Peter Buchard thinks he can fly. Logically, of course, he knows this is impossible; but, standing here, he thinks that it wouldn’t be so hard. He stands in front of the open window, arms outstretched, chin tilted upward, too-bright eyes squeezed up tight. The faint breeze from outside plays about his splayed fingers, deftly weaving through the spaces between the digits. He imagines what feathers might feel like, running down his arms and shoulder blades, covering his fingertips; the swift beat of fervid wings thrums harshly through his heart. No, it wouldn’t be hard – all he has to do is jump. He’s only on the second floor; it would only be for a few seconds. The ground would break his wings, but it wouldn’t kill him. And in the air, with the wind cocooning him, embracing him tight, he would be free. In that minuscule second, the entire world would stop in an instant. Nothing at all but him and the wind. And, at long last, he would know freedom. He’s mere inches from the ledge. Just one step. One more step and he would taste freedom…
His foot rests flat against the white paint of the window sill. His palms face the sun. Is this how a bird feels, he wonders as he shifts his weight forward. He takes a deep breath, holding it until his lungs burn for release. Now or never. Now or never. Nowornevernowornevernowor never. Now or—
He sighs and his arms fall limply at his sides, out of his control and not entirely unlike those of a ragdoll. His foot lingers on the sill for a moment, as if daring him forward, daring him to throw himself into the waiting arms of sweet freedom. But he doesn’t have the strength, the will, or the drive to go through with it. He’s caged by his own inhibitions.
As he pulls away, he pulls back, his mind drifting off into a world where, for a few lazy afternoons and sticky summer days that seemed like they would keep on going on forever, he was truly and honestly free. Where, in hushed tones and frantic paces, in voices as young and sugar-sweet as the morning and as ageless as stardust, the children would speak. They whispered as though they have secrets to keep, grubby fingers cupped around lips to keep their words from escaping. Every afternoon, the children discussed with startling naivety and expertise the concepts to which they should have been unfamiliar – war, economy, government, religion, and sexuality – but of which they were untimely scholars.
Peter remembers the youngest of them, the starkly cynical Pryce, who was but nine years old, then. Back when he was sweet, unassuming, and oh-so charming with a killer smile and those adorable dimples; before they’d dated and long before the would-be scientist’s opportunistic explorations landed him in a padded cell. The oldest of them had been dearest Adelaide, before the drugs and party-hard attitude that had been her downfall, already well developed for a girl of thirteen. She was headstrong with mouth that could rival that of a seaman. Still a child but with all the makings of a young adult, she played leader to the band of neighborhood kids; a renaissance woman, she used to call herself with a certain confidence in her voice. Her Pa’d called her that once, and she liked the ring of it.
That afternoon, like any other, they sat in Geoffry’s treehouse, the one Bill Braggins spent the better half of nine hours and a six pack building three summers before. They were wound in a tight ring, bodies leaning inward as they whispered. Adelaide’s bare, freckled shoulders pressed hard against Pryce’s as she spoke. Lucia, deep in the throes of a childhood crush, sent bashful gazes at Frieda from across the circle, while Peter sat cuddle close into her pink-clad side. Peter had been coming to these little meetings for as long as he could remember.
“I overheard my Pa talking about them – he said that it’s just not right,” Adelaide said.
“What ain’t right?” Wesley asked, breaking in before Adelaide could explain herself. Wesley was a bit new to the group then, just moved in and all. He didn’t quite understand the subtle politics at work. Adelaide thumped him upside the head.
“Dammit, boy, I was getting to that,” she said. “Those people. Y’know. The people who marry people that they got no right marrying.”
Freida, Adelaide’s soft-spoken best friend, nodded sagely.
“Daddy says it’s a sin. Devil’s work for people to be that way. And it’s not good for the children, neither he says. How’s they expect to raise children if they’re always, y’know… going at it. In bed, I mean. Uhm. Sex. Kids can’t be raised up-right in a house like that.”
“The Devil has nothing to do with anything,” Pryce said, his voice cold and clinical. “It is, however… not unnatural,” he paused, searching for words. “But it is animalistic, I suppose. Animals are that way. Humans are above animals. Therefore, it stands to reason, that humans should be above such animalistic things.”
“I can see that,” Lucia said, gesticulating. She must have been about twelve then. “What I don’t understand is how. Like, how can people feel like that? I’ve never looked at a boy and thought that he’d be someone I could… date, or marry, or even… uhm, do things with. That’s just icky. What kind of girl would ever want to do that with a boy?”
“S’not like girls are any better,” Geoffry said, his voice squeaking. “Marrying a girl would be gross. Like, really gross.”
“Hey!” Adelaide said, mocking indignation.
“I’m just sayin’! I’m a boy – boys with boys and girls with girls. It’s how it is,” Geoffry returned.\
“I second that,” Lucia said, half raising her hand.
“There’s a word for it,” Adelaide said, wracking her brain for the term she learned in eighth-grade social studies, just the week before – “Shit! Uhm, Homosectionality!”
“Homo-sexuality,” Freida corrected, smiling toward her best friend.
“Yeah, that!” Adelaide said, “Homosexuality. It’s how people are, like boys and boys and girls and girls. Animals aren’t that way, for some damn reason. But people are – we have Ma and Mom and Pa and Dad and that’s just how it’s supposed to be!”
Peter distinctly remembers a chorus of agreement from the whole group. Whoops and nods and cheers and smiles. Here, here. We agree. No arguments there.
No one noticed that Peter said nothing.
No one noticed Peter frowning. Peter with tears in the corners of those blue eyes that were so wide and curious that they could have swallowed up the whole world.
Peter questioning. Questioning life, the universe, everything that he’d been told and taught, and everything that he ever would be taught in the future. At that moment all Peter could think was:
Why couldn’t he be perfect? Why couldn’t he just get good grades? Why couldn’t he find a decent part time job? Why couldn’t he get into an Ivy League university? Why couldn’t he be ambitious? Why couldn’t he be smart like Lucia? Brave like Lucia? Happy like Lucia? Why couldn’t he be athletic? Play sports? Be some kind of damn successful? Why couldn’t be he obedient? Be a good son? Why couldn’t he just shut his Goddamn mouth? Why wasn’t he good enough? Why was he never good enough? Why couldn’t he just be fucking normal?
