Chapter Seven: Clueless Indignation
When your lungs are full of water, it’s hard to think about things like relationships, implications, and the future. If you have the time to think at all, you usually just think “Well damn, my lungs are full of water.” As soon as I felt Alex’s lips, I inhaled deeply. It’s a natural reflex, I suppose, but it doesn’t work to quite the desired effect when you have a bottle against your lips.
Alex’s reaction took place on many levels. He laughed, then looked concerned, then laughed and looked concerned at the same time. I’ve got to give him credit for that bit of facial acrobatics – I don’t know if I could pull it off. Soon enough, I had cleared my airways and was capable of speech. I knew that this would take a certain amount of subtlety. I had to let him know that I was fine with the kiss, pissed about the drowning, but still able to laugh off both of them, if needed. Luckily, being a writer, I was good at coming up with exactly the right words for any given situation.
“Dude…” Okay, maybe I’m not that great of a speaker. But, come on, I’d put a lot of thought into that.
“Yeah…” I sputtered and cleared my throat. “Just wet.”
“Sorry. You want to go?”
Go? In the van, with its bucket seats a foot apart from each other, when I could be sitting here next to him? I shook my head.
“Cool.” He shifted so that the sides of our legs were touching and put his head back against my shoulder. We sat like that in silence for a few minutes. People walked by now and then, but they either didn’t notice us or didn’t care. That was fine – I didn’t care about them, either. The sound of cars starting echoed from the more populated side of the parking lot, headlights occasionally flashing over us.
He had kissed me. It was just a quick peck on the cheek, and it felt like it was done more for comedic reasons than romantic ones, but he had still kissed me. And he had been touching me all day. Granted, a lot of that was him being knocked into me by someone else, and if you counted that, then I had spent a lot of time touching a girl that day, too. My brain, my own archrival, nearly had me convinced that none of it was worth looking into, until I remembered where I was, and that Alex was leaning against me.
“Um…” I felt like I had to say something. Alex looked up. “I’m gay.”
He gave me a funny look, which dissolved into an amused smile. “I kind of figured, since straight guys don’t usually try to hold my hand.”
I looked down and saw that at some point, completely unconsciously, I had slid my hand over his. “Oh. I didn’t…grab anything else, did I?”
He laughed softly, shaking his head, and I felt the vibrations travel up my side. The other side of my body was freezing, open to the bitter parking lot breeze, but on my left, all I felt was warmth and laughter. The spots where his body touched mine were on fire. I thought it must have been the best feeling in the world. I knew that if I let that moment slip, I’d spend the rest of the night overanalyzing and over-thinking and regretting, just like I always did. I swallowed hard, and shut off all the thoughts in my head. This was not the time for thought; this was the time for reckless stupidity.
I leaned in closer, aiming to kiss Alex on the cheek, right where he had kissed me. The second before I made contact, though, he swore under his breath, pulled himself to his feet, and walked away.
I heard another group of people walk by, talking loudly about something that only they found amusing. I noticed in a matter of seconds how cold the wind was without someone warming you up. The gravel of the parking lot had suddenly become an uncomfortable place to sit. I stood up, watching Alex’s back as he stared out into nowhere.
I was no expert on things like this, but it seemed to me that when someone is acting completely calm and affectionate one minute and leaping away from you the next, something wasn’t right. It hurt, and the worst part was that I didn’t know whether or not I had the right to be hurt over that. It wasn’t like we had some kind of deep relationship – a few minutes of post-concert cuddling and an attempted drowning were all there was to it – but when I had leaned in, and his eyes had widened as he swore…it hurt.
He turned around, smiling as if nothing had happened. He must have seen the look on my face, which I’m sure was something between shock, sadness, and anger, because his expression fell immediately.
“Are you okay?” He sounded seriously concerned. I didn’t know how to answer. “Are you sick or something? Do you want to go?”
I was still at a loss for words, so I nodded. He opened the passenger’s side door and helped me inside. Not being sick, I didn’t need the help, but his concern only made things more confusing.
The ride home was quiet. I kept my head angled toward the window, watching the streetlights while he drove. He didn’t say anything until we were parked in front of my house.
“Hey…you want to do this again, some time?”
I turned to him, then, seeing the light touch of nervousness on his face. I wasn’t used to seeing him nervous. I couldn’t take it any more. I had to know.
