.”
More was probably said, but I didn’t hear any of it, because I fell asleep in the back seat.
My birthday was coming up. I would turn sixteen in just a few days, which meant I’d be able to get my license. And, on top of that, Mark was going to be back by then, for spring break. I was hoping that most of the dramatics would blow over by then, so I could enjoy it. Luckily, Alex wanted to get it over with, and on Monday, we were backing into Scott, Sarah, and Carl’s front yard in his van.
“If they decide to run me out of town, you can get a ride back with Corey.”
“They’re not going to run you out of town.” I said. “But just in case, do you have the address of a safe-house? Or at the very least, some kind of spider-hole?”
“No, I’m serious. Because, what if they decide to put bounty on your head? After they run you out of town, you’re fair game.”
“And you might want to actually change your name again, just to make sure they can’t trace you. Something like Niles Gnightly. With a G.”
“I get it, already.” He groaned.
“You sure?” I said. “Because I can keep going.”
“I get it.” He repeated, following me inside. I think it was the first time he ever followed me, instead of the other way around.
When we got downstairs, I saw that Corey and Scott were playing cards on the coffee table while Carl and Sarah were arm-wrestling. Just as we stepped in, Sarah pinned him and stood up, arms raised.
“Told you!” She said.
“Doesn’t prove anything.” Carl muttered. He looked at us and perked up, looking glad to have any distraction. “Hey, Alex and Brandon are here.”
“Yo.” Scott said, not looking up from his cards.
“Um…” Alex grabbed his left elbow with his right hand, absently crossing his torso. “Hey, Cor? Can I talk to you for a second?”
“Huh? Yeah, sure.” Corey placed his cards face-down. “Bran, you want to take over for me?”
“What are you playing?”
“Speed. Ever play it?”
“That’s cool. I’m losing, anyway.” He grinned, following Alex upstairs.
I took his place at the table and picked up his cards. Scott made a lot of quick moves involving picking up cards, slapping them on the table, then picking up more. After a few of these, he raised his palms toward me.
“Do I go now?”
“You just lost.”
“Here, I’ll show you.” He said, gathering up the cards and shuffling.
I didn’t keep track of how long Alex and Corey were upstairs, but before I heard from them again, I had learned how to play Speed. Meanwhile, Carl and Sarah had started playing against each other, and Carl had lost two games already.
He shook his head. “Man, I’m doing bad today.”
“I told you, you’re cursed.” Sarah said. “Jinxed. Hexed. Bewitched. It’s impossible for you to win anything when you’re below ground level.”
“No,” He insisted, “I told you, it doesn’t prove anything.”
“Yeah, you keep on doubting my subterranean bad-luck curse. That only makes it more powerful.”
“There’s no such thing…and you don’t even believe in that stuff!”
“I know.” She said. “It’s much better this way. If I actually believed in it, I’d have to follow some kind of rule about it. This way, I get to make it up as I go.”
“Scott,” Carl gathered up the cards and started shuffling. “Make your sister un-curse me.”
“Sarah, don’t curse Carl.”
“Why not?” She pouted.
“Because you’re giving him an excuse for his losing. How are we supposed to rub it in his face when he can blame the supernatural?”
“Fine. You’re un-cursed, Carl.”
“All right. But, wait…” He stopped shuffling. “If I win now, it’ll just help you prove that your curse worked.”
“But if I lose now, it’s because I suck.”
“Um…your turn, Bran.” He handed me the deck.
“Coward.” Sarah said.
Before we had the chance to play another round, though, I heard a door slam upstairs. A few minutes later, Alex came down the stairs. He didn’t look happy.
“What’s up?” Scott asked.
“Corey left.” Alex said, shrugging. Um…I’ve got to go, too. See you later. Bran, you need a ride?”
“Uh…yeah.” I said goodbye to everybody and got up, following Alex out.
“What happened?” I asked, as soon as we were outside. He didn’t say anything until we were in the van.
“He left.” He said, looking over at me without starting the engine. “I was expecting him to be pissed. Maybe yell at me or hit me or something. But he just…left. Didn’t say anything.”
“Well…” What could I say? “Give him some time, maybe.”
“Yeah.” He said, starting up the van and pulling out. “You know, I kind of wish he’d just run me out of town, instead.”
“Not quite his style, though.” I said. “So, how much did you tell him?”
“Told him everything. That I’m not really homeless. That I live with my rich parents and go to private school. That I’ve been lying to him this whole time.”
“Oh.” Well, he didn’t sugar-coat it, that’s for sure. “You want me to talk to him?”
He shrugged. “If you want. I don’t know if it’ll help, though.”
Honestly, I wasn’t sure if anything I could say would make a difference, either. Sure, I had been able to forgive Alex, but I’d only known him a short time, and I never thought that I knew him all that well. For me, an exchange of punches was enough to clear the air between us.
Corey had known him a lot longer, had considered him a close friend. He’d thought that Alex had trusted him with his deepest secret. He had built his half of their friendship on that trust, sticking up for Alex and looking out for him. To find out that that trust had been built on a lie…that must have hurt.
Sometimes, it takes a long time for you to realize that something’s not right. And the longer it takes, the harder it is to face it.