Pete tried his damndest to be normal. Oh how he tried.
He rebelled – teens were prone to it – dyed his mouse-brown hair pitch black, wore ripped jeans and a spiked collar that his father absolutely despised (Dad, though, had merely chuckled and shot his husband a meaningful look. He remembered the old biker vest, the fingerless gloves, the ridiculous green mohawk, and the gunmetal rosaries). He did a lot of things Father absolutely despised. He listened to music that his parents would never approve of, with a heavy base and expletive-laced lyrics. He underachieved, cruising by in class with B-minuses and C’s, which had angered Father to no end and had been the topic of more than a few heated lectures. He wasn’t good enough anyway; why bother? And he had nearly given Father a heart attack when he had announced his designs to go to art school of all things, rather than going somewhere more Ivy League and majoring in business, like Father had hoped, or communications, like his sister, as Dad had expected. Ah, teenaged nonconformity – a hallmark of normality.
And he’d dated, like anyone else. Lucia, only a year his elder, was on her third girlfriend when Pete had brought home his first boyfriend, Michael. Majorie, a family friend who had been Pete’s surrogate, had loved Michael, doted on him like he was her own. Oh, Mike’s gonna be a lawyer one day, Peter! Oh you’re gonna be married to a lawyer! And she’d even sat down with Mike and planned out a wedding. Honestly, it had been a huge embarrassment and, needless to say, the relationship had deteriorated after a few weeks.
Second had been Pryce, when Pete was seventeen and Pryce was only fifteen. Pryce may have been the younger of the two, but that did not mean that he wasn’t experienced when it came to relationships. He loved to steal kisses and gropes when no one was looking, much to Pete’s chagrin. He loved it almost as much as he loved educating Pete on the finer points of everything and pointing out the flaws in Pete’s logic whenever they argued (which was nearly constantly). Within a month a getting together, they split. It was less than amiable.
By the end of Pete’s third semester at Rhode Island School of Design (he’d looked into it because of the unofficial mascot but it turned out to be his dream school), he’d let his natural hair color grow in, though he still sometimes wore the collar, and had already dated and broke up with an impressive three more guys. Gone was Scottie, who was clingy on his own terms but aloof otherwise. Bryan, a tiny, artsy guy who Pete had met at orientation, had similarly gone the way of the dodo bird; they’d hit it off, but decided after eight months of the most mellow and platonic relationship ever that they were better off just friends (and now, roommates, but that’s a tale for another time). And, just in time for winter break, Pete said goodbye to his fifth boyfriend, Stuart, who went by Doc, and who routinely donned the mascot costume, dancing around like the cheerful phallus he was. Pete couldn’t say he much missed the guy – sure, he’d been a ball of laughs but he was more interested in bedroom activities than anything else.
And, after all this, Pete couldn’t really say that he’d ever been all that happy in a relationship. Sure, he’d had some fun times – when Pryce wasn’t being a total ass, they’d had some pretty interesting debates, and Doc was absolutely hilarious when he kept his hands to himself – but the relationship parts of the relationships never really did anything for Pete. He always felt like something wasn’t right, like something was missing. There was never any spark or any passion, like Luce ramble on and on about when they talked on the phone. He could never quite place what it was that was missing, but then again, perhaps it was that he always knew. There had always been that little niggling feeling, ringing bright and clear right there in the back of his skull. Ever present was that cute little cartoon devil, perched on his shoulder like an omen, whispering dark nothings into his ear.
You’re not like them, it’d say, you’ll never be like them. You’re not normal. You try and try. You’ll keep trying. But you never will. You’re a freak. Father was right – you’re never gonna be good enough. Why do you even bother?
He’d known that he was different, ever since he was a little boy, before he’d dropped the “r” in his named, before Luce’d gone off to Stanford, before Geoff himself had enlisted, Addie had gone to jail for possession, and Freida had broken off all contact and married that punk rocker chick right out of high school. Too young to really understand how the world works, just old enough to realize that there was more to it than playing pirates and sipping lemonade on hot summer days. Back then, it seemed so simple – boys were meant to be with boys, girls with girls. Just like the earth revolved around the sun and after the chill of winter came spring and the warmth of summer. In those endless afternoons, when they had all the secrets of the world on the tips of their tongues, it all just seemed so simple. Even then, he’d known – known so deep down, in the seat of his soul, in the corners of his eyes and the depth of his heart, he’d known. He was different. He wasn’t like everyone else. He’d known and he’d hid it, hid it so deep down that it seemed to disappear. He’d begged God to take it away, the different. He’d prayed the way that Father had showed him, head bowed and hands clasped so tight together that his sharp little nails bit hard into the backs of his hands. Please God. Just make me normal. And for so long, he’d played normal. Floundered through school, grew up, dated boys like is good and right, moral and normal. But that’s all it was, playing. Pretend.
You’re not normal, the devil says, mouth pressed to Pete’s ear. It’s hard to ignore the voice, hard to keep going when he knows it’s true. You’re gross. Disgusting. Wrong. So wrong. Father’ll disown you – it’s a sin, you know. This’ll be the last straw, boy. You already ain’t good enough, dumbass. Why can’t you just be normal, Peter? Why can’t you just be good?
He doesn’t want to say it. Doesn’t want to admit it to himself, much less the world. But it’s there, becoming more and more evident with each passing day, each failed relationship. He can’t deny it any longer. He can’t deny himself.
Breeder. Animal. Skirt-chaser. Queer.
Pete sighs. His hands fist in his hair.
“I’m a…. Heterosexual.”
Pete tried so hard to be normal. He tried to be the son his father wanted – smart, ambitious, religious, moral, homosexual –
He tried so, so hard. But he couldn’t do it. He failed.