“Why did you pull away from me?”
“In the lot. Why did you pull away when I tried to…kiss you?” The last two words came out a lot quieter than I had meant to say them. “I mean, I’m sorry if…but, I thought…” For someone claiming to be good with words, I sure was having a hard time putting together a complete sentence.
“You tried to kiss me?” The nervousness was replaced with surprise. “Really?”
“Yeah. I was just about to, then you walked away.”
“Really? You were about to kiss me right then? And I missed it?” He groaned. “I saw these guys coming, and I didn’t want them to see me. I was so focused on watching them, trying to figure out if they were going to walk past us or not…and we were so close already, I didn’t notice you trying to…” He paused and looked at me. “So, you’re okay? I mean, physically?”
“Oh.” He slumped back in his seat. “I was kind of hoping you were sick.”
“No, I mean…I was really hoping that you weren’t feeling bad because of something I did.” He said. “Of course, since I’m the one that got you to spill water all over yourself and then made you sit outside with me in the middle of winter, you getting sick probably would’ve been my fault, too. You know, I was going to say that you can kiss me now, if you want, but maybe you should stay away from me, so I don’t get you sick and depressed.”
I smiled. I couldn’t help it; he was adorable.
I popped my seat belt and leaned toward him. He followed suit, and I grabbed the front of his sweater.
“You going to run away this time?” I asked. He shook his head, so I released him. Our lips met halfway between the front seats of his van. The armrests and center console made it difficult to maneuver, so we didn’t keep it up for very long, but that didn’t matter to me. I was kissing someone. I was kissing another boy. Alex. It was fast and awkward, but I wasn’t afraid to practice until I got it right.
Afterward, I fell back against my seat. Alex looked over and grinned.
“So…you want to do this again, some time?”
“Yeah…” It felt like I had stretched that word into at least four syllables without even trying. I barely remember leaving his van and making my way back to my room.
I didn’t sleep very well that night. Remember all those thoughts I had decided to put off? Well, I couldn’t put them off any longer. Every time I closed my eyes, something else would jump to mind. The mind-jumpers were mostly just shapeless feelings – fear, anticipation, confusion, euphoria. Between those, in short, sharp bursts there came a series of images. Chalky handprints on a black sweater. An empty water bottle rolling across a gravel parking lot. A group of strangers, laughing as they passed. Alex. Mostly Alex. Those were good thoughts, for the most part, but they didn’t help in the way of sleep.
“So, are you okay?” Dixie asked, as soon as I let her into my room. “Nothing crushed?”
I shook my head. “I made it out intact.”
“Good, good. So…how’d it go?”
“Great. I…” It hit me then that I couldn’t give her any details. Alex might not have been out, and even if he was, he might not appreciate me talking about him behind his back. I didn’t like having to keep things from Dixie, but it really wasn’t my place to out him. “I had fun. Good music.”
“You know what I mean. What’s the word on your hot bassist?”
“I told you it wasn’t like that.”
“You said it wasn’t like that for you. You don’t know what he was thinking. Pick up on any signals?”
“Um…depends on what you’d call a signal, I guess. I’m pretty bad at reading into stuff like that.”
“Ugh. I knew straight guys were bad at picking up on things, but I figured you…”
“I didn’t gain a sense of subtlety when I found out that I like guys, if that’s what you’re getting at.” I said, putting on a fake huffy voice.
She looked away. “Sorry. I didn’t mean…”
“Hey, I was just kidding. I know you were playing around.”
“You sure?” She said. “I mean, you’d let me know if I crossed the line, right?”
“Don’t worry about it. I didn’t get this far by getting offended by things. Of course, I haven’t made it very far, so...” She didn’t look amused. “Dixie, seriously. I’ve known you forever. You know that nobody enjoys a joke at my expense more than me.”
“I know. It’s just…this is new to me, you know? And it’s new to you, too. I just don’t want to say something stupid.”
I’d never really thought about what it would be like on her side of things. Culturally, gay jokes were commonplace as part of every day language. She’d told some to me before. Hell, I’d told them before. We’d both used the word “gay” as a synonym for “lame”. Now, finding out that I’m gay, after years of throwing it around like an insult…I guess it would feel kind of like me telling ethnic jokes to someone for years and then finding out that they were that particular ethnicity. I’d apologize, but I’d still feel like the biggest jerk in the world. Now she was in that position, and she was making an effort to overcome that. Damned if she wasn’t the coolest.