Going home was hard as it was. Packing, making sure everything was in right in the dorm for break-time inspections, booking plane tickets, finding a ride to the airport… calling Majorie, calling Dad, reassuring Dad that the plane wouldn’t crash, reassuring Father that he reassured Dad that the plane wouldn’t crash, calling Luce and reminding her to pick him up from the airport… unpacking and repacking after remembering that Alabama winters were nothing like Rhode Island winters. All the while, in the back of his brain, fears crawled, infecting thoughts and ripping apart normal signals, replacing them with an all encompassing sense of panic. He wasn’t normal. They’d be able to see it – parents are supposed to have a sixth sense about that sort of thing, aren’t they? What would they say? Father is a Baptist – they didn’t look too kindly on that sort of thing. He’d heard of the church – the one that picketed Hetero-soldier’s funerals. What if Father was actually that way? Pete wouldn’t put it past him. He’d disown Pete in an instant. No, he’d kill him; get Maj to help him bury the corpse before Dad got home. If Dad even cared, either. Pete didn’t think any of them would be all that accepting – he was from Alabama, after all… Dad might be a little more accepting than everyone else - he was from Massachusetts (Hetero-Marriage is legal there), but Pete isn’t so sure he’d be willing to risk his marriage for the sake of his poor hetero son, no matter how much he loves him.
Maybe he should just tell them outright; spare himself the trouble of keeping secrets and the risk of punishment should his secret find its way out by means other than his own voice. Yeah. That’d totally work. Hey Father, Maj, Dad, Luce – guess what! I’m a breeder! That’s right, I like women just like Lucia and I’m damn proud! That would go over well. Dad would deny it – oh so, you’re just confused. Maj would cry. And Father would kill him.
Pete sighs. He doesn’t know what to do. All he knows is it’s gonna be a long Christmas.
Father and Luce start bickering as soon as she and Pete walk through the door.
“You’re a jackass, Pa,” Luce says, apparently out of nowhere. Luce is his biological daughter, whereas Pete is his Dad’s biological son. They were both born to surrogates, as is standard practice. Majorie and Zoe didn’t want kids of their own but they’d been glad to provide their child birthing services to the Buchards. And they’d stuck around too, if only to help out and get to know their biological children, though extended visits were generally reserved for holidays. A lot of other families these days chose to raise children in two-couple households, but Paul Buchard was what one could call a traditionalist. That being said, Luce and Pete had been raised solely by their male parents.
Pete figures that Father and Lucia are likely continuing a conversation from earlier. Father and Luce are always arguing over politics, economics, and all matter of nonsense that Pete couldn’t care less about. All he really cares about is music and art and, at the moment, his little predicament.
“I’m just saying, I don’t agree with it, so I voted no!”
“It’s not right, Pa,” Luce says, “They’re people too! Don’t they deserve the same rights as you and me?”
“I don’t agree with it, Luce,” Father says, like it’s perfectly reasonable and logical support for his side of the argument, whatever that side may be, “It’s a sin, man should not lie with woman, Lu. You know that as well as I do. Even if ya’ don’t believe it anymore. I voted no and I’m sticking to it!”
Luce’s atheism is still a point of contention between Father and Lucia. Then again, everything is a point of contention between Father and Pete.
“What if me or Peter was hetero, Pa!” Lucia says, throwing her hands up in exasperation, “What would you do then!”
Father huffs, running a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair.
“I don’t want to talk about this right now, Lu.” He says, turning now to Pete. “So, Petey, how are you doing at your little… school.” His face is crumpled up and he looks a bit like he’s just smelled something foul.
“Uh Good. I-“
“And how’s that boyfriend of yours doing, Doc or something?” Father interrupts, “He’s got a good head on his shoulders, industrial design not some pussy illustration major.”
“Actually, father, we… broke up last week,” Pete say, biting his lip.
“What’d you do?” Father asks, eyeing Pete up and down as if assessing his son’s merits (or lack thereof).
“I didn’t –“
“You bad in bed or something? You never can keep hold of a boyfriend. Must be doing something wrong,” Father says. At this point, he isn’t even looking at Pete; instead, his piercing green eyes are completely fixated on the glowing screen of his Blackberry.
“Hey, Hey!” Dad’s voice comes before Pete can say anything. “Pete just got here! Is this really how we want to greet him! I don’t know about you guys, but I haven’t seen him since August!”
Dad throws his arms around Pete’s shoulders, pulling him in close. “C’mon, son, let’s get your stuff outta Luce’s car – how do you like it by the way, nothing like Betsy I’m sure, but she is so damn proud of her Camaro, calls it Sir Benedict, did you know, after that British actor that plays Sherlock, he’s phenomenal, you know! Damn sexy, too! If I weren’t married, I’d steal his right out from under the nose of that cute boyfriend of his! Oh! And Maj is around here somewhere, too. She can’t wait to see ya’!”
While Dad rambles on, Pete can’t help the dread that rolls over him like thick, black oil over the feathers of water birds. He thinks back to Father and Luce’s argument. Well, there’s his answer, even if no one said anything. Father would definitely be angry – angrier than when Pete announced he was going to RISD instead of Berkley or Yale. Dad would probably be disappointed. Who knows what Maj and Zoe would say. Luce, though, Luce would understand.
Pete holds his breath and follows his Dad out to Lucia’s shinning silver Camaro.
His mind is racing. His breath is shallow and painful. His chest hurts.
He doesn’t know what he’s going to do.
Pete spends most of his three week break holed up in his old bed room, staring at the posters he didn’t take with him to school – the crumbling visage of Kurt Cobain, deep eyes burrowing right into Pete’s soul, an old Monster Magnet poster that’s been shoved in the corner, old magazine pictures of Alanis Morissette, My Chemical Romance, and his guilty pleasure, Janis Joplin, who seemingly mocks him with all her fair skin and womanly curves. He plays around with that old bass guitar he never got around to learning how to play and hums snippets of lyrics to songs he never got around to writing. He has midnight conversations with Luce, just like old times, he using his blanket like a cloak and she garbed in a Snuggie with her sorority letters emblazoned across the front, looking every bit like a member of some obscure cult.
“Luce,” Pete says, his eyes downcast. Luce sits behind him, her deft fingers running through his soft brown hair. It’s nowhere as long as her own platinum blond locks, only falling just past his ears, but she attempts to braid it anyway, parting off little sections as she speaks with her dear little brother.
Pete has always been close with Lucia. They shared friends all throughout their childhood and, even in high school, Luce never played embarrassed older sister when Pete sat with her at lunch or hung out with her friends after school. Pete even introduced her to the younger girls, including her current girlfriend of three years, Mary Alice. Luce was considering proposing on New Years.
“What would you say if…” he licks his lips, staring at his hands which he wrings in his lap, “Uhm… What would you say if I….”
Luce’s hands still in Pete’s hair. She peaks around his shoulder to look him in the eyes. He avoids her gaze.
“What is it, Pete?” she asks. “You know you can tell me anything.”
Can’t. He can’t do it. She’s all talk. She says she supports breeders, but she’s doesn’t. There’s no way she’d accept her own brother if she knew that he was hetero. There’s no way. He can’t do this. He just can’t. No. Nonononono. No. Oh God. His chest tightens. His heart’s beating so hard it feels like it’s about to dance right out of his chest. It actually hurts. It hurts so badly. No. he can’t do it. He can’t. Oh God. Ohgodohgodohgod. The air is hot. His lungs are on fire. The corners of his eye sting and his vision is blurred by hot, salty tears. He can’t see.
There’s a firm pressure on his shoulder.
“Hey, hey. What is it?”
Luce’s viridian eyes are unblinking, staring right into Pete’s own crystal blue eyes.
“I… Luce. Oh God. I can’t.” He says, his voice catching. Sobs edge his wavering voice.
She leans forward, resting her chin on his shoulder, wrapping her Snuggie-clad arms around his middle. She hushes him.
“Shh, Pete. C’mon. Y’know you can tell me anything. We’re best friends, you and me. You can tell me anythin’.” She says. There’s a slight twang to her voice, soft and sweet. She’d grown out of it, but when they were kids her accent was thick as molasses. When she’s emotional, sometimes bits and pieces of her speech are coated in it, with G’s dropped and vowels elongated.
“I…” He forces down a sob that claws it’s way high in his throat. “Lucia – I’m… I-“
Tears are spilling unbidden down the younger man’s cheeks but Luce pays them no heed. She merely tightens her grip around her little brother and nods for him to continue.
“I’m a…Oh God. Oh God. Luce I can’t do this. I wanna tell you, but I can’t do it. You’ll hate me. I can’t. I can’t. You can’t hate me. I don’t want you to hate me. If you hate me, I don’t know what I’ll do. Oh God. Please. Please don’t make me tell you. Please. Please.”
He’s on the verge of hyperventilating, his red face, slick with tears, buries deep in his palms, hiding his eyes from his dear sister. His shoulders tremble. Luce doesn’t let go.
“Shhh. Sh.” Luce holds on tight, humming reassurances, “C’mon Petey. C’mon. It’s alright. Everythin’s gonna be alright. I could never hate ya’. Never. You could kill a man and I’d never get to hatin’ you. Never. Never, ever, ever. C’mon, don’t cry. It’s alright. ‘S gonna be alright. Tell me what’s wrong. Let it all out.”
“’Reeder,” Pete finally lets out, in a breathy, mangled mumble.
“What?” Luce asks.
Pete gasps for air before forcing himself to reply.
“’M a breeder, Luce.”
Before he can even finished the sentence, Lucia is screaming at him.
“Don’t ever fucking call yourself that, boy!” she says.
“I’m sorry, Luce,” Pete says, moving to stand up. The weight around his waist prevents him from moving very far. “I’m sorry. I’ll leave. You never have to speak to me again. I’m sorry. Uhm. Please don’t tell our parents – just…”
He’s silenced by a smack on the shoulder.
“No, you eternal dumbass. Don’t call yourself a fuckin’ breeder. Don’t fucking belittle yourself like that. You ain’t subhuman or nothing. Just cuz I’m homosexual, like society says is normal and you ain’t doesn’t mean that you’re any lesser than I am. So the fuck what, you’re different. Be proud. C’mon. Say it, Petey – I’m heterosexual and I’m literally motherfucking proud!”
For the first time in almost a month, Pete smiles. It feels good.
“I’m here, I’m queer, get used to it,” he says, turning to hug his older sister.
Content his sister knows his sexual orientation, Pete breezes right through Christmas and New Years. He talks with Majorie about the classes he will be taking the next semester. He goes shopping with her and Zoe a few times and listens to them gush over Lucia’s upcoming proposal. He goes ice skating with Dad and Luce the day after Christmas. He sits in uncomfortable silence whenever Father’s conversations turn to Breeder rights or Pete’s own inability to do this or that. Really, it’s just like old times.
On New Year’s Eve, the entire family plus Mary Alice gather for a small but extravagant party. Pete spends the entire night sipping wine coolers, catching up with Mary Alice, now a sophomore at Stanford, pre-med, while Maj and Father shoot off fireworks. When the clock strikes midnight and it becomes twenty-thirteen, Luce drops to one knee (quite a feat considering her get-up - a tiny dark blue corset dress with a gathered bustle skirt, fishnet stocking, and four inch stilettos; she must have been freezing) and proposes with a white-gold ring that had a sizable square-cut sapphire where the diamond ought to be – Mary Alice’s birthstone and favorite gem.
“Mar – My Air – How’s about you drop your last name and do me the favor a’ takin’ mine?”
It isn’t elegant but it does the trick. Mary Alice takes the ring and fastens it around her neck on a hemp cord. The marriage is still a few years off, they decide, after Mary Alice gets her bachelor’s degree, but the couple is happy. Pete is happy for them, but deep inside, he longs for his own happiness. He longs to be free to just be himself, for once.