Now I felt even worse about having to lie to her about Alex. “You were the first person I told, you know. I told you before I told my brother. I told you before I even knew for sure, myself. You told me that we’ve known each other forever, and that I was an idiot for thinking that something stupid like that could get between us. Trust me, that was enough to make up for any offhand comment you could ever make.”
“Then…I guess I’m an idiot, huh?”
“Yep. So, now that we’re both idiots, you want to go re-enact some dangerous stunts that we’ve seen on TV?”
“I’ll hold you to that.”
We hung out for a while, staying away from any heavy topics. Mark called later that night, wanting to find out about my first concert, and once again, I left out any details about Alex. The same went for my parents, when they asked. Granted, I probably wouldn’t have given them many details even if it was a girl that I’d been with, seeing as they were my parents and all, but it still felt weird, since this was the first time I’d ever had details to withhold in the first place.
I spent that week trying to write song lyrics. It’s amazing how much you can suck at doing something creative when you try to force it. It was a little better now, after I’d listened to some of the other CDs that Alex had let me borrow, but I was still looking for inspiration. I borrowed some of Mom’s poetry books, too – Dickenson, Lindsay, Shakespeare, Cummings – and I’d leaf through those whenever I had some free time.
Free time was getting harder to find. On Monday, Dad took me downtown to get my learner’s permit. After that, we spent a couple hours every night driving around in the cemetery, which was the ideal place to learn, since anything I hit would have already been dead.
My Wednesdays now belonged to the Curson Driving School. Driving school, for those who haven’t been or don’t remember, is where they take roughly twenty minutes worth of instruction and stretch it to four hours, interspersed with painful instructional videos from the 80’s. Maybe it was just the fact that we were all pissed about getting out of school just to go to another, slightly more boring school, but no one in the class seemed to appreciate watching a pair of talking crash dummies rap about anti-lock brakes.
On Thursday, something unexpected happened. I saw Nick just as I was leaving school. Or, rather, he saw me. I’m not sure how, since I was completely covered with my coat, hat, and gloves, but he still managed to recognize me. He called out to me just as I was about to push open the door to leave.
“Hey,” I said, “You’ve got a class last period?”
“Yeah. Graphic design.” He nodded in the direction of the art wing. “Anyway, sorry for not calling. I, uh…don’t have a phone.” His eyes rolled to one side. “I should have told you that when you gave me your number, but…”
“You mean, no phone at all?”
“Oh.” Well, that explained why he hadn’t called. That was kind of weird, though. In your average high school, someone not having a phone was about as uncommon as someone not having a head, and almost as socially crippling. “I guess no internet, either, then?”
“Nope. Not even two cans and a string.”
“Well, I’ve got a couple cans. You can have one. The hard part will be finding about ten miles worth of string.”
“Wouldn’t work. If we stretch ten miles of string over the road, it’d probably decapitate a biker or something.”
“Yeah, but when they arrest you for the beheading, you’ll get to make one phone call.”
He snapped his fingers. “Hey, yeah! That would work. Or maybe I could find a payphone.”
“I guess. But you’d need a quarter for that.”
“Yeah, you’re right. Ten miles of death-string would be way more practical.” He kept a straight face, but his eyes were laughing, which in turn made me laugh. “Anyway, I just wanted to make sure you knew I wasn’t avoiding you or anything.”
“Yeah, no problem.”
“Did you…want your dollar back?”
“The one you gave me. With your number.”
“Oh! You’ve still got that?”
“No, you can keep it,” I said. “Just scratch out my number if you spend it somewhere.”
“Sure. Thanks.” He exhaled and let his stance loosen. “Oh man, you ride the bus, don’t you?”
“Yeah.” It took me a few seconds to realize what he meant. “Oh, yeah, I’ve got to go. Um, see you.”
I kept thinking about that conversation on the ride home. I kept trying not to laugh whenever I pictured his eyes as he’d said “ten miles of death-string.” It annoyed me that due to circumstances, we couldn’t really hang out. Between his home-schooling, his lack of a phone, and my lack of a ride, we were limited to chance meetings.