Day after next, Pete is on a plane back to school, unknowing of what was ahead of him.
Pete tells Bryan about his heterosexuality. Bryan laughs, “Duh, you didn’t know that?” and turns to continue unpacking. Pete is glad someone knew before he did, and continues unpacking, himself.
There is a club on campus called Homo-Hetero Alliance. It’s a club dedicated to acceptance of all sexual orientations and identities, of which there were many, much to Pete’s surprise. Bryan is already a member, the vice president in fact, and he drags Pete off to his first meeting that February.
It is at that meeting that Pete meets his first girlfriend, a girl named Lydia who is a hippie. She is a free spirit who walks barefoot, even in the snow, who finger paints instead of using brushes, and who insists on being called Sunbeam rather than her “slave name.” The pair dates on again, off again for the better part of the semester. Pete is still insecure about his sexuality, but Lydia – Sunbeam – is so damn sure and confident about everything; She insists on public dates – picnics on the quad, midnight walks around town, holding hands between and even during classes. It makes Pete nervous, and Lydia, for all her calmness and reserved spirit, can’t seem to wrap her mind around that. They break it off just before exams, agreeing to be just friends. It’s probably for the best. By the beginning of the next semester, Lydia will be barefoot, pregnant, and proud, engaged to a young townie with a heart of gold.
When Pete goes home for the summer, he is just beginning to realize who he really is, finally, for the first time in his short life.
Jess is a freshman. She’s fucking beautiful, all smooth tan skin and cascading ginger hair, which frames her high, flushed cheeks like a halo of fire. And her voice is like that of the angels, soft but sure, melodic. Pete wonders if she can sing.
And her name. It rolls right off Pete’s tongue, Jessica Selena Cortez. He tries it in a butchered Latino accent, smiling at the way the words feel in his mouth, pressing against the tip of his tongue, his teeth, and his lips. Jessica Selena Cortezzz. He sings her name as if it were the lyrics of the most beautiful song ever composed. Jess. Jess. Jess. She’s burrowed right into his prefrontal cortex, set up shop, and she ain’t leaving any time soon.
Jess is perfect. She’s beautiful and smart and funny and artistic and angel descended from Heaven to steal away Pete’s heart and she – she’s homosexual. Fuck.
Pete draws his knees into his chest, wrapping into himself. And then he’s hit with a foam Nerf ball.
“You don’t know if she likes girls unless you ask, fucker!” Bryan calls from his side of the room, typing away on his computer. Writing fan fiction, probably.
“She’s got a girlfriend, I think,” Pete says, more to his knees than to Bryan.
“How do you know? Did you ask?” Bryan asks, not looking up. Definitely fan fiction; Bryan only stares that intently at fan fiction, he’s never that dedicated to actual schoolwork. Probably Buffy fan fiction, by the looks of it.
“No… But, she’s so pretty and there’s no way she doesn’t have a girlfriend,” Pete says.
“Bet she’s hetero. Ask her,” he says.
“At least bi. Ask her,” Bryan says, “Now go! I have some hot Buffy-Spike to write and it’s not going to write itself, now is it? People love Het!”
Pete doesn’t need to be told twice. But it still takes him nearly an entire month to work up the courage to talk to Jess, much less ask her out.
Pete runs into Jess outside of the printmaking studio on a Friday toward the end of September.
“Hey! Uhm, Jessica… Cortez! Jessica Cortez, right?” he asks, calling out to her. He hopes his nerves don’t show too much. Gotta play it smooth.
“Uh, Yeah? Jess.”
“Jess, cool,” he says, running a hand through his hair, mussing up the locks and staining them totally accidentally with a bit of black ink. Oops.
“And you’re,” she pauses, searching for his name, “Paul, right? We talked at orientation?”
“Peter – Pete. Pete.”
“Well, nice to meet you, PetePete,” she says, sticking out an ink-stained hand.
Pete takes the younger girl’s hand in his own, feeling her smooth skin underneath his fingertips. It takes him a minute to realize proper social etiquette dictates he is to briefly shake her hand and then politely release.
“So, Pete,” she says when he lets go, “Any particular reason you stopped me or did you just want to make awkward small talk?”
“Uh, no. Not really. Just needed to fill my creepy small talk quotient. See ya!” he says, feigning moving away before ducking back toward Jess in one smooth motion.
“Jackass,” she giggles, pulling no punches. “But really, what did you want? As fun as talking to strangers is…”
“Uhm. Well… I think you’re pretty,” he says.
“Thanks, I guess…” Jess says, nodding, “Go on.”
“And you’re a pretty cool girl,“Pete continues.
“Can’t argue there,” Jess says. She grins, the smile lights up her entire face. It’s supposed to be reassuring, Pete thinks, but really it just makes him more nervous.
“Smart…A great artist…And I was wondering –“
“I was- was wondering if you’d maybe consider…”
“Consider?” she asks.
“Consider possibly, maybe, on a whim and a hope and a prayer uhm, going on a date with me?” He asks.
“Well I never!” Jess says, hand to chest, “Boy asks a girl out without even properly asking her sexual orientation,” she pronounces every syllable slowly for effect, “I have never been so offended in my life. You sir, offend my sensibilities.”
“I’m sorry, Jess. I mean- I should have known you were lesbian. I should have asked. I knew you were too pretty not to have a girlfriend. I should have known. Oh Jeez. Oh God, I’m so sorry. Uhm. Just forget about it, okay. Sorry. Uhm. I’ll see you, I guess,” Pete says, not pausing for breath as he rambles on. He makes to leave, brushing past Jess, but she catches him by the arm and turns him around.
“I was joking!” Jess says, laughing, “And I’m not homosexual, Pete!”
“You’re not?” he asks.
“Nope!” she says, making a little popping sound at the “P.”
“Really!” he asks.
“Really! I’m bi,” she says, nonchalant. “And, it would be my eternal pleasure to accompany you to a magnificent rendezvous and allow you to court me in a gentlemanly fashion!”
She slings her arm around his shoulder and Pete laughs deeply.
“It would be to my infinite contentment, Madame Cortez,” he says.
Their first date is a simple picnic to the park. Romantic in a way that is so cliché and overdone that Pete is frankly embarrassed of his achievement. And it’s not really even a park that they are picnicking at. It’s a playground. The playground outside of an elementary school, no less. It’s a Saturday morning, dew still coats the grass, and there Pete and Jess are, sitting in the corner of a schoolyard underneath the minimal shade of a nearly bare sycamore tree. They are spread out on a Hello Kitty print fleece blanket the Pete picked up for the occasion, eating a myriad of sandwiches they made together in the dorm kitchen and sipping on purple Mondo juices that didn’t taste nearly as good as either of them remembered.
“It’s nice out here, isn’t it?” Jess asks, taking a bite out of her peanut butter and chocolate chip on rye.
“Small talk, eh?” Pete asks, “Well – the atmosphere is phenomenal; the view, fantastic! The company, eh. That’s a bit sub-par, I’d say. But I can’t complain.”
She smacks him lightly on the shoulder.
“Can’t say the company’s a huge fan either, but she’ll deal,” she says. It’s not long before both of them degenerate into fits of giggling.
“How did you know,” he asks, seemingly out of the blue.
“Know what?” she asks.
“Know that you are bisexual? Weren’t you, I don’t know, confused, or like scared?” he asks. She settles into his side, resting her head on his shoulder.
“I don’t know,” she says honestly, “I guess I’ve always felt this way. Even when I was little, y’know when you have your little preschool lovers? I was like – this is Jill, me and Jill are girlfriends; we’re gonna get married and raise a whole bunch of babies. And then the next day, I’d be like – this is Jack, Jack’s my boyfriend. It never really occurred to be that it was weird until I asked a boy out in middle school and well, I’m sure you can figure how that turned out. My parents – I have one mom and one dad, they’re a Hetero couple, so it wasn’t different for me, I guess. What about you?”
“I was terrified. Uhm. I still haven’t told my parents, they’re from Alabama, y’know. And my father… well he’s never much liked anything I do, much less date girls. My sister’s super supportive though; don’t know what I’d do without her, really. And, ah, I guess I always knew, too. Even when I didn’t have a word for it, I knew that I wasn’t like my sister or my parents or the other kids in the neighborhood. But it’s who I am, and I guess I just need to embrace that.”
The couple sits together at the playground for the better half of the day, talking about all manner of things – serious to frivolous, childish to mundane to morbid. They learn each other’s favorite colors (Pete’s is and will always be black, where as Jess is a fan of the obscure ones with the funny names, this week it’s chartreuse), favorite animals (Pete loves sharks, but Jess is an ardent fan of canines; she has an absolutely adorable Boxer mix at home named Pike – she spends thirty minutes showing off pictures), and future professions (Pete wants to write and illustrate graphic novels and Jess wants to be a make-up artist; not the ones who match eye shadows and apply lipstick, she says, the ones who do gore and prosthetics for horror movies). Jess learns that Pete has a pathological fear of clowns and that he once got lost in a natural history museum and was found curled up asleep in the jaws of a large carnivorous dinosaur. Pete learns that Jess had a cousin who was close personal friends with Ringo Starr – what, seriously – and that she had once been seconds away from being eaten by a shark (it as totally a nurse shark but still, it was so close). They spend hours on the swing set, seeing who could go higher, all the while seeing who could tell the more ridiculous story. Jess tells a story about two drag queens who rule a kingdom that is attacked by plushie aliens. Pete tells one about a naked pirate who wants to become a royal privateer. They are too busy laughing to properly judge a winner.
That night, when Pete kisses Jess goodnight at the door to her dorm, the second date is guaranteed.
On Halloween, Jess dresses up as a zombie nurse and Pete breaks out the collar, much to Jess’ amusement, and goes as a punk rocker. They decided to go trick or treating rather than out to one of the various parties around campus.
For Pete’s birthday – November 17th – Jess presents him with a tiny red dog tag in the shape of a fire hydrant. On the front, it reads “Petey” in bold white letters. On the back, inscribed in elegant silver script, it reads “If lost, please dutifully return to the custody of Jessica Selena Cortez. He just needs to be loved.” Pete smiles and attaches it to his spiked collar, which he wears increasingly.
They stay on campus for Thanksgiving, lazing around in each other’s arms, exchanging languid kisses and fierce passions. After a night of general debauchery, Pete combs his hand through her flame-red locks, placing soft kisses on her lips and collarbone. He tells her he loves her. She laughs, burying her nose deep into the crook of his neck, and tells him that she loves him too.
For Christmas, Pete paints Jess a small abstract landscape using her favorite colors – chartreuse, viridian, mauve, saffron, cerulean, and vermillion. Jess sings Pete a song for the first time. It’s nothing original, and it’s not the heavy bass and expletive-laced lyrics that Pete has always favored, but it’s Jess’ favorite song and she’s singing it, so Pete loves it. She sings him “Swing Life Away.” Her voice is angelic.
They go on like this for a year, going on cheap dates to fast food joints or to the forest to hike and “commune in nature,” exchanging art and stories, and just enjoying each other’s company. They don’t tell anyone except Bryan and Jess’ roommate Catrina, who couldn’t care less. Over the summer, when Pete is dying down in Alabama and Jess is enjoying all the west coast has to offer, they spend hours a night talking on the phone, waiting less than patiently for when they will be in each other’s arms again. And when school lets back in and Pete is finally a senior, he decides to spend Thanksgiving with Jess’ family out in California.
Miguel Cortez is from Mexico. His wife, Esmeralda, is from Spain. All in all, if it weren’t for the fact they were standing on the beach, Miguel in a Hawaiian shirt and Esmeralda – “Please call me Ezz” – in a flowery skirt and bikini top, Pete would have thought they were Morticia and Gomez Addams. (The Addams Family had been revolutionary for its time, to have shown a hetero couple raising a family. People had rallied to have it taken off the air, it was so controversial). Ezz and Miguel are all over each other, hugging and kissing and so in love.