I drummed my fingers against my notebook as I waited for Corey to pick me up. I’d written all night, and revised all day at school. During classes, during lunch, on the bus – every spare second was spent with my nose in the book, crossing things out, drawing arrows to re-arrange lines, and writing little notes in the margins. I was ready.
Corey called right after school to let me know that he was on his way. He didn’t mention whether or not Alex was with him. I was nervous about seeing Alex again. We hadn’t spoken since the night of the show.
Corey’s car pulled into my driveway, horn blasting. I grabbed my coat and headed out. Alex wasn’t with him, so I climbed straight into the front seat. He was wearing his usual pins, patches, and perpetual grin.
“Oi.” He nodded to me. “Seduce any bassists lately?”
I peeled my tongue from the roof of my mouth. “Huh?”
“Or maybe…been seduced by a bassist?”
“Uh…I don’t…” Fortunately, he didn’t let me stammer for too long.
“I’m just playing. Seriously, though, thanks for putting up with Alex.”
“I’m…not sure what you mean.”
“Heh. Right.” He chuckled. “Like he didn’t try to put the moves on you.”
I felt my cheeks burning, but couldn’t say anything.
“Nothing to be embarrassed about, man, he pulls that with everybody. No discretion.” He shook his head. “I could’ve warned you, but then…” He shrugged.
“So, you already know?”
“What, that he likes guys?” He laughed. “He doesn’t exactly hide it. I still remember the day we all found out. He was turning sixteen – and don’t tell him that I told you this story, ‘cause he’d kill me – and Scott got the idea to get him a porno as a joke gift. Some bargain-bin video called ‘The Erotic Misadventures of the Invisible Man’. Dead serious. He opens it up and laughs. Then he turns to Scott and says, ‘Thanks, but…what good’s a porno if the man is invisible?’” Corey let out a hard, half-snort of a laugh and drummed one hand on the steering wheel. “So as a sign of solidarity, Scott went back to the place and exchanged it for a gay one, even though it meant some funny looks from the guy at the counter.”
I laughed, but my heart wasn’t in it. “So, he does that to everybody?”
“Anything that moves,” He said, “And, uh…most things that don’t. Don’t get the wrong idea, though, he’s cool. You don’t have to be, like, scared of him or anything. If you tell him to knock it off, he will.”
“Seriously though, do you have a problem with that?” We hit a red light, and he turned to face me. “Because if you do, say so now.”
“I can honestly say that I have no problem with Alex being gay.”
“Cool. I just wanted to make sure. Now we can go pick him up.”
“Is that why you picked me up first?” I asked. “To make sure I wasn’t going to go off on him or something?”
“Well, I guess, but mostly because I was closer to your house when he called to tell me where to pick him up. But, you know, he’s in the band. I’ve got to watch out for him. I’d do the same for any of them. Anybody does anything to- Oh, here we are.” He stopped at the corner of an empty an intersection, where Alex was standing with a backpack slung over one shoulder. He ran over to the car, I climbed into the back seat so that he could get in, and we were on the road again.
Alex spun around and kneeled on his seat to look at me, giving me a wide smile. Corey, without taking his eyes off of the road, reached over and punched him in the arm. “Seatbelt, jackass.”
Alex turned back around, clicking his belt into place. “Are you following laws, now?”
“For a while, yeah. My crime-bank’s low.”
“Crime-bank?” I asked.
“Yeah. I keep this empty milk jug at home, and whenever I’ve got a few extra bucks or a handful of change that I don’t want to carry around, I throw it in. When it gets filled to the top, I know I can break a few laws without worrying about the fines.”
I laughed. “So, you see the law as an optional, pay-to-play kind of thing?”
“No, I see the law as a fair and just moral code that we should all live by.” His voice cracked. “Heh. Almost said that with a straight face. Shit, I should be an actor. Then I could use acting to launch my music career, then…”
Alex fidgeted under his seatbelt and turned enough to roll his eyes at me as Corey continued to muse to himself.
“…And that’s how I’d become the first ever Powerviolence pop star.” He concluded, just as we pulled to a stop in front of Scott and Sarah’s place.
As soon as we were out of the car, Alex pulled me aside and told Corey that we’d catch up. Corey shrugged and continued on.