Ezz asks Pete how he and her Jessie met, twirling her fingers in the bright red hair she obviously passed on to her daughter. Miguel asks him if he’s ever been surfing and proceeds to babble on about the sport for a good thirty minutes. Jess introduces Pete to Pike and Pike loves Pete from first lick. They spend that first night lounging on the beach and, when Ezz and Miguel turn in for the night, Pete and Jess make love in the sand.
Thanksgiving itself is a boisterous affair. The Cortezes insist on a huge American style meal with turkey and everything despite the fact that neither Ezz nor Miguel is a native born Americans.
“How is it?” Ezz asks, shoveling mashed potatoes into her mouth with a level of elegance that shouldn’t be possible, considering the shoveling aspect of the motion.
“Good,” Pete says around a mouthful of green bean casserole.
And at some point, Miguel brings up a question that no one was expecting.
“So,” he begins, gulping down a mouthful of beer, “When do you plan on marrying our daughter?”
Pete freezes, staring at the older man. Jess just laughs.
“Pops! Isn’t it a little early for that? You’re going to scare the boy!”
Everything here is so easy. Jess is best friends with her parents, they know everything about her, and she knows everything about them. There are no secrets, dark and buried deep. She’s not keeping who she is away from them, hiding her sexuality, lying about the man she loves. That age-old panic is back, gnawing at Pete’s frontal lobe, eating away at his emotions, forcing ice into his veins. His parents don’t know. They don’t know he’s heterosexual. They don’t know that he’s dating the girl of his dreams, that the girl of his dreams is a girl and not a guy. He wants to spend the rest of his life with this girl, this beautiful, amazing, wonderful girl… and they don’t even know. That little cartoon devil is back, grinning maniacally.
Why do you even fucking try, baby Petey, its acid voice sounds, identical to his own, Jess is gonna get her little old heart all broken up and it’s all your fault. Baby caged Petey, can’t even get his shit together. Too scared and too weak to be free. Why can’t you just fly away, boy Go off and be yourself. Too much of a little shit, huh. Can’t do anything. You’re such a fucking failure. Why do you even bother anymore?
He’s too weak to be free. Can’t stand up to his father. Can’t do what he wants. Can’t be who he is. And it hurts. It hurts so fucking much, like acid being poured over his organs. Like oil, thick and matted, over invisible wings. He wants to fly away. He wants to be free. But he can’t do it because, inside, he knows he’s not worth it. He knows it’s all his fault that he’s like this; that he’s damaged and so fucked up. But Jess, she’s special. She sees something else, something that isn’t even there, Pete thinks. And slowly, surely, she’s washing the oil off of his wings, breaking down the bars of his cage, pulling him into the wind and the sunshine. And he doesn’t understand. He can’t understand what she sees in him. But he can’t let her go. She’s perfect and beautiful and so, so free. And he needs her. And she needs him.
That night, Pete cuddles deep into Jess’s chest and she holds him as the walls come crashing down around him.
Pete wants Jess to meet his family, he really does. He’s just scared. Scared of what they’ll think. Scared of what they’ll do. But he loves her, and he loves them. He tells her that he wants her to meet them one night while they are sitting out on the quad, watching the stars.
“I’m scared Jaybird,” he says, his eyes tracking Orion’s belt. He is leaning backward, legs spread out in front of him, chin cocked upward, hands spread out on the ground behind him, keeping his balance. He is avoiding Jess’s gaze.
“It’ll be alright my pumpkin eater. They’re your family,” Jess says, her perpetually paint-stained hand finding Pete’s flannel-clad shoulder. “They’ll respect and love you no matter what.”
“Yeah, right,” Pete says, sighing, “Father already hates my guts. And he hates heterosexuals. Add those that together and, well I’m sure you can figure out what happens then.”
“It won’t be that bad, I promise,” Jess says, “No one could hate you PetePete. You’re amazing.”
“I hate me,” Pete says, his voice a whisper. Jess sighs, he arms settling around his waist, pulling in close to him.
“You’re perfect, Pete. Don’t let anyone tell you any differently. You’re smart and handsome and talented and creative and fucking wonderful, mi amor,” she says.
“I love you, Jay,” Pete says, “I mean it. You are the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me… and I’m so sorry about all this shit. It’s just- just I’m so fucking scared and I don’t know what to do, y’know. I want them to get to know you, how wonderful and great you are. I want them to love you – I know they would if they got to know you. But I want them to accept you – us. And they won’t. Father doesn’t accept me in the first place. He said he always wanted a son – one to teach how to play catch and one that would be into sports and hot men and just… shit… He wanted a son that was perfect, who’d be into all the same shit he’s into and guess what, he got me. I’m just not good enough for him and this – us… God. It hurts. It hurts Jay and I don’t know what to do and-“
“Shh,” Jess comforts him, rubbing soothing circles into his back, “You’re family love you and they’ll love us together. And if they don’t well, fuck them. And,” she smiles, “I have a plan… This is gonna sound pretty stupid, PetePete, but I think that I can meet your family, as your lover, and they’ll never know.”
Together, Jess and Pete devise a plan. Jess’ll meet Pete’s family, but Pete’s family won’t meet Jess. No, they’ll me Jessie – Jessie Salem Cortez, young male art student, who Pete is madly in love with. The plan is Jess’s brainchild, mostly; she understands that Pete is scared, that he’s not ready to come out of the closet to them, not just yet. She loves her PetePete no matter what. And besides, it will give her a chance to practice her craft, she says.
She binds down her breasts and stuffs a rolled up sock down her pants, then applies make-up to create angles where none existed previously. She packs a wardrobe of paint-clothes and button downs purchased at a thrift store and proceeds to dress in the manliest ensemble she can think of – complete with khaki pants, a light blue button down, and leather braces. She looks like a newsboy from the forties, Pete thinks as he hands her a newsboy cap, which she stuffs her fiery hair into, completing the look.