“Hey.” Alex said. “I tried to call before, but your phone was off.”
“Yeah. I’ve been learning how to drive at night. Didn’t want it to go off in the middle of something.”
“Oh, okay. I’ll call earlier next time, then.” He inched closer to me. “Um…I missed you.”
“Missed you, too,” I said, “But not being able to sleep all week gave me a lot of time to write.”
“So, it’s deprivation you need, huh? Luckily for you, I’m depraved.” He leaned in and kissed me quickly, then went inside. Showmanship, I guess – always leave them wanting more. I followed.
Downstairs, Carl and Emma were playing tug-of-war with a piece of rope. It was a pretty even match, since the dog nearly outweighed Carl, but Carl had opposable thumbs. When I entered the room, Scott leapt over the rope, causing Carl to drop it, and ran up to me. His half-beard was now on the other side of his face.
“Hey. More songs?” He pointed to my notebook. I handed it to him, and he shuffled off to the corner, once again jumping over Carl and Emma’s tug-of-war game.
I sat down on one of the couches, next to Alex. He twisted around and kicked his legs out, so that they were hanging over the armrest and his head was resting against my leg, then smiled up at me. I was once again struck by how easygoing and impulsive he always seemed to be. Impulsivity must rub off, because without giving it a second thought, I reached down and ran one hand through his hair, causing him to press against me even harder.
“Throat-clearing noise!” Corey shouted into his fist. I snapped to attention and looked over at him. “Sorry. I, uh…I’m not good at actually pretending to clear my throat, so I have to do that. It’s not quite as low-key, but the point gets made.” He shrugged.
Sarah seemed to be restraining a sneer. She wiped her face clean of any expression as soon as she noticed me looking, though.
“So,” Corey said. “Am I under the completely wrong impression here, or are you two…kind of close?”
“Ay, Sarah!” Scott called from across the room. She got up and joined him in the corner, hunched over my notebook.
Corey continued to look at us expectantly. Alex, looking up at me, shrugged.
“I guess we are.” I said.
“And you let me go through that whole speech in the car?” Corey groaned. “Could’ve stopped me, man.”
“Speech?” Alex asked.
“Yeah, the one where I told him not to be weirded out by you hitting on him,” Corey said. “Where I made sure that he didn’t have a problem with you.”
“I don’t, by the way.” I said, burying my fingers in his hair again.
“Oh, good.” He smiled. “But why’d you think you had to do that? I can take care of myself.”
“Well, after last time…” Corey looked up at me, “I didn’t think you were a prick or anything, but,” He looked back down at Alex, “But you’ve got to admit, man, you come on really strong. To everybody.”
“Yeah, but if he was going to do something, he would have done it at the concert last week, not waited until today.” Alex said.
“Well, yeah, but…look, I’m not great at planning things in advance, okay? If I was, I’d have enough cash in my crime-bank for a new car.” He didn’t clarify whether it would be enough to buy a new car, or just enough to bail him out after he stole one.
“All right, I get you.” Alex nodded.
Sarah came back and told Alex to go talk to Scott. At about the same time, Carl got tired of fighting his dog for a length of rope and joined us, as well. The stop-sign color was fading from his hair.
Carl’s eyes widened a bit when Alex came back, motioned for Corey to see Scott, and reclaimed his prior position. Carl didn’t mention anything about it, though. After Scott finished talking to Corey, he took a spot next to the coffee table, spread my notebook, and motioned for everyone to gather around.
“All right, I checked with everybody,” He said. “All four of us really like this one.” He opened it to a page near the end. There were four checkmarks above the title – “Ten Miles of Death-String.” He tapped the page once. “This was by far the best one here. Not saying the others aren’t good, but this one’s exactly what we’re looking for. The stuff about decapitation totally offsets the syrupy stuff.”
“Yeah,” Corey said, “It’s like, they’d be hearing that, and thinking that it was a really violent kind of ass-kicking song, but then this part comes in,” He pointed to a spot on the page, “and they’d be like ‘What the hell?’ And the way I see it, the more times we can get people to stop and say ‘What the hell?’, the better we’re doing.”
“Is that ‘What the hell?’ in a confused way, or an upset way, or what?” I asked.
“Confused.” Alex said.
“Angry.” Sarah said.
Scott shrugged. “Both, I guess. We’ll try to incite, uh…clueless indignation.”
“Clueless indignation,” I repeated. “Sounds like a good name for a song.”
“Or a band.” Corey said. “Hey, what do you think? Could we be Clueless Indignation?”
Sarah shrugged. “Well, we do hate everything rather passionately.”
“And for no good reason.” Alex added.
“Sounds good to me.” Scott said. “All right. Until we either break up or find another name, we are Clueless Indignation. Now, back to the songs. These two,” Scott flipped to two more pages, each with three checks at the top, “We want these, too. Three out of four wanted these, and I figure that’s good enough. Oh, and this one.” He flipped to a page near the front that had a lot of scratches, corrections, and re-writes. “Only one of us voted for this one, but he also said that if we didn’t use it, he’d…kick my ass with his vegan shoes.” He glared at Corey, who cracked his knuckles. “So I guess we’ll take this one, too. How much for these?”
Oh, that’s right – they were going to pay me. I’d forgotten about that. What was the going rate for lyrics? He had said ten per song before, but that seemed pretty steep to me.
“Um…five bucks each?” I said, certain that I was never going to be a successful businessman.
“Deal.” He pulled out his wallet, counted out twenty singles, and slapped it on the table before tearing the four marked pages from the book.
“Okay, now to make it legal. Raise your right hand.” Scott said. I did so. “Do you solemnly swear on this…” He looked around. “Can somebody give me something for him to swear on?” Sarah threw him the remote control. “Uh…good enough. Thanks, sis. Do you solemnly swear on this universal remote, purchased with great shame from a bloodthirsty corporate retail chain,” The others booed and hissed until Scott motioned for them to stop. “That these songs are, as of this day, property of this band, to be practiced and performed, recorded and redistributed at times of their choosing?”
I placed one hand on the remote and said “I do.” Surprisingly enough, it’s not the strangest oath I’ve ever taken.
“Witness,” Carl raised his hand, “But I’m not sure if swearing on a remote holds up in a court of law.”
“Yeah, but, you know…fuck the law.” Corey said.
“Brilliantly said, as always.” Alex said, clapping him on the shoulder.
Scott held out his hand. We shook, and he said, “Then I declare that these songs are now ours, and this wad of cash is now yours.” He took the pages, and I scooped up the cash and stuffed it in my pocket. Money, just for writing. That beat the hell out of washing dishes.
The band went to work, playing for short bursts and stopping to discuss. I knew that they were working on putting my words to music, but I had no idea about the process itself. Carl and I let them do their thing, tossing a ball back and forth and letting Emma chase it.
“Hey,” Carl said, after the dog had wandered off. “You like violent video games?”
He smiled. “Excessively.”
“Oh. Then, yeah.”
“C’mon. We’ll let the prodigies pound their chords in peace.”
I followed him upstairs to his room, where he had an Xbox set up.
“Man, I’m glad that I’m not the only non-musician in the house anymore.” He said, handing me a controller. “Gets boring fast.”
We proceeded to blast the hell out of each other for a while. Shooting each other in the face with digital shotguns – male bonding for the 21st century.
“So…feel free to tell me to mind my own business, but I’ve got to ask. What’s up with you and Alex?”
“Uh…” I paused, and my on-screen character’s head was blown off. “Hey! Cheater.”
“Got to take my shots when I see ‘em.”
“I don’t know what’s up with me and Alex.”
“Ah. Well, don’t worry about it. Nobody really knows what’s up with Alex.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. He doesn’t talk very much. I mean, he’ll talk, but only about stuff like what bands are coming to town and what songs he’s trying to learn. Everybody else here, I could tell you where they work, what their parents do, their middle names and birthdays…hell, everything. Alex, though…it’s like, I’ve known him for the past year, and I consider him a friend and everything, but I barely know him.”
“Oh.” When I thought about it, I didn’t know much about him, either. I knew that his name was Alex, that he played in a band, and that he might like me. That was about it.
“He might just be intimidated, since we’re all older than him.” He said. “He loosens up when you’re around, though, so maybe that’s it.”
That came as a shock. The whole time I’d known him, Alex had never come off as anything but laid-back. I had a hard time picturing him any other way. That made him even more interesting.