“So, how do I look?” she asks, giving a little twirl.
“Manly,” Pete says, placing his hands on her hips and drawing her close, “You think this’ll work?”
“I hope so,” she says, nuzzling into his neck, “Otherwise I’ll just look silly.”
“You always look silly, Jess.”
Pete brings Jessie home for Christmas. He’s he first boy that Pete’s ever brought home from RISD. Maj, who is visiting with Zoe, squeals in delight, sequestering poor Jess off into the dining room to discuss possible future marriages. Dad hugs Pete and Father congratulates him on not chasing another boy away, but comments on how the boy is a little on the scrawny side and looks like a sissy. Dad smacks him in the arm and tells him he’s being a jackass. Lucia, who is visiting for Christmas with Mary Alice, gives Pete a sharp look. She knows something is up.
For the break, Pete and Jess are allowed to share the same room. Father almost didn’t allow it but, as Dad said, young couples need their private space and their private time – to do private things. Pete was thankful – he could keep a look out and make sure that no one accidentally saw that Jessie wasn’t exactly Jessie so much as Jessica. It also made for some adventurous late night… rendezvous.
The whole “private things” talk did little to deter Luce, though, and she was sure to check in on the young couple.
“So, Jessie,” Luce says, eyeing the younger girl.
“Uhm. Yes?” Jess asks, trying her best to put on a manly voice.
“My brother is heterosexual,” Luce says, shrugging, “Sex must be terrible.”
“Jess is a girl, Luce,” Pete says, not looking up from the bed.
“I can see that Petey!” Luce says, “What I don’t get is why? I mean, why is Jess suddenly Jessie. Have you not told them?”
“No. And I don’t much plan on it,” Pete says, “You know how Father is. I don’t wanna deal with that shit.”
“Peter!” Luce says, exasperating coating her voice, “You’ll have to tell them eventually. Besides, isn’t it a bit, I dunno, risky to have her here if you’re not gonna tell ‘em that you ‘swing that way?’ No offense or nothing, Jess.”
“I know, I know. It’s just, I love Jess and I want them to meet her. I just don’t want them to hate us, or anything.”
“They could never hate you, Petey,” Luce says, “You’re family; they’ll love you no matter what. And they love Jess as Jessie. There’s no way they’d hate her as Jess, he – she’s great.”
“I know. But I can’t,” Pete says.
“You need to tell them, Pete,” Luce says, leaving.
And that was that.
The night before Christmas Eve, all hell broke loose.
“I can’t fucking believe it,” Father said, slamming his fist down on the table top.
“What, Pa?” Luce asked, not even looking up from her meal.
“Three more states. Three more fucking states. It just ain’t right, Luce.”
“What isn’t right, Paul?” Dad asks, placing his hand on the small of Father’s back.
“The fucking breeders,” he says, not noticing Pete’s wince.
“Pa!” Luce says, standing up, “Don’t use that kind of language. They’re people too. Deserve rights just like you and me and Daddy, Majorie, Zoe, and Mar!”
If Father notices she left out Pete and Jessie, he doesn’t say anything.
“No, they don’t, Lu! They fucking don’t. They’re wrong and unnatural and they choose to be sinners. No one that chooses to sin like that deserves the same rights as good people like us. They chose this and now the lawmen are lettin’ them get away with it. It’s not fucking right. I have half a mind to—“
“Half a mind to what, Father?” Pete says, gripping Jess’ hand tight. “To get your shotgun and kill ‘em all? Gun down all them breeder-sinners?”
There are tears in his eyes. Luce smiles at him.
“This isn’t your argument, Peter,” Father says, “Butt out. This is between me and your rebellious sister over there.”
“The hell it isn’t,” Jess says, standing up, “Don’t talk to your son like that!” Her voice starts out a bit high pitched but she quickly corrects it to be a bit gruffer. She then adds: “Sir!”
“Boy! You stay the hell outta this. This is a family conversation, between me and my daughter. If you can’t be civilized then I don’t want you in this house or in this family. Peter, if you don’t fucking break up with this kid –“
“Paul, stop this,” Dad says, attempting to placate his husband. He throws his hands up against the larger man’s shoulders, but Father is steadfast.
“No. Y’know what, no. I can’t fucking take this anymore. I just can’t,” Pete says, rushing to his feet. “You will not talk to Jay like that. I will not take your fucking shit any more. Little Petey, never good enough. Never smart or handsome or ambitious enough. Not strong enough. I won’t take it anymore and I won’t take you talking to my girlfriend like that, you sonofabitch.”
Everyone is speechless as Pete reaches over and yanks the newsboy cap right off Jess’s head.
“Guess what! Jess’ a girl, Father! Jess is a girl, I’m a guy. Guess the fuck what, I’m a Breeder. I like girls. Love’em. Breasts ‘an all. And I’m proud.”
Pete leaves before Father or Dad or even Luce can say anything, walks right out the front door, Jess in tow. He smiles when he hears Lucia screaming about how much of an ass her Pa is. He smiles because he’s finally free.
For a while, Pete and Jess just sit on the porch swing, cooling down. Pete’s got tears in his eyes and Jess smiles like nothing in the world could ever hurt her.
“I won’t cross these streets until you hold my hand… until you hold my hand,” he sings softly, his voice wavering.
He stands slowly, his legs shaking. Jess rises to her own feet, grasping Pete’s trembling hand within her own dainty fingers. She squeezes his hand and he feels the weight of it all sink within him and manages a small smile as Jess’s deep brown eyes meet his own wide blue.
They begin walking; walking away from this, the pressure, the pain. Walking toward love. Walking toward life and everything the universe has to offer. They know that eventually they’ll need to return, that they’ll need to face the Buchards and the world. But now – now all they really need is each other because, for what might be the first time in his like, Pete truly and honestly does not give shit about what everyone else thinks. Right now, in this moment, it’s just Pete and Jess and nothing else matters. Right now, they are free.
“Let’s rewrite these pages and replace them with our own words,” she sings along, softly.